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Malayalam language

Not to be confused with the Malay language.
മലയാളം malayāḷaṁ Spoken in: India  Region: Predominantly in Kerala, Lakshadweep, Mahé(Mayyazhii) in Puducherry, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Europe, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, Sri Lanka. Total speakers: 35,757,100.[1]
35,351,000 in India,
37,000[2]in Malaysia, and
10,000 in Singapore  Ranking: 29 Language family: Dravidian
     Malayalam  Writing system: Malayalam script, historically written in Vattezhuthu script, Kolezhuthu script, Karzoni script. Also Arabic script (Arabi Malayalam), Indian alphabet (Roman alphabet)  Official status Official language in:  India(KeralaStateand the Union Territoriesof Lakshadweep& Puducherry) Regulated by: no official regulation Language codes ISO 639-1: ml ISO 639-2: mal ISO 639-3: malThis page contains Indic text. Without rendering support you may see irregular vowel positioning and a lack of conjuncts. More...

Malayalam (മലയാളം malayāḷaṁ) is the language used predominantly in the state of Kerala, in southern India. It is one of the 22 official languages of India, and it is used by around 36 million people [1]. Malayalam is also widely used in the union territories of Lakshadweep and Mahé, the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu and the Kodagu[1] and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka. Malayalam is also used by a large population of Indian expatriates living in Arab States, the United Kingdom the United States and Canada.

Malayalam is thought to have developed from Proto-Tamil and began developing a body of literature by the 9th century CE [3]. The language became heavily Sanskritized during this period, and even to this day, the language gathers a large proportion of its vocabulary from Sanskrit. Loans have also been made from Portuguese, Arabic and, in more recent times, English.



The term "Malayalam" comes from the Tamil words malai (Mountain), ala (People) and the Sanskrit[citation needed] appendix -am. Hence malayali means Mountain people who lived beyond the Western Ghats, and Malayalam the language that was spoken there.

Another etymology is that it comes from malai (Mountain) and azham (Ocean) - referring to the Sahya mountains and Arabian Sea that bound Kerala. Malayazham later became Malayalam.

The word "Malayalam" is an apparent palindrome; however, strictly, it is not, as the next to last vowel is long and should properly be spelled double or written ā (an a with a macron), and the 'l' consonants represent different sounds: the first is dental ([l], Malayalam ല, Roman l) and the second is retroflex ([ɭ], Malayalam ള, Roman ḷ).


The language belongs to the family of Dravidian languages. There are conflicting theories concerning the origin of the language. Robert Caldwell, in his book A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Languages considers Malayalam an ancient off-shoot of classical Tamil that over time gained a large amount of Sanskrit vocabulary and lost the personal terminations of verbs.[4] However, linguists like Hermann Gundert regard Malayalam as having diverged from Proto-Tamil-Malayalam, or Proto-Dravidian. Malayalam has a script of its own, covering all the symbols of Sanskrit as well as special letters for Dravidian-specific sounds. Recent archaeological evidence points to Malayalam being as old a language as the other Dravidian languages and that it evolved over the centuries, with its versions having different names. This is unlike the case of Tamil. Although Classical Tamil and Modern Tamil are very different, both are still referred to as Tamil.

Together with Tamil, Toda, Kannada and Tulu, Malayalam belongs to the southern group of Dravidian languages. Proto-Tamil-Malayalam, the common stock of 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 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 & political setup, the trade relationships with Arabs, and the invasion of Kerala by the Portuguese, establishing vassal states accelerated the assimilation of many Romance, Semitic and Indo-Aryan features into Malayalam at different levels spoken by different castes and religious communities like Muslims, Christians, Jews and Jainas.

