Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


Words Onscreen

By Naomi S. Baron

Words Onscreen "explores how technology is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read."

New from Cambridge University Press!


Communication Accommodation Theory

Edited by Howard Giles

Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.

Review of  South Asian Languages

Reviewer: Sanford B Steever
Book Title: South Asian Languages
Book Author: Kārumūri V. Subbārāo
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Language Family(ies): Sino-Tibetan
Issue Number: 24.1933

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting

With “South Asian Languages” (SAL) K.V. Subbārāo (KVS) makes a major contribution to the linguistic typology of the South Asian linguistic area that was first explored by Emeneau (1956) and subsequently by others, such as Masica (1976). This linguistic area includes languages from the Austroasiatic, Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman families. The Austroasiatic family in South Asia includes languages from two sub-branches, Mon-Khmer and Munda. Clusters of typological similarities among languages from the four different groups suggest historical convergence to form a Sprachbund, or linguistic area on the Indian subcontinent.

KVS introduces a new way of looking at the linguistic typology of South Asia. While earlier studies generally frame typology in terms of Greenberg-style (1966) implicational statements (e.g., if a language has SOV word order, then it also has postpositions), SAL defines typological variation in the languages of the subcontinent in terms of parametric variation in the principles and parameters model. This allows the author to examine the principles that South Asian languages share with Universal Grammar and the parameters of syntax and morphology according to which they may differ. This study is primarily a descriptive one, whose results may then be used in studies of how the languages from four different families came structurally to converge over time in South Asia. The book includes eight chapters: Introduction (1-17); South Asian languages: a preview (18-42); Lexical anaphors and pronouns in South Asian languages (43-92); Case and agreement (93-133); Non-nominative subjects (134-192); Complementation (193-245); Backward Control (246-262); and Noun modification: relative clauses (262-312). An accompanying pdf (, accessible from the web, contains 315 pages of appendices and supplementary material for these chapters, often generously providing other scholars’ alternative analyses of the phenomena under discussion.

Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) sketches the program of analysis and the data it is applied to. The list of source languages used does not completely correspond with the languages referenced in the text; for example, the North Dravidian language Malto is cited in the text, but not included in the list. However, the list of source languages makes clear a major departure from earlier work on South Asian typology: languages from the Tibeto-Burman and Austroasiatic families figure much more prominently than before, redressing an earlier imbalance in favor of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan.

Chapter 2 (“South Asian languages: a preview”) reviews previous word-order studies of South Asian languages, and discusses some of their major typological characteristics. These include the predominant SOV word order and its correlates, e.g., use of postpositions over prepositions. To define South Asian languages more specifically, KVS notes the use of compound verbs, conjunct verbs, reduplication, echo words, conjunctive participles and the quotative construction. A section on parametric variation discusses some of the parameters that South Asian languages opt for, including null pronominals, relatively free word order and the absence of superiority effects. Some examples of convergence are given. And, finally, some examples of unique features of each family are provided.

Chapter 3 (“Lexical anaphors and pronouns in South Asian languages”) takes up various constructions in which anaphors are claimed to be at work, including reflexive and reciprocal structures. One conclusion that KVS comes to is that all languages of South Asia (except Marathi) obey Principles A, B and C of Binding Theory. Of interest is the demonstration that in many South Asian languages, non-nominative subjects (e.g. dative subjects in Tamil or genitive subjects in Bangla) may serve as antecedents to a lexical anaphor, reinforcing previous work in other frameworks of the subject-coding properties of such constructions.

Chapter 4 (“Case and agreement”) discusses agreement typologies in South Asian languages. It isolates four overall patterns ranging from no agreement to polysynthesis, and provides examples of each kind.

Chapter 5 (“Non-nominative subjects”) takes up constructions in a variety of South Asian languages which have non-nominative subjects, including ergative, dative, genitive, locative, instrumental and accusative subjects. While nominative subjects tend to trigger subject-verb agreement, these other kinds of subjects exhibit at least some subject-coding properties, such as the ability to antecede a reflexive pronoun, or to trigger deletion of a coreferential subject in a lower clause.

Chapter 6 (“Complementation”) largely focuses on the placement of the complementizer vis-à-vis the complement clause, distinguishing primarily among clause-initial position (e.g., Kashmiri), clause-final position (e.g., Tamil) or both clause-initial and clause-final positions (e.g., Bangla). These positions are correlated with other phenomena such as basic word order, question markers, clefts and subordinate relative clause markers. For example, the presence of clause-final complementizers correlates with SOV word order in conformity with the Head Direction parameter. However, a number of Indo-Aryan and Munda languages with basic SOV word order have clause-initial complementizers, which does not conform to that parameter. Their analysis, as well as the analysis of languages with clause-initial and clause-final complementizers, becomes tricky, raising the question of whether the Head Direction parameter is sufficient to describe the various patterns.

