Echo Words in Tamil and other South Asian languages.

Echo words

Echo words are a characteristic feature of colloquial dialects of all languages spoken in the Indian sub continent and Sri Lanka.

In spoken colloquial dialects of Tamil, we often come across partial word repeats (reduplication) of the type contained in the following examples.   The first syllable of the oriɡinal (or ‘base’) word is replaced or prefixed by the syllable /கி, ki / or /கீ, ki:/ to form the second or “echo” word of the pair. Apart from this change the echo word is a copy of the base word.

1.  காசு கீசு இருந்தால் வாழ்க்கை சுகம்      [kaːcu  kiːcu  iruntaːl   vaːɭk:ai cuxam]

2.  கோப்பி  கீப்பி குடிக்கிறீங்களா ?  koːpːi   kiːpːi  kudikːiriːŋɡaɭaː ʔ

3. ஓடி கீடி விளையாட வேணும்            [o:di  kiːdi viɭaya:da ve:ɳum]

4. அடுப்பு  கிடுப்பு ப் பக்கம் போகக் கூடாது   [ adupːu  kidupːu  pakːam  poːxa  kuːdatɨ]

5.புட்டு கிட்டு  சாப்பிடலாமா?    [ pudːu  kidːu ca ːpːidalaːmaː ?]

6.புட்டை  கிட்டை சாப்பிடலாமா?”    [pud:ai  kidːai  caːpːidalaːmaː ?]

7. புட்டும்   சாப்பிட இல்லை, கிட்டும்  சாப்பிட இல்லை [ pudːum             caːpːida ilːai, kidːum  caːpːida ilːai]

8. சிவப்பு ச்  சீலையும் கூடாது கிவப்பு ச்  சீலையும் கூடாது; வெள்ளைச் சீலை தான்  வேணும்.

Literary Tamil (செந்தமிழ்)  uses other types of word reduplication, such as  the well-known இரட்டைக் கிழவி where short onomatopoeic (click here for definition) words are exactly reduplicated, as in சல சல, கட கட, சுறு சுறு etc. But it does not permit the use of Echo Words of the particular type seen in the previous numbered examples. These Echo Words are however used  in everyday speech in interesting ways to convey a range of subtle meanings. Nearly all everyday spoken languages in and around the Indian subcontinent, including colloquial sinhala, use Echo Words, though there are interesting differences in the actual replacement sounds used to form the echo word. There are also interesting differences between the various languages in the nuanced meanings associated with these echo words.

Phonology and grammar

In Tamil, the way the echo word system works is fairly straight forward.  To form the echo word, the first syllable, represented in the writing system of Tamil by the first complete letter in the word, is changed to the syllable ki (கி) for short syllables and Ki: (கீ) for long syllables. If the first syllable of the base word is a vowel only syllable [V(V) or உயிரெழுத்து] , as in examples 3 and 4, Ki or Ki: is prefixed to the base word to form the echo word.

[Note: I take the view that the writing system of Tamil is entirely syllabic. This will be the subject of another post in the near furture but see this link  if you want to read a formal theoretical account].

In words which begin with Ki or Ki:, such as கிளங்கு (root vegetable), echo word formation cannot occur in Tamil dialects where the word is pronounced as kiɭaŋɡu.  As an aside, it is interesting to note that in most South Indian spoken dialects, the word is usually pronounced keɭaŋɡu, and echo word formation is actually possible, as keɭaŋɡu kiɭaŋɡu.

The process is mostly applied to simple nouns, but may also apply to words of any other grammatical category such as verbs (example 3), adjectives (example 8) and also to words with grammatical suffixes as in the accusative case inflected புட்டை, pudːai  in example 6. The echo word may be separated from the original word in sentences where negative clauses are joined together using the   /-um, (உம்/ clitic, as seen in examples 7 and 8.

Semantics and sociolinguistics

What meanings do these echo words convey?  The echo word itself, taken separately on its own, does not have any semantic content. As a pair, the most obvious semantic function is to ‘spread’ or widen the semantic or lexical field of the original word so as to include all the other words of closely similar meaning in the context of the conversation i.e. ” X and other similar things/activities/qualities”. To go back to the examples above, ‘ puddu and other similar non-staple milled-cereal based  foods’,  ‘running or other similar playful exertions’, ‘hearth or other sources of fire’, ‘money or other forms of wealth’, ‘red or other coloured sarees’ ‘coffee, tea, coke, juice, water or another beverage’.  Their usage therefore may contribute to economy of expression in everyday speech.

