Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1: 9 January 2002
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.

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G. Sankaranarayanan, Ph.D.


A significant feature that we notice in the major Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages of the Indian subcontinent is the process of repeating the words or forms to perform a variety of functions. This process of repeating the forms is also noticed in the Tibeto-Burman and Munda languages spoken in the region, but not to the extent that we notice in the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages. In this sense, we may say that reduplication and onomatopoeia form a significant regional feature of the Indian linguistic area.


The foreign language learners of Indian languages often have difficulty in deciphering what is going on in these languages when reduplication and onomatopoeia are used, because they see that almost any word in their target language may be used in a reduplicative or onomatopoeic function. As Thirumalai (2002) points out,

. . . almost any word can be changed into a word of sound symbolism in Tamil. Puli means 'tiger,' pulikili means '(abundance of) tiger and tiger-like wild animals.' Me:sai means 'table,' me:saiki:sai means 'table and table-like objects.' However, there are restrictions imposed on the sentence and meaning structures in which these expressions may be used. In addition to this process of reduplication, Tamil uses the regular words of sound symbolism such as bow-wow in English.
More often than not, textbooks that aim at teaching a language as a second or foreign language do not focus on teaching these characteristics. However, in day-to-day contexts of communication, use of sound symbolism makes communication easier and natural. Often use of such words of sound symbolism signal your competence in your target language.

Thirumalai (2002) also suggests:

So, watch for the words of sound symbolism used in your target language. Understand the linguistic processes involved in coining the words of sound symbolism in your target language. These processes often choose some specific consonants and/or vowels and have them reduplicated in some regular fashion. Understand the contexts in which words of sound symbolism are used. Try to get the meanings, although exact meanings cannot always be assigned to the words of sound symbolism. Enjoy using these words of sound symbolism in your conversations with the native speakers of your target language.


When a person's attention is to be drawn, the native speakers of major Indian languages may repeat the name of the person whose attention is sought. For example, in Tamil, e: ravi, ravi means "Hey! Ravi! Ravi!"

When a guest is received, he or she is invited to enter the house by the host by repeating the word for "Come!" For example, the guest is addressed va:nga, va:nga "(Please do) come, come!" in Tamil. Hardly a native speaker of any major Indian language stops with the single word "come" when he receives a guest! If the welcome address consists of only one word, the guest may even feel offended! He may take it that he is not really welcome!


In this paper, I would like to present some of the linguistic forms used in Tamil in such repetition and discuss the various functions this speech act performs in Indian language contexts.

The phenomenon of repetition was so widespread and important that the grammarians in Tamil and other major Indian languages chose to discuss it in the traditional grammars. For example, the traditional Tamil grammars, written at least one thousand years ago, grouped the repeated forms under two headings, namely, aTukkuttoTar (reduplicated form) and iraTTaikkiLavi (paired form). The former was used to denote the repetition of meaningful forms, and the latter the onomatopoeic forms.

Thus, it is amazing to note that this practice of repeating forms for various functions had been noticed since a thousand years ago. That it is not dying but only becoming more and more popular because of modern communication strategies, such as those adopted in comedies, political platforms, and movies of various sorts, is, indeed, a tribute to the robust nature of this speech act. It also shows that the present speech habits in many Indian languages are age-old, and have an unbroken history of usage.


Ono words, or mimic words, or imitative words represent the sound of an action or sensation that is not articulated like other words. For example, the call of an animal is usually reproduced imitating the call. The neighing of a horse may be imitated and used in Tamil in a peculiar manner as traditionally and conventionally experienced by the native speakers of Tamil, while having a separate regular word kanai 'neigh' for the action. Miya:v is how a cat is seen to call in Tamil. LoL LoL is how a dog is seen to bark for the native speakers of Tamil, but for the native speakers of English the same call may be traditionally heard and imitated as bow-wow. These ono words are generally accompanied by the quotative verb enRu 'having said' or 'sounded' in Tamil.

Consider the following sentences.

vi:Tu maTa maTa enRu viLhuntatu
'The house fell down with a crash.'
pa:ttiram paLa paLa enRu minnutu
'The vessel shines brightly.'
na:y va:L va:L enru kuraittatu
'The dog barked va:L va:L.'

Generally speaking, the ono forms occur in pairs.


There is another type of repetitive forms in Tamil. These may be called echo forms. Unlike the ono forms in which the second part is the same as the first part, the second part of an echoed form is slightly modified from the first part. The echoed part is meaningless and has no free occurrence. In other words, the second part is not a word in itself, whereas the first part of the echoed form is truly an independent word in the language. The second part of the construction is derived from the first part.


Consider the following example: pu:nai 'cat' may be converted into an echoed form pu:nai ki:nai, with the imprecise meaning 'cat, etc.' or 'cat and/or something like cat.' The exact meaning of the echoed form is hard to define but every native speaker knows what it means! Generally speaking, changing the first syllable of the headword to ki or kii forms an echo word: depending on whether the first syllable in the headword that is being echoed is long or short.

In some cases where a word that is going to be converted into an echo form begins with k, the echoed part is formed by changing the first syllable into a syllable that contains no k. For example, ka:ma: co:ma: enRu pe:ca:te: 'Don't talk as you like, don't talk incoherently, or don't talk using incomprehensible words.' As the echoed part does not have a free existence, it may be treated as a special bound form. It is not the form that is really important, it is the process that is important for us to notice. Any noun in Tamil can be subjected to this process. The echoed part is inflected for case and number in the same way as the headword that is echoed.

