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date: 21 October 2018

Summary and Keywords

The Dravidian languages, spoken mainly in southern India and south Asia, were identified as a separate language family between 1816 and 1856. Four of the 26 Dravidian languages, namely Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, have long literary traditions, the earliest dating back to the 1st century ce. Currently these four languages have among them over 200 million speakers in south Asia. The languages exhibit prototypical OV (object–verb) properties but relatively free word order, and are rich in nominal and verbal inflection; only Malayalam lacks verb agreement.

A typical characteristic of Dravidian, which is also an areal characteristic of south Asian languages, is that experiencers and inalienable possessors are case-marked dative. Another is the serialization of verbs by the use of participles, and the use of light verbs to indicate aspectual meaning such as completion, self- or nonself-benefaction, and reflexivization. Subjects, and arguments in general (e.g., direct and indirect objects), may be nonovert. So is the copula, except in Malayalam.

A number of properties of Dravidian are of interest from a universalist perspective, beginning with the observation that not all syntactic categories N, V, A, and P are primitive. Dravidian postpositions are nominal or verbal in origin. A mere 30 Proto-Dravidian roots have been identified as adjectival; the adjectival function is performed by inflected verbs (participles) and nouns. The nominal encoding of experiences (e.g., as fear rather than afraid/afeared) and the absence of the verb have arguably correlate with the appearance of dative case on experiencers. “Possessed” or genitive-marked N may fulfill the adjectival function, as noticed for languages like Ulwa (a less exotic parallel is the English of-possessive construction: circles of light, cloth of gold). More uniquely perhaps, Kannada instantiates dative-marked N as predicative adjectives. A recent argument that Malayalam verbs originate as dative-marked N suggests both that N is the only primitive syntactic category, and the seminal role of the dative case.

Other important aspects of Dravidian morphosyntax to receive attention are anaphors and pronouns (not discussed here; see separate article, anaphora in Dravidian), in particular the long-distance anaphor taan and the verbal reflexive morpheme; question (wh-) words and the question/disjunction morphemes, which combine in a semantically transparent way to form quantifier words like someone; the use of reduplication for distributive quantification; and the occurrence of ‘monstrous agreement’ (first-person agreement in clauses embedded under a speech predicate, triggered by matrix third-person antecedents).

Traditionally, agreement has been considered the finiteness marker in Dravidian. Modals, and a finite form of negation, also serve to mark finiteness. The nonfinite verbal complement to the finite negative may give the negative clause a tense interpretation. Dravidian thus attests matrix nonfinite verbs in finite clauses, challenging the equation of finiteness with tense.

The Dravidian languages are considered wh-in situ languages. However, wh-words in Malayalam appear in a pre-verbal position in the unmarked word order. The apparently rightward movement of some wh-arguments could be explained by assuming a universal VO order, and wh-movement to a preverbal focus phrase. An alternative analysis is that the verb undergoes V-to-C movement.

Keywords: N-movement, case, property concepts, serial verbs, light verbs, questions, quantifiers, finiteness, word order

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