From the Dravidian stock emerged the versatile and prolific language of Malayālam, one of the two official state languages of Kerala, English being the other one.  The language is a happy blend of  the simplicity of Tamil and the dignity of Sanskrit and, in a flexible and receptive style similar to that of English, enriched itself with a vocabulary culled from numerous languages.  Spoken by thirty-five million people, it is ranked eighth according to the number of speakers and is one of the twenty-two official languages of  modern India.

Its bounty of  publications are evident through the 170 daily newspapers, 235 weeklies, and 550 monthly periodicals that are produced  throughout the year.  The largest circulating Indian language daily is Malayāla Manorama which has a circulation of 673,000 in Kerala. Malayālam is spoken in Kerala and in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep Islands.  The Malayālee diaspora accounts for the sounds of Malayālam echoing in The United States, The United Kingdom, Middle East nations, African nations, Australia, and numerous other countries. Present day Malayālam evolved through centuries of numerous cultural and trade contacts and political dominances. The output of several literary geniuses further enhanced the quality of the language.

Malayālam  can trace its origin to the Dravidian family which includes around seventy-five languages.  Of these,  Tamil, Teleugu, Kannada , Malayālam,  Kodagu, Kota, Tulu, and Kurukh are associated with South India. Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayālam have independent scripts for letters and numerals and trace their literary history to the pre-Christian Era.  The word Malayālam is coined from two words, a sandhi of  ‘mala+ālam’, which means ‘mountain+land’, ‘mala’ meaning ‘mountain’ and ‘ālam’ meaning ‘place’ or ‘land’, and thus “mountainland’.  It also indicated the language spoken by the people who lived by the mountains, the land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea.  Another theory is that the word was a  sandhi  of ‘Mala+āzham’, ‘āzham’ meaning ‘ocean’ or ‘sea’.  This indicaties the land between the Sahya mountains and the Arabian Sea. Later, Malayāzham became Malayālam possibly owing to the difficulty experienced by some people in twisting the tongue around the retroflex ‘zha’ or ‘ɻa’. This language was neighbored by Tamil in the south and east and Kannada on the north and east and the influences of the two languages are seen even today in the dialect in the south and the dialect in the north, respectively.  The central dialect was the least influenced by these two languages in speech intonation and vocabulary.

There are many theories about the derivation of the  Malayālam language. Some believe that it is derived from  ‘kodumthamizh’, a south Dravidian language in the Sangam period (300 BCE – 300 CE).  An Orientalist who pioneered the study of Dravidian languages, Bishop Robert Caldwell (1814 – 1891) has asserted, in his Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages (1856, revised 1875), that  Malayālam evolved out of Tamil in the initial five centuries of the Christian Era.  This time frame parallels with the Sangam Era. Today’s Kerala was then a part of the larger political segment called Tamilakam and the Dravidian civilization and languages and literatures reached a zenith at that time.  It is not surprising that the most striking about Malayālam is its affinity to Tamil.  Tamil was the language of scholarship and administration and it was natural that its influence was palpable and extensive. With the decline of the Sangam Era, the Brahmin influence began to make aggressive inroads into  the cultural life of Kerala and many of the Indo-Aryan features were assimilated into Malayālam at different levels.  The common stock of Tamil and Malayālam, the Proto-Tamil Malayālam, disintegrated, giving way to the emergence of a distinct Malayālam over a period of four or five centuries following the ninth century.  The origin of Malayālam as a distinct language may be traced to the last quarter of the ninth  century in the Christian Era.   Malayālam first appeared in writing in the ‘vazhappalli’ inscription which dates from about 830 CE.

It was evident that the  written tradition of Malayālam dates back to the ninth century. The script used then was  Koleluttu, which means ‘stick writing’.  It was derived from the Tamil writing system. The Tamil Grantha script also was used at the time. In the thirteenth century, the writing script was progressing from ‘vattezhuthu’  which means ‘round writing’.  It is traceable to the pan-Indian Brahmi script. The writing system is syllabicThe the sequence of graphic elements means that the letters represent individual syllables. In this system, the elements representing individual vowels and consonants are for the most part readily identifiable and reading is much simpler once the letters are mastered. There is no need for memorizing the spelling or learning the spelling rules.  The writing underwent many changes over the centuries. Like Kannada, in the 1960’s, Malayālam dispensed with many special letters representing less frequently used conjunction of  consonants and the combinations of the vowel ‘u’ with different consonants.  In 1981, a new style of writing was substituted. This new script reduces the different letters for typeset from 900 to less than 90 glyphs. This was mainly done to include Malayālam in the keyboards of typewriters and computers.  Like its parent group of Dravidian languages, Malayalam also has a series of retroflex consonants like ട/ ṭ , ഡ/ ḍ , ഠ/ ṭh , ഢ/ ḍh, ണ/ ṇ, ഴ /ɻ,and  ള /ḷ  .  Today, Malayālam consists of 53 letters including 20 long and short vowels and the rest of them, consonants. They have a one-to-one correspondence with the Devanagari syllabarry. Even though it has its own numerals, they are rarely used.