T.K. Krishna Menon, in his book "A Primer of Malayalam Literature" describes four distinct epochs concerning the evolution of the language:[5]

  • Karintamil (3100 BCE - 100 BCE): Malayalam from this period is represented by the works of Kulashekara Alvar and Pakkanar. There is a strong Tamil element, and Sanskrit has not yet made an influence on the language.
  • Old Malayalam (100 BCE - 325 CE): Malayalam seems to have been influenced by Sanskrit as there are numerous Sanskrit words in the language. There are personal terminations for verbs that were conjugated according to gender and number.
  • Middle Malayalam (325 CE - 1425 CE): Malayalam from this time period is represented by works such as Ramacharitram. Traces of the adjuncts of verbs have disappeared by this period. The Jains also seemed to have encouraged the study of the language.
  • Modern Malayalam (1425 CE onwards): Malayalam seems to have established itself as a language separate from Tamil by this point in time. This period can be divided into two categories: from 1425 CE to 1795 CE, and from 1795 CE, onwards. 1795 CE is the year the English gained complete control over Kerala.

Development of literature

The earliest written record of Malayalam is the Vazhappalli inscription (ca. 830 CE). The early literature of Malayalam comprised three types of composition:

  • Classical songs known as Naadan Paattu of the Tamil tradition
  • Manipravalam of the Sanskrit tradition, which permitted a generous interspersing of Sanskrit with Malayalam
  • 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, one of the most important works in Malayalam literature. Malayalam prose of different periods exhibit various levels of influence from different languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Hebrew, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Although this may be true, Malayalam is strikingly similar to Tamil, considerably more than the similarity between modern Dutch and German. Modern literature is rich in poetry, fiction, drama, biography, and literary criticism.


For the consonants and vowels, the IPA is given, followed by the Malayalam character and the ISO 15919 transliteration.


The first letter in Malayalam   ShortLong FrontCentralBackFrontCentralBackClose/i/ ഇ i /ɨ̆/ * ŭ /u/ ഉ u /iː/ ഈ ī   /uː/ ഊ ū Mid/e/ എ e /ə/ * a /o/ ഒ o /eː/ ഏ ē   /oː/ ഓ ō Open  /a/ അ a     /aː/ ആ ā  
  • */ɨ̆/ is the samvr̥tokāram, an epenthentic vowel in Malayalam. Therefore, it has no independent vowel letter (because it never occurs at the beginning of words) but, when it comes after a consonant, there are various ways of representing it. In medieval times, it was just represented with the symbol for /u/, but later on it was just completely omitted (that is, written as an inherent vowel). In modern times, it is written in two different ways - the Northern style, in which a chandrakkala is used, and the Southern or Travancore style, in which the diacritic for a /u/ is attached to the preceding consonant and a chandrakkala is written above.
  • */a/ (phonetically central: [ä]) and /ə/ are both represented as basic or "default" vowels in the abugida script (although /ə/ never occurs word-initially and therefore does not make use of the letter അ), but they are distinct vowels.

Malayalam has also borrowed the Sanskrit diphthongs of /äu/ (represented in Malayalam as ഔ, au) and /ai/ (represented in Malayalam as ഐ, ai), although these mostly occur only in Sanskrit loanwords. Traditionally (as in Sanskrit), four vocalic consonants (usually pronounced in Malayalam as consonants followed by the samvr̥tokāram, which is not officially a vowel, and not as actual vocalic consonants) have been classified as vowels: vocalic r (ഋ, /rɨ̆/, r̥), long vocalic r (ൠ, /rɨː/, r̥̄), vocalic l (ഌ, /lɨ̆/, l̥) and long vocalic l (ൡ, /lɨː/, l̥̄). Except for the first, the other three have been omitted from the current script used in Kerala as there are no words in current Malayalam that use them.


