LINGUIST List 24.1933

Mon May 06 2013

Review: Syntax; Typology: Subbārāo (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 10-Mar-2013
From: Sanford Steever <>
Subject: South Asian Languages
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Kārumūri V. SubbārāoTITLE: South Asian LanguagesSUBTITLE: A Syntactic TypologyPUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Sanford B Steever


With “South Asian Languages” (SAL) K.V. Subbārāo (KVS) makes a majorcontribution to the linguistic typology of the South Asian linguistic areathat was first explored by Emeneau (1956) and subsequently by others, such asMasica (1976). This linguistic area includes languages from the Austroasiatic,Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman families. The Austroasiatic family inSouth Asia includes languages from two sub-branches, Mon-Khmer and Munda.Clusters of typological similarities among languages from the four differentgroups suggest historical convergence to form a Sprachbund, or linguistic areaon 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, thenit also has postpositions), SAL defines typological variation in the languagesof the subcontinent in terms of parametric variation in the principles andparameters model. This allows the author to examine the principles that SouthAsian languages share with Universal Grammar and the parameters of syntax andmorphology according to which they may differ. This study is primarily adescriptive one, whose results may then be used in studies of how thelanguages from four different families came structurally to converge over timein South Asia. The book includes eight chapters: Introduction (1-17); SouthAsian languages: a preview (18-42); Lexical anaphors and pronouns in SouthAsian languages (43-92); Case and agreement (93-133); Non-nominative subjects(134-192); Complementation (193-245); Backward Control (246-262); and Nounmodification: relative clauses (262-312). An accompanying pdf(, accessible from the web, contains 315 pages ofappendices and supplementary material for these chapters, often generouslyproviding other scholars’ alternative analyses of the phenomena underdiscussion.

Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) sketches the program of analysis and the data it isapplied to. The list of source languages used does not completely correspondwith the languages referenced in the text; for example, the North Dravidianlanguage 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 workon South Asian typology: languages from the Tibeto-Burman and Austroasiaticfamilies figure much more prominently than before, redressing an earlierimbalance in favor of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan.

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

Chapter 3 (“Lexical anaphors and pronouns in South Asian languages”) takes upvarious constructions in which anaphors are claimed to be at work, includingreflexive and reciprocal structures. One conclusion that KVS comes to is thatall languages of South Asia (except Marathi) obey Principles A, B and C ofBinding Theory. Of interest is the demonstration that in many South Asianlanguages, non-nominative subjects (e.g. dative subjects in Tamil or genitivesubjects in Bangla) may serve as antecedents to a lexical anaphor, reinforcingprevious work in other frameworks of the subject-coding properties of suchconstructions.

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

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

Chapter 6 (“Complementation”) largely focuses on the placement of thecomplementizer vis-à-vis the complement clause, distinguishing primarily amongclause-initial position (e.g., Kashmiri), clause-final position (e.g., Tamil)or both clause-initial and clause-final positions (e.g., Bangla). Thesepositions 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 inconformity with the Head Direction parameter. However, a number of Indo-Aryanand Munda languages with basic SOV word order have clause-initialcomplementizers, which does not conform to that parameter. Their analysis, aswell as the analysis of languages with clause-initial and clause-finalcomplementizers, becomes tricky, raising the question of whether the HeadDirection parameter is sufficient to describe the various patterns.

Chapter 7 (“Backward control”) treats the phenomenon of backward control inIndo-Aryan, Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman; Austroasiatic languages appear tolack such structures. Backward control involves cases in which a subject in asubordinate clause can control the deletion of a coreferential subject in amain clause. Counterintuitive as this may appear, the problematic nature ofthese structures may be resolved by appealing to basic pronominalizationrather 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 simpleforward pronominalization (actually deletion) of the second instance of acoreferential NP.

Chapter 8 (“Noun modification: relative clause”) discusses the typology ofthree kinds of relative clause constructions in South Asian languages:externally-headed relative clauses, relative-correlative clauses, andinternally-headed relative clauses. One pattern that is missing from thediscussion of relative clauses are correlative-relative clauses that usenonfinite verb forms, such as the conditional, in the lower clause. Thoughstatistically recessive, such nonfinite correlatives are well-attested acrossDravidian.


Let me first list some issues which stood out in the individual chapters. Inchapter 2, example (27) has a messy translation: the final “…not known” shouldbe omitted. It is also unclear why such prominence is given to sandhi rules asa unique identifier of the Dravidian languages, particularly when the term andthe 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) doesrecord 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 includeonly forms from Telugu. Example (62) does not adequately illustrate KVS’sclaim that the dative-subject sentence cannot have a verbal reflexivesentence. The verbal reflexive is realized as the second part of a V+Vcompound; however, the predicate in (62) is a predicate nominal, which isunable to host any verbal marker as is. The claim that Toda has retained mostfeatures of Proto-Dravidian (p. 91) faces an uphill battle since it is arelatively recent offshoot of Proto-Tamil-Malayalam, and the fact that SouthDravidian is in many respects an innovative branch within Dravidian.

