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About Malayalam Language

Malayalam (മലയാളം malayāḷam, pronounced [mɐləjaːɭɐm]) is one of the four major Dravidian languages of southern India. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India with official language status in the state of Kerala and the union territories of Lakshadweep and Mahé. It is spoken by 35.9 million people. Malayalam is also spoken in the Nilgiris district, Kanyakumari district, and Coimbatore of Tamil Nadu, Dakshina Kannada, Banglore, and Kodagu districts of Karnataka. Overseas, it is also used by a large population of Indian expatriates living around the globe in the Persian Gulf, United States, Singapore, Australia, and Europe.

Malayalam was derived from ancient Tamil in the 6th century, of which Modern Tamil was also derived. An alternative theory proposes a split in more ancient times. Nevertheless, around eighty percentage of Malayalam words are taken from Sanskrit. Before Malayalam came into being, Old Tamil was used in literature and courts of a region called Tamilakam, a famous example being Silappatikaram. While Dravidian Tamil used to be the ruling language of the Chera Dynasty, Ai, and Pandyan kingdoms. Sanskrit/Prakrit derived Buddhist Pali Language and the Jain Kalpasutra were known to Keralites from 500 BC. The Grantha Bhasha or Sanskrit mixed Tamil, written in Grantha Script (Arya Ezhuthu), was used by Aryan Brahmins residing in Tamil areas. The Dravidian component of Malayalam-Tamil has words similar to ancient Sangam Literature. During the Later Chera dynasty, the inscriptions included some lines from Grantha Bhasha in Grantha Script, along with Malayalam-Tamil written in Vattezhuttu. A form of Grantha Bhasha, a Sanskrit mixed Tamil, closely resembling laterday Malayalam, was used to write books by Brahmins from Tulunadu residing in Kerala in the second Millenium. The oldest literature works in Malayalam, distinct from the Tamil tradition, is dated certainly to the 11th century, perhaps to the 9th century. For cultural purposes, Malayalam and Sanskrit formed a language known as Manipravalam, where both languages were used in an alternating style. Malayalam is the only among the major Dravidian languages without diglossia. This means that the Malayalam which is spoken doesn't differ from the written variant, while the Kannada and Tamil languages use a classical type for the latter.

The word "Malayalam" is spelled as a palindrome in English. However, it is not a palindrome in its own script, for three reasons: the third a is long and should properly be transliterated aa or ā (an a with a macron) while the other a’s are short; the two l consonants represent different sounds, the first l being dental ([l̪], Malayalam ല, Roman l) (although the consonant charts list that sound as [alveolar]) and the second retroflex ([ɭ], Malayalam ള, Roman ḷ); and the final m is written as an anusvara, which denotes the same phoneme /m/ as in the initial m in this case, but the two m’s are spelled differently (the first m is a normal ma മ with an inherent vowel a, while the last m ം is a pure consonant).


The mixture of Aryan and Naga languages, with Sanskrit and Prakrit, and with the Dravidian Tamil, produced the Grantha Bhasha. The Aryan Naga migration to Karnataka, from Ahichatram in Uttarpradesh occurred during the rule of Kadamba King Mayuravarma in 345 AD. Tulunadu had Tulu script, a derivative of Grantha script and used by Tulu Brahmins from 8th century. After the Malik Kafur invasion in 1310, most of the Patriarchal Tamil dynasties of Kerala were replaced by Matriarchal dynasties who had surnames closely resembling that of Bunt (community) of Tulunadu. Tulu Lipi, with some modifications, appeared in Kerala as Malayalam Script after 1310. Tulu-Malayalam Script gradually replaced the archaic Tamil Script and Vatteluttu. When Portuguese arrived in 1498, the Malayalam-Tamul, an archaic Tamil script, was used to print books by Portuguese. Doctrina Christam written by Henrique in Lingua Malabar Tamul, with transliteration and translation in Malayalam (Grantha Bhasha). Printed by Portuguese from Cochin in 1556, it was the first Malayalam printed book in Kerala. In the 17th century, Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan was the first to substitute the Tamil Vatteluttu with Grantha Script or Tulu-Malayalam Script. With the discovery that Sanskrit belonged to the group of Indo-European languages soon prompted the Christian missionaries with German roots to support Sanskrit rich Grantha Bhasha in the 1700s. Johann Ernst Hanxleden wrote poems and grammar books in Sanskrit.

CMS (Church Mission Society) at Kottayam started printing books in Malayalam when Benjamin Bailey a Anglican priest in 1821 made the first Malayalam types. Benjamin Bailey, an essayist, standardised Malayalam prose. Hermann Gundert from Stuttgart, Germany started the first Malayalam newspaper, Rajya Samacharam, in 1847 at Thalassery and printed at Basel Mission.

The language belongs to the family of Dravidian languages. Robert Caldwell, in his book (A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Languages) states that Malayalam branching from classical Tamil, over time gained a large amount of Sanskrit vocabulary and lost the personal terminations of verbs.

