LINGUIST List 12.243

Tue Jan 30 2001

Review: Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

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  • tyoon, Review of Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

    Message 1: Review of Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

    Date: Sun, 28 Jan 2001 17:18:28 -0600
    From: tyoon <>
    Subject: Review of Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

    Schiffman, Harold (1999) A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil. Cambridge University Press. 232 pages

    Reviewed by Tae-Jin Yoon, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign

    1. Introduction

    Schiffman's 'A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil' is a reference grammar of the standard spoken variety of Tamil. After presenting brief description of the Tamil language and its varieties, revealing what the author aims to show the readers, I will review some aspects of the sound, the classification of major lexical categories, and the structure of sentences. I close with some additional commentaries.

    Tamil is one of the oldest of the Dravidian languages. Literary works in Tamil date back to the tenth century B.C. (Christdas 1988). Other Major languages of this family include Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada. It is said that there are approximately 65 million speakers in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore. Among them, some forty-three million live in the southern state of Tamilnadu in Southern India, which has Madras as its capital and Tamil as its official language (Asher 1985).

    There are two main varieties of Tamil: Standard Literary Tamil (henceforth, LT), and Standard Spoken Tamil (hereafter, SST). Even though LT is taught in schools and acquired as a second language. It is never used in conversation, whether formal or informal. LT is used only in formal situations, for example, political speeches, lectures, news broadcasts and formal talks, and to a certain degree by teachers in the classroom (Christdas 1988). There exist a variety of dialects based on regional, social, and religious characteristics. Consequently, many researchers and speakers of Tamil call into question the existence of 'SST.'

    However, the existence or at least the emergence of 'SST' is justified by Schiffman. He claims that even though Spoken Tamil, ST, must be described as being variable and fluid, becomes standardized by a process of informal consensus in such a way that most Tamil speakers agree that certain forms are preferred over others. Schiffman's "A reference grammar of Spoken Tamil" is a grammar of the standard spoken language used by educated people in their interactions with peoples from different regions and different social settings as well as employed in films, plays and the media. The book contains examples obtained from his close observations of Tamil usage and from close study of film and broadcasts acceptable to most Tamil speakers.

    2. Synopsis

    The book consists of 8 chapters, which can be divided into phonology (chapter 1), morphology (chapters 2 to 5), syntax (chapters 6 to 7), and LT equivalents of ST paradigms discussed in the preceding chapters (chapter 8). I will summarize some aspects of the sound pattern, grammatical categories and their paradigms, and the structure of sentences.

    2.1. The phonology of ST

    In Chapter 1, Schiffman presents the vowel and consonant inventory of ST, together with phonological alternations, often contrasting the pronunciation of ST with that of LT. Here, I present the sound inventory and some examples of the phonological alternations, without considering the difference between the two varieties. Note that the phonetic alphabets employed here are ASCII symbols: t[ stands for dental stops; tr, for palatal retroflexed stops; lr, for retroflexed liquids; rr, for retroflexed rhotics; and nr for retroflexed nasals.

    ST has ten vowels, five of which are short and long as in i, e, a, o,u (long vowels are represented as double letters). As for the consonants, there are voiceless stops (p, t[, t, tr and k), nasals (m, n, and nr), Liquids (l and lr), glides (j and v), and rhotics (r and rr) both in the form of singleton and geminate consonants (note that the rhotics are exceptions for the gemination). As in other Dravidian languages, Tamil has a series of six stops in terms of place of articulation. However, unlike other Dravidian languages which usually have a four-way contrast in terms of the glottalic status, native Tamil only possess voiceless stops. Voiced stops are only found in postnasal position and in loanwords borrowed from Indo-Aryan languages, Arabic, Portuguese, Telugu, and English. Furthermore, stops may spirantize in intervocalic position; there are no underlying fricatives.

    Among the numerous phonological phenomena discussed in Schifmman, some are as follows: The high short vowels i and u are lowered to mid-vowel position if they occur in the word-initial syllable. For example, /id[am/ becomes [ed[am]. Second, all words end in vowel. Thus, the so-called 'epenthetic' vowel u serves to make a word end in a vowel. For example, the phonetic relaization of /nil/ is [nillu]. Third, a glide is inserted when words or morphemes ending in vowels are followed by morphemes beginning with vowels. For example, when two morphemes nari 'fox' and aa 'interrogative morpheme' are combined, glide j is inserted as in narijaa 'a fox?'

    2.2. The morphology of ST

    Schiffman presents in chapters 2 to 5 the Tamil nominal and verbal system, pronouns and adjectives. Whereas the morphology of the noun, pronoun, and adjective is quite regular, the classification of Tamil verbs is quite complex.

    2.2.1. The nominal and case system of Tamil

    The noun consists of the noun stem plus case suffixes. Most nouns in Tamil end in -am, as in maram 'tree'. When a case follows, all such -am ending nouns change this to -att(u), as in maram vs. marattu. According to Schiffman, this form is referred to as the oblique stem of the noun. There are other smaller classes of nouns such as those ending in -ru and those ending in -dru. the nouns ending in -ru become -ttu, and those ending in -du become -trtru when a case is affixed. A noun stem is followed by one of seven cases, which are nominative(zero form, as in maram), dative (-ukku or -ykki, as in marattukku 'to the tree'), locative(-le as in marattule 'in the tree') , ablative(-rundu, as in marattulerundu 'from the tree'), associative/instrumental (-ood[e or ood[u, as in marraoode 'with/by means of the tree'], and accusative cases (-e, as in maratte). The distinction between associative and instrumental cases is not clear-cut.