There are three major regional dialects in Malayālam along with some minor ones.  Variations in intonations in speech patterns are easily distinguished among the parameters of religion, regional community, trade and occupation, and social class or caste. The influence of Sanskrit is most prominent among Brahmins and academics and the least among the uneducated and the Harijans. From Sanskrit, Malayālam has borrowed thousands of nouns, hundreds of verbs, and a few of those that cannot be decined.  Even some basic words such as ‘mukham/face’, ‘nakham/nail’, ‘bhārya/wife’, and ‘bharthāvu/husband’ have entered  the common colloquiam.    English, Syriac, Latin, and Portuguese words are easily seen in the Christian dialects and Urdu and Arabic words are seen in the Muslim dialects.  There is also the trait called ‘diglossia’ which is a distinction between the formal, literary language and the colloquial language. English stands only second to Sanskrit in its influence on Malayalam.  Not only words, but also some idiomatic expressions in English have found their way into Malayalam.

During the different periods, Malayālam prose was influenced in different degrees by different languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrits, Pali, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Both the literary and colloquial languages use many words borrowed from Sanskrit. This often led to a conclusion that Malayalam could be of Indo-European origin. Even though closely related to Tamil, Malayālam differs from it in such aspects as the absence of personal endings on verbs and is more similar to an unlikely relative such as English in its evolution as a modern language.  As any transformational grammarian would testify, the same grammar rules used in English, like grammatical categories as tense, number, person, and case with suffixes,  may be applied to Malayālam.

Malayālam has nurtured a multifaceted literature over the centuries. As with the language, the Tamil influence on literature was evident earlier in its development and waned with the sanskritization that took place in the Middle Ages.   The early body of Malayālam literature exhibits three distinct styles and the receding of the Tamil influence.  They are the classical songs like Ramacharitham in the “pattu” tradition of  Tamil, “Manipravalam” pieces like Vaishikatantra and Lilatilakam and the Champupoems, which are rendered in  a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayālam, a result of the Sanskrit inroads into the local literary scene, and the folk songs filled with native riches and style.  The earliest extant of Malayālam prose is a commentary in simple Malayālam, Bhashakautaliyam (12th century), on Chanakya’s Arthasastra (Economics).  Till the fifteenth century,  significant literary works were produced in the land, but they were either in Sanskrit or Tamil.

As Geoffrey Chaucer elevated the vernacular English, which was overshadowed by classical Latin and courtly French, to literary levels, Cherussery’s Krishna Gatha ushered modern Malayālam into the world of literary classics. Later, in the sixteenth century, Thunchathu Ezhuthachan produced Adhyātma Ramāyanam and Mahabhāratham, using a literary device, “kilippattu” or the ‘birdsong’. The popularity of the classical dance form of Kathakali  propelled the development of Malayālam literature with its emphasis on classical themes.  Sangam Era’s focus on the realism of the common people and the masses was revived by Kunchan Nambiar and the “Ottam Thullal”.  With him and the shift in styles,  a satirical edge also entered the literary scene in the eighteenth century.  By the nineteenth century, the European influence encouraged a reinvention of prose. The German missionary, Herman Gundert , wrote Malayālabhaasha Vyākaranam  in 1868, the first Malayālam –English dictionary in 1872, and translated the Bible into Malayalam. The European education also revolutionized the Malyālee literary consciousness. In 1786, Paremakkal Thoma Kathanar wrote the first travelogue in the language, titled Journey to Rome .  In 1860, Pachu Muthathu produced a brief history of Kerala and, in 1871, wrote the first autobiography.  There was a period of vigorous attempts to translate books from other languages into Malayālam and this inspired many writers. It was in the nineteenth century that Chandu Menon wrote the first Malayaalm novel, Indulekha.  It was in the same period that Raja Raja Varma earned the sobriquet of “Kerala Panini” for his definitive work on Malayālam grammar.

A cornucopia of literary works in Malayālam awaited the twentieth century.  The triumvirates of Malayālam poetry entered the scene.  Kumaran Aşan of great ideas, Ullur Parameswara Iyer of the grand vocabulary, and Vallathol Narayana Menon of  dulcet tones were collectively known as the “Mahakavitrayam” ( Great Poet Trio).  They were followed by Nalappattu Narayana Menon,  the revolutionary Changampuzha, and the intense Idappally. G. Shankara Kuruppu entered the scene and emulated Tagore in his style. He received the prestigious Jnanpeeth Award in 1965 for Odakkuzhal.

While the poets marked their places in the Malayālam literary scene, the novelists and short story writers did not take a back seat.  Keshav Dev, Malayattoor RamakrishnanThakazhi Sivasankara PillaiUroobVaikom Muhammad BasheerO. V. Vijayan, M.T. Vasu Devan Nair, Kovilan, E.M. Kovoor, and their ilk elevated Malayālam novel.

In the Kerala state syllabus, Malayālam is the medium of instruction in schools. There is no question that Malayālam is keeping up with the progress of times and a scientific register of the language is slowly evolving.  Liberal in attitude towards other languages, Kerala education allows the coexistence of Malayālam with other languages.  In some circles, there are grave concerns that it is not mandatory in schools to learn Malayālam as it is stressed in the neighboring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Some fear that with the rush towards English medium schools, we may be approaching the demise of such a fertile language as Malayālam.


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