Chapter 7 (“Backward control”) treats the phenomenon of backward control in Indo-Aryan, Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman; Austroasiatic languages appear to lack such structures. Backward control involves cases in which a subject in a subordinate clause can control the deletion of a coreferential subject in a main clause. Counterintuitive as this may appear, the problematic nature of these structures may be resolved by appealing to basic pronominalization rather than control. In the Telugu complex sentence [[ramaNa-ki koopam vacci] X inTi-ki veLLi pooyeeDu] lit., [[ramana-to anger coming] X house to went], ‘Ramana got angry and went home’, the dative subject of the lower clause ‘ramaNa-ki’ is said to control deletion of the nominative subject ramaNa (= X) in the upper clause. An alternative treatment, it seems to me, is the simple forward pronominalization (actually deletion) of the second instance of a coreferential NP.

Chapter 8 (“Noun modification: relative clause”) discusses the typology of three kinds of relative clause constructions in South Asian languages: externally-headed relative clauses, relative-correlative clauses, and internally-headed relative clauses. One pattern that is missing from the discussion of relative clauses are correlative-relative clauses that use nonfinite verb forms, such as the conditional, in the lower clause. Though statistically recessive, such nonfinite correlatives are well-attested across Dravidian.


Let me first list some issues which stood out in the individual chapters. In chapter 2, example (27) has a messy translation: the final “…not known” should be omitted. It is also unclear why such prominence is given to sandhi rules as a unique identifier of the Dravidian languages, particularly when the term and the phenomena it describes come from Indo-Aryan.

In chapter 3, the claim that Toda has only the nominal form of the (reflexive) anaphor must be taken as a tendency, not an absolute. Emeneau (1984:174) does record instances in which Toda uses a verb form of the reflexive anaphor. Chart 3.2 and 3.3 are labeled as pertaining to Dravidian when they include only forms from Telugu. Example (62) does not adequately illustrate KVS’s claim that the dative-subject sentence cannot have a verbal reflexive sentence. The verbal reflexive is realized as the second part of a V+V compound; however, the predicate in (62) is a predicate nominal, which is unable to host any verbal marker as is. The claim that Toda has retained most features of Proto-Dravidian (p. 91) faces an uphill battle since it is a relatively recent offshoot of Proto-Tamil-Malayalam, and the fact that South Dravidian is in many respects an innovative branch within Dravidian.

In chapter 4, KVS’s discussion of object-agreement in the South-Central Dravidian language Manda (pp. 126-127) is incomplete and flawed. First, Manda is not the only Dravidian language to show object agreement: Kui, Kuvi and Pengo also show it. Further, object agreement has a good Dravidian pedigree and is not a borrowing from Munda languages such as Sora. Steever (1993) provides synchronic and diachronic analyses of object agreement constructions in Dravidian, supported by extensive argumentation, to show that they evolved within a Dravidian context. Also, the claim that certain patterns of agreement in Malto are due to Munda influence cannot be readily maintained in the face of evidence from Steever (1988) that they represent retentions of a pattern of serial verb formations from earliest Dravidian. There also appears to be some confusion between the grammatical category of person and grammatical roles such as subject, object, etc.: on page 122, the Principle of Pronominal Strength Hierarchy refers to the category of person (first, second, third), while on page 133, it refers to subject, direct object, etc.

In chapter 5, the Kannada sentence in example (69), glossed as ‘I don’t like this’, fails to illustrate the use of dative subjects for predicates signaling necessity since the predicate ‘like’ does not signal necessity. The verb base peTTu in the Malayalam example (156a) is glossed with a question mark when it should be glossed simply as ‘take’.

In chapter 6 (“Complementation”), the discussion on page 196 and following assumes that quotative final-complementizers are derived from verbs meaning ‘say’. Steever (1988) shows that from the earliest stages of Dravidian, such complementizers are derived from verbs meaning ‘say’, ‘become’ and ‘resemble’, not just verbs of saying. This indicates that complementizers derived from verbs have a much broader semantic scope than is suggested by the term ‘say’, and thus that the development of complementizers, for this family at least, is far more complicated than claiming that the verb ‘say’ was the initial meaning from which all other complementizer functions evolved. The Telugu word for ‘marriage’ in example (30) should be peLLi, not peiii. In the Telugu example (126), ‘You know what Naseem said’, the subject of the subordinate clause, nasim, is analyzed as being in the main, not the subordinate clause. Compare this with (128) where it is analyzed as within the subordinate clause.