In chapter 4, KVS’s discussion of object-agreement in the South-CentralDravidian language Manda (pp. 126-127) is incomplete and flawed. First, Mandais not the only Dravidian language to show object agreement: Kui, Kuvi andPengo also show it. Further, object agreement has a good Dravidian pedigreeand is not a borrowing from Munda languages such as Sora. Steever (1993)provides synchronic and diachronic analyses of object agreement constructionsin Dravidian, supported by extensive argumentation, to show that they evolvedwithin a Dravidian context. Also, the claim that certain patterns of agreementin Malto are due to Munda influence cannot be readily maintained in the faceof evidence from Steever (1988) that they represent retentions of a pattern ofserial verb formations from earliest Dravidian. There also appears to be someconfusion between the grammatical category of person and grammatical rolessuch as subject, object, etc.: on page 122, the Principle of PronominalStrength 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 likethis’, fails to illustrate the use of dative subjects for predicates signalingnecessity since the predicate ‘like’ does not signal necessity. The verb basepeTTu in the Malayalam example (156a) is glossed with a question mark when itshould be glossed simply as ‘take’.

In chapter 6 (“Complementation”), the discussion on page 196 and followingassumes that quotative final-complementizers are derived from verbs meaning‘say’. Steever (1988) shows that from the earliest stages of Dravidian, suchcomplementizers are derived from verbs meaning ‘say’, ‘become’ and ‘resemble’,not just verbs of saying. This indicates that complementizers derived fromverbs 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, isfar more complicated than claiming that the verb ‘say’ was the initial meaningfrom 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. Comparethis 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 coindexedwith an embedded subject is infelicitous as this symbol has long been used tosignal the universal quantifier. An intermediate summary on page 257 claimsthat languages with tensed conjunctive participles permit backward control,citing Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. However, the previous text did notprovide examples of conjunctive participles marking tense. Tamil conjunctiveforms do not mark tense at all (Steever 2005), but show the same patterns ofbackward control, so the issue of tense seems to be irrelevant here.

In chapter 8, page 266, the text claims, “In Dravidian languages, it is alwaysa pronoun that occurs in the matrix clause [of a relative-correlative], andnot a Demonstrative Phrase.” However, the matrix clause typically contains ademonstrative pronoun, e.g., Tamil avan ‘that man’. On page 268, the textclaims, “In Dravidian too the relative pronoun functions as a relativedeterminer.” However, Dravidian languages lack a dedicated series of relativepronouns, using instead interrogative pronouns. While page 275 states that,“All positions on the NPAH [=noun phrase accessibility hierarchy] arerelativizable in the Dravidian languages,” evidence from Annamalai (1997)shows that not all positions are relativizable on the nonfinite participlestrategy, requiring use of the relative-correlative strategy instead. WhileKVS repeats the claim that relative-correlative structures in Telugu and, moregenerally, Dravidian are borrowings, at least three authors in hisbibliography, Lashmi Bai 1985, Ramasamy 1981, and Steever 1988, take the viewthat they are native to Dravidian. In what may be a first, the running head onpage 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. Tamilhas a so-called adjectival participle, e.g. vant-a ‘X which came’. It appearsin 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 ofthese can truly be said to be a relative clause, so the reader must exercisesome caution when looking at what have traditionally been called relativeclauses. The text’s ambivalence over the treatment of these constructions isreflected in the fact that the initial definition of a relative clause as amodified noun phase (page 263) is later broadened to include modified adverbs(page 274).

Subsequent editions might want to inventory more closely the items covered inthe text. For example, the list on page 264 indicates that the discussion willconsider the Strict OV Constraint (SOVC) and its adherence in therelative-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 formcited is a simplification of a rule developed in Steever (1988). The form Hockultimately develops is radically different. In neither case, however, is theSOVC amenable to formulation as a Greenberg-style implicational statement or aChomskyan parameter, so its inclusion in a study of typology is somewhatdubious.

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

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


Annamalai, E. 1997. Adjectival clauses in Tamil. Tokyo: Institute for theStudy of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University ofForeign Studies. (Publication of 1969 doctoral dissertation, Adjectivalclauses 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 tothe order of meaningful elements. In J.H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals oflanguage, vol. II, 73-113. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hock, H. H. 2005. How strict is strict OV? A family of typological constraintswith focus on South Asia. Yearbook of South Asian Languages and Linguistics2005, 145-64.

Masica, C. 1976. Defining a linguistic area: South Asia. Chicago: Universityof 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 verbmorphology 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 theDravidian languages. He has published extensively on the morphology, syntaxand history of this language family and its members, e.g. Tamil.

Page Updated: 06-May-2013