    2.2.2. The pronouns of Tamil

    Tamil has personal pronouns which distinguish first, second, and third persons (both in singular and plural forms). The first plural may be inclusive (i.e. the addressee is included in the reference, as in naanga(l)), or exclusive (i.e. speaker exclude the addressee, as in naama). Furthermore, Tamil has honorific masculine/feminine singular pronouns for the first person. As for demonstrative pronouns, a prefixed phonetic element indicates whether one is referring to something proximate (i-, as in idu 'this thing'), distant (a-, as in adu 'that thing'), or whether a question is being asked about something or someone (e-, as in edu 'which thing'). The Tamil pronoun is also followed by a case marker as in the noun. Pronouns in the nominative case may often be deleted from a sentence on the condition that the semantic information can be recovered from the agreement marker of the verb. Thus, in a sentence like naan pooreen 'I am going,' the naan can be deleted.

    2.2.3. The adjectives in Tamil

    With a very few exceptions (8 lexical items such as periya 'big,' cinna 'small, etc), Tamil does not have what are considered to be true adjectives Most adjectives are derived from verbs or from nouns, and most of them have a final -a. Note that there are also no true adverbs in Tamil. All adverbs are formed by adding -aa(y) to nouns or adjectives.) Adjectives can be preceded by a noun, or they can be in the predicate, as in English 'it is new.' When an adjective is used as a predicate, it must be nominalized by adding du or su. Thus, the adjective pedu 'new' becomes nominalized, as in pedusu ' a new one', when is used as predicative in a sentence inda viid[u pususu 'this house is new.'

    2.2.4. The complexity of the verb classification of Tamil

    Schiffman extensively discusses various aspects of Tamil verbs in chapter 3 such as finite, non-finite verbs, verbal usage in terms of social classes, transitivity, causativity, and modal and aspectual verbs, etc. I will briefly present the classification of verbs.

    Schiffman mentions that Tamil verbs have been classified in a number of different ways, on the basis of the morphemes used to mark tense. Some lexicographers divide verbs into 13 classes, while some scholars propose smaller number of classes. However, the proposed classification always involves subclasses and there are always exceptional forms that do no fit nearly into any kind of scheme.

    What is proposed in Schiffman's is a modification of the seven-class scheme which is known in the literature as Dr. Graul's classfication. Of course, Schiffman is aware of the fact that his own classificatory scheme does not work perfectly for ST, requiring additional subclassification for certain of Graul's classes. The criterion of Graul's verb classification is based on the form of the tense markers used with different stems. For example, vaangu 'buy' which belongs to Class III require as its tense marker -r- for the present (as in vaangur-), -in- for the past (as in vangin-), and -v- for the future (as in vanguv-). Roughly speaking, Classes I to III are the so-called weak verbs (those verbs possessing single consonants as tense markers), Classes VI and VII is strong verbs (those verbs possessing geminate stops as tense marker), Classe IV is intermediate between the weak and strong verb. Classes V verbs, which usually contain sonorants (laterals, nasals, and rhotics) in stem final position, is a problematic one, containing a number of verbs that are weak in the present but strong in the future, and unpredictable things happening to these sonorants.

    2.3. Syntactic structure of Tamil

    Chapters 6 and 7 are concerned with syntax. The basic word order is Subject-Object-Verb, like many other languages in Asia. The simplest sentence can consist of just two noun phrases, with no verb (even linking verb) present. Thus, when a pronoun idu 'this' is followed by a noun pustaham 'book', the sequence becomes a so-called equational sentence, roughly translated into English 'This (is) a book.' Schiffman notes that Tamil syntax is the mirror-image of the order in an English sentence, especially when there are relative clauses, quotations, adjectival and adverbial clauses, conjoined verbal constructions, and aspectual and modal auxiliaries, among others. I will present some simplest constructions such as negative, and interrogative sentences.

    Even though negation in Tamil is a rather complex phenomenon, not simply a matter of taking some negative element and adding it to a sentence, the simplest kind of negative verbal formed by adding -lle to the infinitive of a verb. For example, the English sentence 'This is not my house' is idu en viid[u ille in Tamil, which literally corresponds to 'this my house not'. And 'didn't go' corresponds to pooha-lle 'go not.' Interrogative sentences are formed in a number of way. But the most common way is to add a clitic. For example, yes-no question is formed by adding ?aa to the last element in the sentence, as in raaman vandaaru-aa 'Raman came+Q? or Did Raman came?'


    Overall, the book is very helpful for both language learners and researchers. The book covers extensive aspects from sound to meaning. Even though Schiffman does not include a chapter for the semantics, he mentions the lexical and sentential meaning (and even, pragmatic considerations), wherever necessary. Furthermore, he compares the ST with the LT variety carefully, so as not to confuse the readers. The author also takes foreign readers into consideration, suggesting the best possible usage for non-native speakers of Tamil, and sometimes comparing the Tamil construction with the English counterpart. What attracted me the most is that he includes the Tamil script in the book, so I came to know what the Tamil scripts look like.

    On the downside, some of the indices referring to other chapters and subsections (such as section 6.1, or section 2.1.1) are not correct, making the reader confused. Also, the organization of the book is a bit complex for those who do not know about the Tamil language to comprehend. Thus, while reading through the book, I often had to go back to the previous part or had to look through the chapter to figure out what the author is trying to propose. It would have been better to summarize what the author will consider, or describe how the chapter is organized in the first part of the chapter.

    Bibliography Asher, R. 1985. Tamil. London: Croom Helm Christdas, P. 1988. The Phonology and Morphology of Tamil. Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University Daniels, P. and W. Bright. 1996. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press

    Tae-Jin Yoon is a graduate student at the Department of Linguistics in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He has completed his M.A. at the University of Seoul, Korea, in the Spring 2000 and began to pursue his Ph.D. at the UIUC in the Fall 2000. His research interest lies in phonetics and phonology, as well as other aspects of both applied and theoretical (both functional and formal) linguistics.