The Tamil Clitics

from H. Schiffman
A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil
Cambridge University Press, 1999

Clitics oo, ee, aa, um, een

In Tamil there is a class of constituents known as clitics, so-called because they can be suffixed to many different kinds of constituents but can never occur alone. They are therefore neither verbal nor nominal suffixes exclusively. (The best study of Tamil clitics can be found in Arokianathan 1981.

Doubt markers oo and -een

clitic -oo plus varia

The clitic -oo is added to different kinds of constituents to indicate vagueness, ambiguity, or doubt in the speaker's mind about the certainty, veracity or truth value of some event or circumstance. Sometimes oo substitutes for an interrogative aa, but with an expression of ``doubt' or uncertainty. Sometimes, also, oo is pragmatically ``softer' than an outright interrogative.

Table: Ordinary and Doubt-Marked Sentences
ammaa irukkaangaLaa? ammaa irukkangaLoo?
Is (your) Mother there? I wonder if maybe (your) Mother is there?
tuNiye koNDuvandeyaa? tuNiye koNDuvandeyoo?
Did you bring the laundry? Have you perhaps brought the laundry?
varuvaaraa varamaaTTaaraa varuvaaroo varamaaTTaaroo
He'll either come or he won't.
(He might come, and then again, he might not)
(Will he come or won't he? I don't know)

Since a sequence of two noun phrases or whole sentences, both marked with aa is one way Tamil makes disjunctive phrases (``either X or Y), a sequence of noun phrases or whole sentences, both marked instead with oo, gives a disjunctive pair with extra doubt, as in the last example in Table 7.3. This can often be translated ``whether or not' or, if both verbs are negative, ``neither ... nor':

When oo is added to WH-interrogatives, the meaning is as in section (6.6.8)

The ultra polite/deferential doubt marker -een.

When -een (literally ``why') is suffixed to a sentence in final position, the meaning is politeness with doubt and deference, and perhaps with a nuance of servility and/or obsequiousness. This is, of course, often used with caution or when great respect is being attempted. Compare:

venkaDaacalam ngravaru viiDu idu-taan-ngaL-aa?.
Is this the house of the man called Venkadacalam, please?

venkaDaacalam ngravaru viiDu idu-taan-ngaL-een?.
Might this be the house of the man called Venkadacalam, if you don't mind my asking?

Note that -een occupies the place of the clitics so if the question is interrogative, it replaces the normal clitic -aa.

``Whether-or-not' in interrogative constructions.

When an English yes-no interrogative sentence containing ``whether or not' is translated into Tamil, -oo ... -oo is not used. Rather, -a ... -aa) is required. These usually are simply requests for information, not an expression of doubt.

Wh-interrogative + Vb + oo, a-word Vb.

When a WH-interrogative word (beginning with e is followed by a verb + oo, followed by the equivalent a-word plus a verb, the meaning is ``A is equal to B' or ``B is neither more nor less than A.' It therefore functions as a COMPARATIVE system between two sentences or phrases.

The clitic -um

The clitic -um has many functions in Tamil. When one -um is added to a noun or noun-phrase, the meaning is ``also, too' or ``even'.

naanum tamiR aasiriyaru taan ``I'm a Tamil teacher, too".'

When um follows a noun-phrase that includes a quantifier (cf. 5.5.1) the meaning is ``all-inclusive,' i.e. ``all (of); both (of them).' Compare the two following examples, one of which contains um and the other which doesn't:

reNDu peerukkum tamiR teriyum ``Both of them know Tamil.'
reNDu peerukku tamiR teriyum ``Two (of them) know Tamil.'

um is also suffixed to various verbal forms, such as the concessive ( 6.6.4), in positive-negative reduplication ( 7.2.1), expressions of possibility ( 7.1.1), and in other cases discussed below. In some of these cases, it has the meaning ``even' which it can also have with nouns.

... -um ... -um, ... -aa

... -aa : Conjunctions

... um ...

um: X ``and' Y . When two similar constituents in a sentence are affixed with ... um ... um , the meaning is X ``and' Y.

For some speakers, this sentence would be preferable with oo ... oo because of the negative verbs:

The constituents must be of the same type in order for them to be conjoined, i.e., two nouns, two verbs (infinitives, or AVP's), two adverbs, etc. can be conjoined, but not one noun and one adjective, for example. Sentences cannot be conjoined with ... ; another method, discussed in 6.4.4, must be used.

... aa ... aa: disjunction.

When two similar constituents have affixes ... -aa ... -aa , the meaning is disjunctive ``either ... or' but in an interrogative sense: ``Which alternative is correct?'

... aavadu ... aavadu

``either, or' When two noun phrases are conjoined by suffixes aavadu ... aavadu , the meaning is declarative ``either ... or' (but only one alternative is possible).

aavadu in isolation.

When only one -aavadu appears, its meaning, if attached to a numeral, is ORDINAL, i.e. equivalent to English ``-th': naalaavadu ``fourth'. If attached to a single noun (phrase) the meaning is ``at least': niiyaavadu pooyirukkalaam ``you, at least, may go'. aavadu may be attached to ettane to mean ``how many-eth':

idu ettanaavadu taDave? ``This is the how-many-eth time?'

aavadu and an alternative form aam are used as ordinal-markers of numerals, and thus for dates: idu anjaam (anjaavadu) teedi ``This is the fifth (day) of the month'.

``Emphatic' -ee, taan, taanee, maTTum

There are a number of so-called emphatic particles in Tamil, such as -ee, maTTum, and taan. They are used in Tamil to emphasize or focus attention on particular elements of the sentence, as well as to handle other discourse phenomena such as whether information is new, old but related to new, presupposed, and for other pragmatic functions. Many western languages (such as English) use emphatic word stress for these purposes.[*] Tamil does not have emphatic word stress, but uses ``emphatic particles' instead. Often they cannot be literally translated.[*]

There is much confusion in the use of Tamil particles in that their English equivalents seem the same, but the Tamil meanings are different. The basic difference beteen ee and taan (which are often both translated ``only') is that -ee means ``one compared to many' while taan means ``one and only one (compared to none)', ``just'. Thus:

Harold Schiffman