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Dravidian Linguistics: An Introduction.

The Dravidian family is made up of some two dozen languages (the exact number is still unknown) spoken by probably about 150 millions of people (or is it nearly 200 millions?--the Census figures are very unsatisfactory), about one-fifth of India's population. It is probably to be ranked among the world's first half-dozen language families according to numbers of speakers (Zvelebil, henceforth Z., says it is the fifth). In spite of this type of importance, Dravidian is in general terra incognita to linguistic scholars. Typologists and seekers for 'universals' may know a handful of its general characteristics, but after one or two sentences it is easily ignored.

There are several reasons for this. Few linguistic scholars in the past, and not many more proportionately now, can be counted on as having much knowledge of Dravidian. The four literary languages (and Tamil literature with its two millennia of cultivation ranks with Sanskrit as one of India's great classics) are hardly known to the West, in spite of several devoted scholars' attention to them now and in the past. Their linguistic characteristics, and the parallel features of the remaining non-literary and 'tribal' languages of the family, have seemingly little to offer to the fashionable linguistic interests of the present. Once said (e.g., in Masica's admirable book, The Indo-Aryan Languages |Cambridge, 1991~, 342) that "there is no trace of ergativity in Dravidian," a great silence reigns, even though some Tibetan languages, Burushaski, modern Indo-Aryan, Australian languages, perhaps even Malay, surround Dravidian with their ergativity or 'split/quasi ergativity' (Indo-Aryan); is there not a suggestion of a problem here?

Or, classical Tamil, Malayalam right down to the present, and a number of the languages of the Nilgiris (Toda, Kota, and several of the jungle languages), have a three-way contrast in the places of articulation involving the very front of the tongue (dental, alveolar, retroflex), and this same phonological feature must, for sufficient reason, be reconstructed for proto-Dravidian; Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit and the rest) have contrast between dental and retroflex; Australian languages have a very similar set of phenomena (R. M. W. Dixon, The Languages of Australia |Cambridge, 1980~); this phonological type has been viewed with great suspicion by Western linguistic scholars and is only now being newly investigated in a sophisticated way, but in general the matter, which may be of greater areal spread, is approached in a gingerly fashion. One can suppose that the situation derives from the lack of easily available books on Dravidian for the general linguistic reader. Z. has now provided one such. It is what its title claims it to be: an introduction, and as is usual in such books, the author's special interests tend to show. In Z.'s case his present special interest seems to be the attempts that have been made to connect this family genetically with other families or languages, and about one-quarter of the book is given up to a fairly detailed, but very balanced and sane, exposition of the four chief attempts to find such connection: "Dravidian and Harappan" (i.e., the language, still undeciphered, of the Indus Valley inscriptions); "Dravidian and Uralaltaic" (a long-attempted connection); "Dravidian and Elamite" (McAlpin's valiant, but highly speculative attempt); "Dravidian and Japanese" (Susumu Ohno's almost single-handed, highly speculative effort). Z. does not even mention the typological parallels between Dravidian and the Australian languages. Striking as they are, the chronological circumstances, viz., "proto-Australian . . . was quite probably spoken at least 10,000 and conceivably as much as 40,000 years ago," and the lack of any discoverable etymological connections, have led Dixon to write (op. cit., 235-37): "Only the Dravidian suggestion deserves to be taken at all seriously," but to acknowledge that proof in any acceptable way is impossible. Most of the remainder of Z.'s book is strictly concerned with the family as such: "Introduction"--the members of the family, a rather skimpy list which could profitably have been expanded with a map and a short account of the geographical placing of the languages; a good, analytical account of the history of Dravidian linguistic scholarship; "Dravidian Phonological Systems"--a very good, condensed account of the general characteristics of the system and a number of the problems synchronic and diachronic; bibliographic treatment is excellent, but I miss mention of the very important manual by P. S. Subrahmanyam, Dravidian Comparative Phonology (Annamalai, 1983); "The Structure of Dravidian"--a good overall view, synchronic and diachronic, of morphology and syntax; perhaps not all generative-transformational problems have been touched on, e.g., that posed by the embedding of attributive adjectives, but the special adjective problem posed by Dravidian is there; ergativity is not mentioned, since after all "there is no trace" of it in Dravidian! "The Diachronic View"--this deals essentially with what history can be reconstructed of movements of Dravidian speakers into and within the Indian subcontinent (with a map, which partially supplies the lack, mentioned above, in the "Introduction"), and sketchily with the history of the literary languages; Z. voices complaint, which has often been voiced before, that we still lack "detailed historical grammars" of these languages, lacking which we find historical, comparative treatment of the whole family very difficult; "The Comparative Picture: Subgroupings"--a short, but excellent account of the subgroups and problems connected with them; "Indian Areal Linguistics and Dravidian"--a somewhat detailed account of India as a linguistic area |"Sprachbund"~, especially as concerns Dravidian and Indo-Aryan, and of microareas, especially (since data have now accumulated) the Nilgiris within, but in some sense separated from, the rest of the Dravidian family.

An "Afterword: Summing Up" is essentially a continuation of the chapter, "The Diachronic View," as it is affected by the four chapters on the speculations about connection between Dravidian and other possibly related families or languages. The book ends with an elaborate "Select Annotated List of Further Readings," keyed essentially to the chapters; it is likely to be particularly useful, even to scholars already at home in the field. The index seems adequate. The book is beautifully produced, a good example of modern publishing in India. Misprints seem to be very few, and mostly inconsequential; of those noticed, one at least is caused by difficulties with a diacritic: p. 11, 1.7.11, 1st line, r should be r. One might quarrel with one of the two reconstructions on p. 6, 1.4: for DEDR 4240 'smoke', Tamil pukai, Kannada poge, Telugu poga, it is doubtful whether South Dravidian (plus Telugu) can be reconstructed beyond the problematic *pulokay (placed in DEDR as if with *u), but o and o found in Kolami pog, Gondi pog-, poy-, and Gadaba pog-, Kui pok-, Kuwi boy- are evidence for Proto-Dravidian *pok- and *pok-.

This is indeed an admirable introduction to the subject of Dravidian linguistics. Published in an old French part of India, it is an earnest of the continuing French scholarly interest in the Indian subcontinent, especially the culture, whether Sanskrit or Dravidian, of its southern part. We can only hope that linguistic scholars (and others) will find Pondicherry not too distant and exotic a source for publications.

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Author:Emeneau, M.B.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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