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Number of Speakers: 35,346,000 (1997 IMA)

Key Dialects: See below.

Geographical Center: India

There are about 35,346,000 (1997 IMA) native language speakers of Kannada. The number increases to about 44,000,000 including second language speakers (1999 WA). It is spoken in the regions of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, of India.

Kannada belongs to the Kannada group of languages that includes also Badaga, Holiya, and Urali, all spoken in India. The Kannada group is part of the Tamil-Kannada subgroup of the southern Dravidian languages.

There are about 20 dialects of Kannada. The dialectal variation is the result of long periods of political and consequently cultural and commercial isolation in addition to later contact with a number of different neighboring languages (Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, and so on). Sridhar (1990) identifies three major regional varieties: the Old Mysore dialect, the Coastal (or Mangalore) and the Northern (or Dharwar) dialects.

There are also a number of social varieties depending on caste or class. The standard or prestigious variety is the middle-class, educated Brahmin dialect of the Mysore-Bangalore area.

Kannada, like many other Indian languages and dialects, is diglossic in that the written form of the language differs considerably from the spoken colloquial variety in its phonology, morphology, lexicon, and syntax.

Kannada is an agglutinating language, with information coded in affixal morphology. There is an eight-case system including the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, instrumental, ablative, and vocative case. Nouns are also inflected for number while gender, although present in the properties of the nominal system of Kannada is not always explicitly marked on the noun. Indefiniteness is normally expressed by the use of an indefinite determiner, while definiteness is usually indicated by the absence of any marking although this is a complex issue of Kannada linguistics (Sridhar, 1990). Pronouns are also marked for case and number, with the addition of person marking, while gender marking occurs only in third person singular pronouns.

The existence of a separate class of adjectives is a linguistic problem for Kannada since the group of words that may belong to an adjectival class show nominal properties as well.

The verb can appear in active or passive voice, the latter formed with the verb in its infinitive form and the addition of the auxiliary verb ‘-padu’. Tense is marked by a suffix which immediately follows the verb root and precedes all other affixes. The literary variety distinguishes three tenses: present, past, and future, while the colloquial variety distinguishes only past and non-past.

Like other Dravidian languages Kannada has also a special verb paradigm in which a negative-tense marker is suffixed to the verb stem forming a negative tense. Aspect is indicated by adding the auxiliary verb uru ‘to be’ or other aspect markers to the past participle of the verb. There are perfective, habitual, continuous and progressive, ingressive, terminative, iterative, semelfactive and punctual, durative, simultaneous, and prior completion aspects. The Kannada verb is also marked for a rich array of modal forms: indicative, imperative, conditional, optative, potential, monitory, and conjunctive. Sentences may be coordinated by juxtaposition, participialization, or the use of conjunctions. Negation is expressed mainly with the use of the negative particles ‘alla’ and ‘illa’ in final position.

Kannada is a Subject-Object-Verb word order language. However, due to the rich morphology and subject-verb agreement, the constituent order is relatively free and omission of the subject is common since the agreement features of the verb indicate the nature of the sentence subject. Modifiers usually precede the words they modify. However the existence of specific topic and focus particles allow for the rearrangement of constituents depending on which element of the structure is emphasized. Within the noun phrase the head noun is preceded by its modifiers (adjectives, possessors, quantifiers, relative clauses) but is followed by any emphatic or inclusive clitics and particles.

Bilingualism is the main trend in India as shown by the 1961 Census. Although the division of states in India followed a somewhat strict geographical distribution of regional languages the different states are not monolingual. Thus, although Kannada is the official language of Karnataka, there are also many Telugu speakers (3,325,062) in Karnataka. Furthermore, official interstate communication is restricted to India’s official language, Hindi, while English still plays a dominant role especially in university circles. There is considerable tension in the extended area of Adhra Pradesh between the groups of people that speak different dialects, and this reflects the more general situation that is observed in former colonies where state boundaries do not represent linguistic boundaries and there is no real unifying common language.

The earliest written record in Kannada is an inscription from 450 A.D. Kavirajamarga (9th century A.D.), a reference of poetic works, is believed to be the earliest literary work in Kannada. By the 10th century Kannada had a number of distinguished poets and extended prose work, a sign that classical Kannada literature had fully evolved at least much earlier, since Kavirajamarga at least. However, since none of the earlier works have survived the accepted assumption is that written Kannada developed by the 5th century A.D.

Kannada developed through three main historical phases: the Old Kannada Phase, the Middle Kannada Phase, and the Modern Kannada Phase. Most of the works in literature and secular sciences mentioned in reference books like Kavirajamarga are still not to be traced. Vaddaradhane is the earliest prose work in Kannada. Its linguistic form and depiction of the existing society put it in the early 10th century. It is a collection of nineteen stories borrowed from the Sanskrit.

The rise of the 12th century saw the versatile growth of Kannada literature. Works on mathematics, medicine, and other scientific areas were composed. Verse became a popular form of writing and all the works mentioned above are in poetry form only. The same period marks the start of the grammatical tradition of Kannada with the first chapter of the work on poetics by Nagavarma II (1150 A.D.).

After the 1857 war of Independence the English system of education was introduced. During the last decade of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century there was an expansion of Kannada literature. The reorganization of Indian States based on language use provided a single geographic identity for Kannada.

From this point onwards, systematic language activities were taken up by state and central governments, autonomous institutions etc. The result was the establishment of Kannada as the language used in areas such as education, administration, communication and media. The language became the means for the expression of all major developments in science, culture and the arts. The modernization movement in Kannada is traced to 1886 in the founding of Karnataka Bhaashoojiivini Sabha.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Sridhar, S. N. 1990. Kannada. London: Routledge.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.

Spencer, H. 1950. A Kanarese Grammar. Mysore: Wesley Press

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