The Tamil auxiliary verb system

The Tamil auxiliary verb system. By Sanford B. Steever. (Routledge studies in Asian linguistics.) London: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xvi, 317. ISBN 9780415346726. $173 (Hb).

Reviewed by Michael W. Morgan, Addis Ababa University

Tamil possesses a wide range of auxiliary verb constructions (AVCs, often referred to as ‘light verbs’). The present book is a significantly updated revision of Sanford B. Steever’s University of Chicago doctoral dissertation, which has not been superseded since 1983.

In Ch. 1 S provides a theoretical introduction to the topic of auxiliary formation. Although much of the formal presentation uses a classical transformational model, S also applies Émile Benveniste’s analysis of auxiliary verbs and Roman Jakobson’s analysis of shifters, which should serve to make his treatment accessible to a wider audience. Ch. 2 provides a sketch of Tamil and a literature review. In Ch. 3 S presents the complete Tamil verb system.

Chs. 4 and 5 discuss, respectively, the internal and external syntax of Tamil indicative AVCs. These chapters provide the necessary tests to establish S’s claim that AVCs are a syntactic object in their own right. In terms of internal syntax, these tests include strict subcategorization, subject agreement, restrictions on satellites, selection restrictions, causative formation, negation, bounded movement restriction, S-deletion, conjunction, reduplication, and particle insertion. Since AVCs are claimed to be a verb form, we should expect them to occur in any grammatical context where simple verbs occur. The discussion of external syntax provides a coherent explanation in terms of pragmatic factors (e.g. discursive speech and shifts between speech and narrative) for the few instances where AVCs act peculiarly, particularly frames in which AVCs are either obligatory or prohibited, .

In Ch. 6 S discusses the auxiliary uses of the three major Tamil auxiliaries: irukka (auxiliary of anterior interval), viṭa (disjunctive connector) and koḷḷa (conjunctive connector). These three auxiliaries may be used as main verbs as well as auxiliaries (indicating tense, aspect, and epistemic status). In addition, viṭa can indicate object-orientation while koḷḷa can indicate subject-orientation.

Ch. 7 presents several minor auxiliaries that express such things as fulfillment, nondiscursive perfect, durative, subsequent action, benefactive, judgment, and completion. Ch. 8 discusses the important category of auxiliaries of attitude and abuse, which express such things as antipathy, relief, antiperfect (i.e. failed perfect), pointlessness, viscosity, acceleration, abruptness, exhaustion, turns for the worse, and benedictive. Citing several anthropological studies on liminal stages, S hypothesizes that because these verbs all possess main-verb semantics that include an element of liminality, it is this liminality that gives rise to the negative attitudinal use expressed by all but the benedictive.

In Ch. 9 S concludes by focusing on opportunities for further study of Tamil auxiliaries: further candidates for attitudinal auxiliaries, a companion study of modal auxiliaries, a comparative study of the other Dravidian languages (Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kurux), and variation within Tamil dialects. Finally, S offers auxiliary formation, with which his book opened, as a guide for further study. A bibliography, including forty-four entries postdating the original dissertation, and a subject index conclude the book.