Passive Syntax in Kannada

Nitin working with research partner




Professor of Linguistics

Project Summary

I spent the summer in the Department of Linguistics examining the syntax of the passive voice in Kannada with my mentor Dr. Julie Anne Legate. Kannada is a Dravidian language spoken by about 40 million people, mainly in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. By interviewing native Kannada speakers in my local community, we sought to investigate and explain linguistically interesting characteristics of the language, especially involving its passive syntax.

Though Kannada has Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) constituent order, it is relatively free. Unlike in English, the order of nouns in Kannada can often be switched without changing meaning because the nouns are marked for case, meaning they usually contain a suffix that conveys whether the noun is acting as a subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.

The passive voice is rarely used in everyday conversation in Kannada, but it can contain unique and interesting constructions. A 1979 paper by S.N. Sridhar, a Kannada linguist whose work inspired some of the questions in this project, offers the example “the exhibition is arranged in Lal Bagh.” In the active, you might say “I arrange the exhibition in Lal Bagh,” with “I” as the subject and “exhibition” as the object. To passivize it, you can say “The exhibition is arranged in Lal Bagh by me” or you can even omit the agent (“me”) and say “The exhibition is arranged in Lal Bagh.” In this passive version of the English sentence, “exhibition” is the subject.” However, in the Kannada translation of “the exhibition is arranged in Lal Bagh,” ‘exhibition’ is marked with the accusative – or direct object – case. There is not really a subject in this Kannada sentence, rather the direct English translation might yield something closer to “there was the exhibition arranged in Lal Bagh.” Over the course of this summer, we followed up on this by trying to see if similarly interesting results could be found by employing the same sort of passive constructions with reciprocals (“each other”), unaccusatives (“fall,” “die,” “melt”), and impersonals.

This research experience imparted profound growth for me in both a personal and academic sense. My heritage lies in Karnataka, so this summer has been a chance for me to connect with and learn my family’s mother tongue. I had the privilege to do so while immersing myself in the process of “producing knowledge” through research, so I feel better equipped to understand the nature of the research university and ready to make full use of the educational and academic opportunities the university avails to its students.