It could also be said that the base word-echo word pair conveys a sense of increased ‘indefiniteness’, ‘generalisation’ or ‘de-centering’ of the meaning associated with the base word alone. Consider example 8. It would seem somewhat inappropriate to just answer ‘ஏனக்கு  கோப்பி வேண்டாம்’ to the question containing the echo word pair. One would be expected to choose a preferred/available beverage or decline to have any.

In addition to widening lexical field, echo words may be used, as in examples 6 and 7 , to convey, without being overtly confrontational, the speakers disapointment/ disapproval/ disdain/ disgust.

In addition to the linguistic purposes discussed above, echo words may serve important social purposes: to create a casual, non-threatening and relaxed tone to facilitate informal dialogue or negotiation. They are usually avoided in conversations with social superiors or in formal situations.

Echo words in other South Asian languages

Nearly all the spoken colloquial dialects in and around the the Indian subcontinent make use of Echo words. Most of the South Indian languages use a system similar to Tamil. The tribal language Toda as well as Malayalam use Ki or Ki: exactly as in Tamil, but most of the dialects of Andra Pradesh and Kannada use gi or gi: as the replacement syllable. Both /k/ and /g/ are ‘velar’ stop consonants i.e. formed by bringing the body of the tongue up against the soft palate (velum) at the roof of the mouth. They differ only in the fact that vocal cord vibration occurs when the /g/ sound is produced, a process called ‘voicing’. whereas /k/ is not accompanied by vocal cord activity i.e ‘unvoiced’. Occasionally, the actual sound may be a velar fricative rather than a stop (i.e. some air is allowed to pass between the tongue and the soft palate). This sound is represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) by the symbol /x/ and sounds more like the /ha/ sound that is actually produceed in the middle of the word when saying /மேகம் , meːxam (cloud)/. The phonetics of velar sounds are explained at this link


Echo words are commonly used in colloquial Sinhala, but the system in Sinhala has some significant differences when compared to the South Indian languages. Firstly, the sound involved is not velar, but labial i.e. formed at the lips, most often /p/ or /b/. Less commonly other sounds may be used. Secondly, the change does not involve the whole of the first syllable, but only the initial consonant of the echo word. And thirdly,  a wider range of sounds are used, in contrast to the single velar sound that is used in Tamil and other South Indian languages.

Some examples in Sinhala:  daŋɡa paŋɡa (mischief, naughtiness), œdak pœdak (a bend or curvature), hit pit (thought, conciousness), ivum pivum (cooking etc), kata bata (conversation, talk), yakku bakku (devils etc), kavicci bavicci (couches) , kaːr  baːr ( car etc), saːri  baːri (saree etc), kœːli  baːli (pieces), suːt  buːt ( suits etc), sereppu bereppu (sandals).

Sometimes, there may be a change in the first vowel of the echo word as well as the initial consonant, or consonants other than /p/ or /b/  may be used:  ɡaman biman (journeys), kaːsi  buːsi (money etc), udav padav (help etc) , iɖam kaɖam (lands) , vihilu tahalu (jokes).

In these three features Sinhala is more in line with languages in North India (see below) than with the neighbouring languages of South India.

More examples and a discussion are given in a brief but interesting paper by Dr DE Hettiaratchi, ‘Echo Words in colloquial Sinhala’, which is available here.

North Indian languages

All the major languages of North India use echo word formation in colloquial speech to convey very similar meanings as described for the South Indian languages. The sound changes used however are rather different. The substitution usually involves a single consonant sound rather than the whole first syllable. In standard Hindi, /v/, a labial sound, is the most common substitution e.g. pen  ven (pen or other writing implement), sha:di  va:di (marriage etc), ca:y  va:y (tea etc),  a:tma  va:tma (soul etc), prem  vrem (love etc), english  vinglish (you work this one out!). An excellent description and discussion of the semantics of echo words in Hindi/Urdu is given in this article by Annie Montaut, pages 38-52.  In Punjabi dialects the replacement sound most commonly used is /sh/or /s/ and in Bengali the sound most often used is /t/.

Echo Words have been the focus of a fair amount of research in modern linguistics.  Two recent Doctoral theses are of particular interest with regard to south Indian languages. A full pdf version of Dr Parimalagantham’s PhD thesis which includes an extensive comparative study of Echo Words in Tamil and Telugu is available at this link . An Oxford D Phil Thesis on Echo Words in Tamil by Dr Elinor Keane can be accessed in abstract form via this link.

It is apparent from the above that echo word usage is an informal, flexible, subtle and intriguing component of the grammar of many spoken languages. Every native speaker of these languages would have an intuitive and unique understanding of this aspect of grammar. What are your views? Let us know!

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