Together with Tamil, Toda, Kannada, and Tulu, Malayalam belongs to the southern group of Dravidian languages. Some believe Proto-Tamil, the common stock of ancient Tamil and Malayalam, apparently diverged over a period of four or five centuries from the ninth century on, resulting in the emergence of Malayalam as a language distinct from Proto-Tamil. As the language of scholarship and administration, Proto-Tamil which was written in Tamil-Brahmi script and Vatteluttu later, greatly influenced the early development of Malayalam. Later the irresistible inroads the Namboothiris made into the cultural life of Kerala, the Namboothiri-Nair, dominated social and political setup, and the trade relationships with Arabs. Later, the invasion of Kerala by the Portuguese, established vassal states accelerated the assimilation of many Roman, Semitic and Indo-Aryan features into Malayalam at different levels as spoken by religious communities like Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Jainas.

Development of literature

The earliest written record resembling Malayalam is the Vazhappalli inscription (ca. 830 CE). The early literature of Malayalam comprised three types of composition: Malayalam Nada, Tamil Nada, and Sanskrit Nada:

  • Classical songs known as Naadan Paattu
  • Manipravalam of the Sanskrit tradition, which permitted a generous interspersing of Sanskrit with Malayalam. Niranam poets Manipravalam Madhava Panikkar, Sankara Panikkar and Rama Panikkar wrote Manipravalam poetry in the 14th century. The changed political situation in the 14th century after the invasion of Malik Kafur in 1310 led to the decline of Tamil dynasties leading to the dominance of people with Prakrit and Sanskrit heritage, the languages of Ahichatra in Uttarkhand, the original home town of Aryans and Nagavanshi people.
  • The folk song rich in native elements

Malayalam poetry to the late twentieth century betrays varying degrees of the fusion of the three different strands. The oldest examples of Pattu and Manipravalam, respectively, are Ramacharitam and Vaishikatantram, both of the twelfth century.

The earliest extant prose work in the language is a commentary in simple Malayalam, Bhashakautaliyam (12th century) on Chanakya’s Arthasastra. Adhyathmaramayanam by Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan (known as the father of the Malayalam language, who was born in Tirur), became one of the most important works in Malayalam literature.

By the end of 18th century, some of the Christian missionaries from Kerala started writing in Malayalam, creating mostly travelogues, dictionaries, and religious books. Varthamana Pusthakam (1778), written by Parammekkal Thoma Kathanar, is a famous travelogue. Church Mission Society, which started a seminary at Kottayam in 1819, also started a press which printed Malayalam books in 19th century. Malayalam and Sanskrit were increasingly studied by Christians of Kottayam and pathanamthitta, and by the end of 19th century Malayalam replaced Syriac as language of Liturgy in the church.

Writing system

Malayalam language possesses official recognition in the state of Kerala, Lakshadweep, and Puducherry. Historically, several scripts were used to write Malayalam. Among these scripts were Vattezhuthu, Kolezhuthu, and Malayanma scripts. But it was the Grantha script, another Southern Brahmi variation, which gave rise to the modern Malayalam script. It is syllabic in the sense that the sequence of graphic elements means that syllables have to be read as units, though in this system the elements representing individual vowels and consonants are for the most part readily identifiable. In the 1960s, Malayalam dispensed with many special letters representing less frequent conjunct consonants and combinations of the vowel /u/ with different consonants.

Malayalam language script consists of 53 letters, including 16 vowels and 37 consonants. The earlier style of writing is now substituted with a new style from 1981. This new script reduces the different letters for typeset from 900 to fewer than 90. This was done to include Malayalam in the keyboards of typewriters and computers.

In 1999 a group called Rachana Akshara Vedi, led by Chitrajakuma and K.H. Hussein, produced a set of free fonts containing the entire character repertoire of more than 900 glyphs. This was announced and released along with an editor in the same year at Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. In 2004, the fonts were released under the GNU GPL license by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation at the Cochin University of Science and Technology in Kochi, Kerala.

Dialects and external influences

Variations in intonation patterns, vocabulary, and distribution of grammatical and phonological elements are observable along the parameters of region, religion, community, occupation, social stratum, style, and register. Influence of Sanskrit is very prominent in formal Malayalam used in literature. Malayalam has a substantially high amount of Sanskrit loan words. Loan words and influences also come from Hebrew, Syriac, and Ladino, abounding in the Jewish Malayalam dialects, as well as English, Portuguese, Syriac, and Greek in the Christian dialects, while Arabic and Persian elements predominate in the Muslim dialects. This Muslim dialect, known as Mappila Malayalam, is used in the Malabar region of Kerala. Another Muslim dialect called Beary bashe is used in the extreme northern part of Kerala.

The regional dialects of Malayalam can be divided into thirteen dialect areas.


Ezhuthachan is considered the father of Malayalam literature. He was born at Tirur in the Malabar area of Kerala, where a monument now stands to honor him. A.R. Rajarajavarma is the man who gave grammatical rules to Malayalam. His monument and burial place is at Mavelikkara in the Central Travancore area of Kerala.


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