In chapter 7, the use of ∀ to mark the absence of a matrix subject coindexed with an embedded subject is infelicitous as this symbol has long been used to signal the universal quantifier. An intermediate summary on page 257 claims that languages with tensed conjunctive participles permit backward control, citing Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. However, the previous text did not provide examples of conjunctive participles marking tense. Tamil conjunctive forms do not mark tense at all (Steever 2005), but show the same patterns of backward control, so the issue of tense seems to be irrelevant here.

In chapter 8, page 266, the text claims, “In Dravidian languages, it is always a pronoun that occurs in the matrix clause [of a relative-correlative], and not a Demonstrative Phrase.” However, the matrix clause typically contains a demonstrative pronoun, e.g., Tamil avan ‘that man’. On page 268, the text claims, “In Dravidian too the relative pronoun functions as a relative determiner.” However, Dravidian languages lack a dedicated series of relative pronouns, using instead interrogative pronouns. While page 275 states that, “All positions on the NPAH [=noun phrase accessibility hierarchy] are relativizable in the Dravidian languages,” evidence from Annamalai (1997) shows that not all positions are relativizable on the nonfinite participle strategy, requiring use of the relative-correlative strategy instead. While KVS repeats the claim that relative-correlative structures in Telugu and, more generally, Dravidian are borrowings, at least three authors in his bibliography, Lashmi Bai 1985, Ramasamy 1981, and Steever 1988, take the view that they are native to Dravidian. In what may be a first, the running head on page 311 has a footnote.

As used in the chapter, the term ‘relative clause’ strikes me as overly broad, which could set up a situation in which scholars talk at cross-purposes. Tamil has a so-called adjectival participle, e.g. vant-a ‘X which came’. It appears in straightforward relative clauses (vanta manitan ‘(the) man who came’; adverbial expressions (vanta pootu ‘when (one) came’); and factive expressions (mantiri vanta ceyti ‘the news that the minister came’). Only the first of these can truly be said to be a relative clause, so the reader must exercise some caution when looking at what have traditionally been called relative clauses. The text’s ambivalence over the treatment of these constructions is reflected in the fact that the initial definition of a relative clause as a modified noun phase (page 263) is later broadened to include modified adverbs (page 274).

Subsequent editions might want to inventory more closely the items covered in the text. For example, the list on page 264 indicates that the discussion will consider the Strict OV Constraint (SOVC) and its adherence in the relative-correlative clauses in Dravidian, but actually fails to take this up. Earlier in the pdf supplement, KVS cites Hock 2005 for the SOVC, but the form cited is a simplification of a rule developed in Steever (1988). The form Hock ultimately develops is radically different. In neither case, however, is the SOVC amenable to formulation as a Greenberg-style implicational statement or a Chomskyan parameter, so its inclusion in a study of typology is somewhat dubious.

I would like to have seen two additions. It would have been helpful to include a map of the languages so the reader can see their geographic distribution throughout the subcontinent. Second, an extended index that included subjects in the pdf supplement would have enhanced the index’s utility.

None of these shortcomings seriously compromises the value of this book for scholars of South Asian languages. SAL is a work in progress in the best sense of the term. It brings up to date a number of analyses of morphological and syntactic phenomena in South Asian languages; crystallizes issues of importance to many scholars working on these languages; includes new data and arguments for consideration, particularly in the pdf supplement; and actively invites collaboration with other scholars. SAL may well be the first study of its kind to wholeheartedly embrace the study of the Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages in South Asia. KVS, by himself and with colleagues, has undertaken the study of neglected languages in these two families to enhance our understanding of their contribution to the formation of the South Asian linguistic area. This book deserves to be read and re-read, particularly with others interested in its fascinating contents.


Annamalai, E. 1997. Adjectival clauses in Tamil. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. (Publication of 1969 doctoral dissertation, Adjectival clauses in Dravidian, University of Chicago: Department of Linguistics.)

Emeneau, M.B. 1956. India as a linguistic area. Language 32.1:3-16.

Emeneau, M.B. 1984. Toda. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Greenberg, J.H. 1966. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In J.H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of language, vol. II, 73-113. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hock, H. H. 2005. How strict is strict OV? A family of typological constraints with focus on South Asia. Yearbook of South Asian Languages and Linguistics 2005, 145-64.

Masica, C. 1976. Defining a linguistic area: South Asia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Steever, S.B. 1988. The serial verb formation in the Dravidian languages. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

Steever, S.B. 1993. Analysis to synthesis: the development of complex verb morphology in the Dravidian languages. New York: Oxford University Press.

Steever, S.B. 2005. The Tamil auxiliary verb system. London: Routledge.
Sanford B Steever is an independent scholar focused on the study of the Dravidian languages. He has published extensively on the morphology, syntax and history of this language family and its members, e.g. Tamil.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780521861489
Prices: U.K. £ 65.00
U.S. $ 110.00