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date: 25 March 2017

Morphosyntax of Dravidian Languages

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

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 twenty-six 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 between them over 200 million speakers. The languages exhibit prototypical OV (object-verb) properties but relatively free word order, and they are rich in nominal and verbal inflection; Malayalam alone 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 non-self) benefaction, and reflexivization. Subjects, and arguments in general (e.g., direct and indirect objects), may be non-overt. 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 may be primitive. Dravidian postpositions are nominal or verbal in origin. A mere thirty proto-Dravidian roots have been identified as adjectival; these include numerals, quantifiers, and demonstratives in the proximate-distal-wh series. The adjectival function is performed by inflected verbs (participles) and nouns. The nominal encoding of experiences (as fear rather than afraid/afeared), and the absence of the verb have, arguably correlates with the appearance of dative case on experiencers. “Possessed” or genitive-marked N may fulfil the adjectival function, as also noticed for languages like Ulwa (a less exotic parallel may be adduced from the English of-possessive construction; cf. circles of light, cloth/rings of gold). More uniquely perhaps, Kannada instantiates dative-marked nouns as predicative adjectives. A recent argument that Malayalam verbs may originate as dative-marked nouns suggests that N is the only primitive syntactic category, and the seminal role of dative case.

Other important aspects of Dravidian morphosyntax that have received attention are anaphors and pronouns, 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 to indicate 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 marker of finiteness in Dravidian. The negative morpheme assumes finite and non-finite forms; the occurrence of matrix non-finite verb forms in finite negative clauses challenges the current equation of finiteness and tense.

The Dravidian languages are standardly considered to be wh- in situ languages, but wh- words, in fact, seem to move to a pre-verbal position in the unmarked word order; the consequent, apparently rightward, movement of some wh- arguments can be avoided by assuming a universal VO order, and wh-movement to a pre-verbal focus phrase.