Aspect and Variability in Tamil.

Harold F. Schiffman
University of Pennsylvania

Handout for LING 519, Grammaticalization

Tamil has a number of verbs, sometimes referred to as `aspectual verbs' that are added to a main or lexical verb to provide semantic distinctions such as duration, completion, habituality, regularity, continuity, simultaneity, definiteness, expectation of result, remainder of result, current relevance, benefaction, antipathy, and certain other notions.

Researchers have generally found these aspectual verbs difficult to describe in a categorical way, and not until a study by Annamalai (1981) has any attempt been made to treat aspect in Tamil (or for that matter, any Dravidian language) as a variable component of the grammar. In what follows I would like to summarize what has been reported about aspect in Tamil and secondly to place it in a larger framework that recognizes a number of different analytic approaches to this difficult topic. One would be to view aspect as a variable category in Tamil; another would be to see it as a token of the process of grammaticalization, that is, how a category becomes grammaticalized in a given language, and a third would be to place it in the context of discourse analysis and pragmatics, where a great deal of recent research has been done on the topic of aspect in various languages.

I would like to show that Tamil aspect is a category that is (to use a perhaps weary metaphor) on the road to grammaticalization. Some aspectual verbs are already, as it were, at their destination (i.e. fully grammaticalized), others are proceeding with all deliberate speed toward that goal, but some are straggling, some have gotten lost, and some are only just beginning to pack for the journey. As Hopper & Traugott and other researchers would have it, Tamil aspectual verbs are on a cline of grammaticalization, and like all clines, we see exhibited here the following traits of grammaticalization:

I would like to show that aspect is a variable category within the grammar of a given speaker, but is also sociolinguistically variable across dialects and idiolects, and between literary Tamil (LT) and Spoken Tamil (ST). A pragmatic study of aspect in Tamil would shed some light on why aspectual usage is contingent upon negation, why it is used differently depending on whether the agent is first, second or third- person, why it often varies according to whether information is new or old, and why there are paradoxical or contradictory interpretations of the same morpheme in slightly different sentences. Finally, one could also examine why aspect is a feature of the Indian Linguistic Area (Emeneau 1956) though the systems of different languages differ in interesting ways.

Tamil aspectual verbs provide commentary about the manner in which an action occurred, especially how it began or ended, whether it was intentional or unintentional, whether it had an effect on the speaker or on someone else, and so on. Some of these notions are what have been considered aspectual in other languages (having to do with the completion or non-completion, the continuity or duration, the manner of inception or completion) but some have little or no relation semantically to classical notions of aspect. These `extended' uses of aspectual verbs sometimes therefore involve value judgments by the speaker about the actions of others, i.e. they indicate what the speaker's attitude or expectations about the verbal action in question is. As H&T have indicated, these pragmatic considerations (speaker affect; speaker-centered discourse, etc.) are perhaps the prime motivation for grammaticalization, or at least for the evolution of grammatical or discourse devices that renew forms that have lost their meaning or their pragmatic effectiveness. In other words, the old devices have become stale, lost their zip, don't do the job any more, and new devices are innovated out of old material, usually lexical items that occur in certain contexts that lend themselves to multiple interpretation.

Most aspectual verbs in Tamil are derived (historically?) from some lexical verb that is (usually, or perhaps only marginally) still in use in Tamil but has its own lexical meaning. The `meaning' of aspectual verbs is primarily grammatical or syntactic and usually only vestigially can be related to the lexical meaning of the verb from which it is derived.

Syntactically, aspectual verbs are added to the adverbial participle (AVP) of the lexical (`main') verb. Aspectual verbs then are marked for tense and PNG, since the AVP preceding them cannot be so marked. Morphologically they then act identically to the lexical verb from which they are derived, i.e. take the tense markers etc. of the class of lexical verb they are identical to. In these cases, they do not behave like "auxiliary verbs" which, as H&T indicate, show reduced morphology, restricted syntax, and/or other kinds of "Verbleichung". Like the Hindi 'vector verbs' of Hook, they retain the morphology (tense, PNG) of the lexical verb from which they are derived, but they do exhibit some syntactic restrictions (e.g. lack of negative contexts mentioned earlier) and the root of the verb, at least, exhibits phonological reduction i.e., those that are the most grammaticalized are no longer phonologically identical to the lexical verb-of-origin, but exhibit certain reductions (loss of initial or intervocal /v/, /k/ ([h]), etc.) with fusion of the aspectual verb with the main verb root in certain cases. This also happens in Kannada, e.g. tegedu-koLLU 'take + reflexive' in spoken Kannada --> togo, togoLLi etc.

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