A similar process of echo formation is noticed in Kannada also. Consider the following examples: mara gira 'tree and the like,' ha:vu gi:vu 'snake and the like.' Nayak, a pioneer of modern Kannada linguistics, reported in his work (Nayak 1967) that some dialects use the labial sound, not the velar sound, as the beginning sound of the repeated part. For example, he noticed that in some dialects the word ha:lu 'milk' is be echoed as ha:lu pa:lu and not ha:lu ga:lu. The word nu:ru 'hundred' is echoed as nu:ru pa:ru, and not nu:ru ga:ru


In Hindi, the echoed part generally begins with a labial consonant like v or b or a labial vowel. For example, the word ka:m 'work' is echoed as ka:m va:m, that 'pomp' is echoed as that bat, and pu:chna: 'enquire, enquiry' is echoed as uuchna:.

When the headword of the paired combination begins with v itself, then the echoed part begins with a vowel a. For example, va:yu a:yu 'wind, climate, etc.' Very rarely, the echoed part begins with a consonant other than v. For example, ca:y sa:y 'tea, etc.'

In the above discussion, we saw repetitive pairs in which both the members that constitute the repetitive word are meaningless (for example, paLa paLa) if they are used individually, and that they acquire meaning only if they are paired together. We also saw a second category of repetitive words in which the second or the repeated part is meaningless whereas the first part may have its own independent meaning. When they are paired, the paired form acquires its own meaning and emphasis (for example, ca:y sa:y).


There is yet another type of repetition seen in major Indian languages in which both the members of the repetitive pair are meaningful units. The repetition of meaningful words may be complete or partial. The former denotes the repetition of a grammatical unit without any phonological or morphological modification. In Tamil, for example, independent words belonging to the following grammatical categories are repeated without any phonological or morphological modification.

  1. Noun: ra:tri ra:tri maLhai peyyutu 'It rains every night.'
  2. Pronoun: avan avan eppaTiyo: vaLhkira:n 'Some persons make their living as they like.'
  3. Interrogative form: enna enna va:ngkina:y? 'What all things did you buy?'
  4. Adjective: nalla nalla pustakam ingke kiTaikkum. Good books are available here.
  5. Verbal Participle: pe:ci pe:ci nenjcu valikkiratu. 'Because of continuous speaking, (I have) chest pain.'
  6. Verb Infinitive: paTikka paTilla inpama: irukkiratu. 'Obtaining joy by reading again and again. Continuous joy even when I read again and again.'
  7. Adverb: appuRam appuRam avan ingke varuvate illai. 'Afterwards, he has not turned up.'
  8. Negative form: ve:NTave: ve:NTa:m. 'Not all necessary.'


We also have a fourth type of repetition in which the second member of the paired item is not an exact repetition of the first but it has some similarity or relationship to the first either on the semantic or phonetic level (Abbi 1991). In other words, the pairing is formed on the basis of formal and/or semantic similarity. For example, akkam pakkam 'either side,' and tappum tavaruma: 'committing very many mistakes.'


The repetition of a word in a sentence provides additional meaning to the new construction. For instance, the sentence in Tamil avanukku oru mu:TTai nellu vantatu has the meaning 'He has received one bag of paddy.' On the other hand, the sentence avanukku mu:TTai mu:TTaiya: nellu vantatu has the meaning 'He received many bags of paddy.' The word mu:TTai is repeated in the second sentence with a change in the grammatical category. The additional meaning 'more number of bags' is provided by the repetition of the word mu:TTai.


  1. Distributive meaning is expressed by the repetition of certain nouns. For example, avanga vi:Tu vi:Ta po:na:nga 'They went to each and every house.'
  2. The repetition of the temporal nouns gives the meaning 'in proper time' or 'habituality.' For example, ka:la: ka:lattile: ve:laiyai muTi 'Complete or finish the work in proper or scheduled time.' AvaL va:ra: va:ram ko:yilukku po:va:L 'She goes to the temple every week.'
  3. Sometimes the repetition indicates that the action is repeated. It refers to the repeated performance of an action denoted by the verb that follows. For example, cumma: cumma: co:tte co:tte tinna:te: 'Don't keep on eating rice.'
  4. When an infinitive verb is repeated it expresses simultaneity or prolongation of an action. Avan colla colla kamala: eLhutina:L 'Kamala wrote while he was dictating.'
  5. Repetition of an action is expressed when verbal participle forms are repeated. Avan kuTiccu kuTiccu cetta:n 'He drank continuously and hence he died.'


From the above discussion, we may conclude that the repetition of forms indicates either the increment of a quality or quantity of an action or an object.


Abbi, Anvita. 1980. Semantic Grammar of Hindi: A Study in Reduplications. New Delhi.

Apte, M.L. 1968. Reduplication, Echo, Formation and Onomatopoeia in Marathi. Pune.

Arden, A. H. 1969. A Progressive Grammar of Tamil Language. Madras.

Gnanasundaram, V. 1985. Onomatopoeia in Tamil. Annamalainagar.

Nayak, H. M. 1967. Kannada Literary and Colloquial: A Study of Two Styles. Mysore.

Sankaranarayanan, G. 1976. "Associative Pairs in Tamil," in The Eighth India University Tamil Teachers' Conference, Mysore.

Sankaranarayanan. G. 1983. "Reduplication in Tamil," in To Greater Heights (1969-79). Mysore.

Thirumalai, M.S. 2002. How to Learn Another Language? in Language in India (, 1:8.

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G. Sankaranarayanan, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India