Demonstratives and deixis in Tamil and Sinhala.

Demonstratives are words like here/there/over there/yonder, and this/that.  In Tamil, these words begin with the syllables /இ,i/அ,a/ or /உ,u/  (சுட்டெளுத்து) as in inta/anta/unta (இந்த/அந்த/உந்த). In Sinhala, the words are based on the four member set mee/oyə/arə/ee. This class of words, or parts of words (prefixes, suffixes) are used by all languages to enable the speaker and listener in a conversation (or ‘discourse’, in the broad sense)  to readily and accurately place the object or the event being talked about in  the space or time relevant to the discourse. They provide an efficient means of imparting context-based meaning to spoken or written communication.  This component of grammar is called Deixis  and is a fundamental feature of all languages. But languages vary widely in the extent and type of use they make of deixis. It is used more extensively, flexibly and innovatively in colloquial spoken dialects than in formal speech or writing. A number of intriguing and easily observed contrasts emerge when we compare deixis in some of the well established languages and dialects in the South India-Sri Lanka region. It is interesting to speculate on the significance of these observations. There are a considreable number of distinct languages/dialects in this region, but I will take up just five of the well established dialects with which I am personally somewhat acquainted: Literary (formal) Tamil, South Indian spoken Tamil, Jaffna spoken Tamil, colloquial spoken Sinhala and literary (formal) Sinhala.

Classical Tamil grammar, as described in the தொல்காப்பியம் (tolka:p:iyam), describes a three-way deixis: /இ, i/  signifies ‘close to or near the speaker’ / அ, a/ signifies ‘away from, or at a distance from, both the speaker and listener’. /உ, u/  signifies ‘close to or near the listner or addressee’ However, in the present day formal dialect of Tamil, as well as in the widely used standard spoken South Indian Tamil dialect, only a two-way deixis exists, using the syllabic roots /இ, i/ and /அ, a/. The /உ, u/ syllabic root is not used in deixis in these two dialects except in the second person pronomial ‘உன்’ (‘un:’, ‘your’). In contrast, in spoken Sri Lankan dialects of Tamil a full three-way deixis is used. In formal speech and writing however, the  /உ, u/ derived forms are generally avoided even in Sri Lankan usage. Many grammatical categories of words  are derived from these three root syllables for use in the deixis system:

Adjectival:  inta/anta/unta (இந்த/அந்த/உந்த/ ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘that over there near you’).

Pronomial: இவன், அவன், உவன்  (ivan, avan, uvan ‘this he’, ‘that he’, ‘that he over there near you’). Similarly for feminine gender இவள், அவள்,  உவள் , and for inanimate gender இது, அது, உது.

Locative: இங்கே, அங்கே, உங்கே (iŋɡe:, aŋɡe:, uŋɡe: (‘here’, ‘there’, ‘over there near you’).

Degree : இவ்வளவு, அவ்வளவு, உவ்வளவு (iv:aɭavu, av:aɭavu, uv:aɭavu; ‘this much’, ‘that much’, ‘that much near you’, or ‘that much you have in mind/propose’).

Adverbial (manner): இப்படி, அப்படி, உப்படி (ip:adi,  ap:adi,  up:adi ‘in this way’, ‘in that way’, ‘in the way you propose’).

‘Presentational’ இந்தா, அந்தா, உந்தா  (inta:, anta:, unta:  ‘here we are’, ‘there, look over there!’, ‘look at what you have got there’). In classical and present day formal Tamil, இதோ and அதோ are the preferred forms. The உ- derived form is not used in formal Tamil speech or writing in present day usage.

Spoken colloquial Sinhala is one of only a few languages in the world to use a full-fledged four-way diexis system. The adjectival forms are as follows:

me:  this/these; very near to the speaker oyə  that/those near the listener or addressee .arə  that/those some distance from both speaker and listener

e:   that/those far from or beyond reach of both speaker and listener.

Pronomial forms are respectively: /meya:/, /oya:/, arəya/, /eya:/ for human gender /me:ka/, /o:kə/, /arəka/, e:kə/ for non human ɡender.

Locative  /mehe, metənə /(here), /ohe, otənə/ (there near you), /arəhe, atənə / (over there some distance away), /ehe, etənə /(over there far away or out of siɡht).

Direction  /meha:/, /oha:/, /arəha/, /eha:/ (this way/ your way or way close to you/the way over there/ the way yonder, far away). The ‘distances’ invoked here, as in some of the other categories, may not only refer to actual physical distance, but also to psycho-social or discourse-related ‘distance’.

Degree  /mechcharə/, /ochcharə/, /achcharə/, /echcharə/ The meanings are along the lines indicated above for degree demonstratives in spoken Sri Lanka Tamil, except of course for the additional /achcharə/.

Adverbial (manner) /mehemə/, /ohomə/, /arəhemə/, /ehemə. Again, the semantics is very much along the lines of Sri Lankan spoken Tamil.

Presentation /men:ə/, /on:ə/, /an:ə/. There is of course no word in the ‘far away, out of reach’ dieixis category for ‘presentation’ demonstratives.

A full description of deixis in spoken Sinhala, an academic thesis by Dr Dileep Chandralal, is available at the electronic archives of the University of Kobe in Japan via this link. 

In contrast to the elaborate and well used four-way deixis system in colloquial spoken Sinhala, formal Sinhala, like formal Tamil, has a much more limited system, a two-way deixis largely restricted to words derived from the prefixed syllables /me:/ and /e:/. It is puzzling that formal or ‘prestigious’ dialects of a language seem to shun the more elaborate systems of deixis in spite of the latter’s obvious usefulness. In Sinhala, words like /onnə/ o:kə/ otanə/ and /arəya/, /arəkə/ etc are definitely to be avoided in formal speech and writing. Similarly in Tamil, it is at present only colloquial Sri Lankan Tamil speakers who form a significant dialect community using a three-way diexis incorporating the  /உ u/- derived forms to any extent. Even though the tolka:p:iyam, the definitive grammar of classical Sangam Tamil, clearly describes a three way deixis, modern Tamil speakers in South India, both formal and colloquial,  use a system of deixis which is very much a two-way system. This appears to have been the case for quite some time, perhaps going back for centuries in the case of literary Tamil. As we see with echo word reduplication, discussed in another post in this weblog, literary or formal language, the language of the educated and the elite, tends to simplify and streamline the grammar, often at the cost of subtlety, flexibility and economy of expression in everyday conversation. And where the elite lead, the masses follow. This loss of complexity in the deixis system is also reported in languages in other parts of the world. For example, some colloquial dialects of Italian are said to have had a three way deixis system well into the twentieth century, but this seems now to have given way to a largely two way deixis. The younger generations seem to feel that the older way of speech is rather rustic. A little deixis related observation close to home further illustrates this point. Sri Lankan and South Indian spoken Tamil have a number of kinship terms which begin with /அ, a/, such as  /அப்பா, ap:a:/, /அம்மா, am:a:/, /அக்கா, ak:a:/, /அண்ணா, aɳ:a:/ etc. It is still common in Jaffna Tamil, spoken casually among friends and family, to hear the word initial /அ, a/ beinɡ replaced for all these words by /கொ, ko/, to ɡive /கொப்பா, kop:a:/ and so on. The meaning conveyed is your father, your mother etc., and is therefore deictic (in addition, there may also be a sense of familiarity breeding some slight contempt when these forms are used!). The interesting comparison is that exactly this usage was common in the dialects of coastal Kaniyakumari across the Palk straits up until a few decades ago, but is now rare there except among an elderly few. Would the rising generations in Jaffna similarly spurn this ‘rustic’ usage in the future, or indeed, has the process already begun? A paper by Professor Shanmugam Pillai describing the Kaniyakumari dialects in the 1960s is available through JStor via this link (free, but you need to register).

Deixis is a wide ranging topic in modern linguistics. I may post a further article on deixis in South Asian languages sometime in the future. In the meantime, if you wish to learn a bit further about Deixis in general, Wikipedia is a good place to start. You will find the main article at this link. * * * *——————————————————————————————–

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