BilabialLabiodentalDentalAlveolarRetroflexPalatalVelarGlottalStopUnaspirated/p/ പ p /b/ ബ b /t̪/ ത t /d̪/ ദ d /t/ * t /ʈ/ ട ṭ /ɖ/ ഡ ḍ /ʧ/ ച c /ʤ/ ജ j /k/ ക k /g/ ഗ g Aspirated/pʰ/ ഫ ph /bʱ/ ഭ bh /t̪ʰ/ ഥ th /d̪ʱ/ ധ dh /ʈʰ/ ഠ ṭh /ɖʱ/ ഢ ḍh /ʧʰ/ ഛ ch /ʤʱ/ ഝ jh /kʰ/ ഖ kh /gʱ/ ഘ gh Nasal/m/ മ m /n̪/ ന n /n/ ന * n /ɳ/ ണ ṇ /ɲ/ ഞ ñ /ŋ/ ങ ṅ Approximant/ʋ/ വ v /ɻ/ ഴ l /j/ യ y Liquid/r/ റ r Fricative/f/ ഫ* f /s̪/ സ s /ʂ/ ഷ ṣ /ɕ/ ശ ś /ɦ/ ഹ h Tap/ɾ/ ര r Lateral approximant/l/ ല l /ɭ/ ള ḷ
  • The unaspirated alveolar plosive stop used to have a separate character but it has become obsolete because it only occurs in geminate form (when geminated it is written with a റ below another റ) or immediately following other consonants (in these cases, റ or ററ is usually written in small size underneath the first consonant). To see how the archaic letter looked, find the Malayalam letter in the row for t here. In current Malayalam, this sound is used only for words borrowed from European languages (such as English, French, Portuguese or Dutch).
  • The alveolar nasal used to have a separate character but this is now obsolete (to see how it looked, find the Malayalam letter in the row for n here) and the sound is now almost always represented by the symbol that was originally used only for the dental nasal. However, both sounds are extensively used in current colloquial and official Malayalam.
  • The letter ഫ represents both /pʰ/, a native phoneme, and /f/, which only occurs in adopted words.

The script

Main article: Malayalam script

In the early ninth century vattezhuthu (round writing) traceable through the Grantha script, to the pan-Indian Brahmi script, gave rise to the Malayalam writing system. 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 51 letters including 16 vowels and 37 consonants.[6] 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 less than 90. This was mainly done to include Malayalam in the keyboards of typewriters and computers.

In 1999 a group called Rachana Akshara Vedi, led by Chitrajakumar, 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 city 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. The Malayalam that is used in talking and older Malayalam have an extremely limited amount of Sanskrit words, and it is almost identical to Tamil. Like in other parts of India, Sanskrit was considered an aristocratic and scholastic language, similar to Latin in European history.

Loan words and influences from Hebrew, Syriac and Ladino abound 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 (Mappila Malayalam, Beary bashe).

Words adopted from Sanskrit

When words are adopted from Sanskrit, their endings are usually changed to conform to Malayalam norms:


  1. Masculine Sanskrit nouns ending in a short "a" in the nominative singular change their ending to "an". For example, Kṛṣṇa -> Kṛṣṇan. However, there are exceptions - for example, if someone’s first name were a Sanskrit derived name like Kṛṣṇan, a person talking about him might drop the "n" if it were immediately followed by his surname (this only applies for certain surnames, such as Menon but not Nair)[citation needed].

(Reference : 'Sri Krishna Vilasa'(a Sanskrit work) by poet Sukumara in the 12th Century and translation of the same by Malayalam poet Kunchan Nambiar in his work 'Sri Krishnacharitam' in the 15th Century.)

  1. Feminine words ending in a long "ā" or "ī" are changed so that they now end in a short "a" or "i", for example Sītā -> Sīta and Lakṣmī -> Lakṣmi. However, the long vowel still appears in compound words like Sītādēvi or Lakṣmīdēvi. Some vocative case forms of both Sanskrit and native Malayalam words end in ā or ī, and there are also a small number of nominative ī endings that have not been shortened - a prominent example being the word Śrī,
  2. Masculine words ending in a long "ā" in the nominative singular have a "vŭ" added to them, for example Brahmā -> Brahmāvŭ. This is again omitted when forming compounds.[citation needed].
  3. Words whose roots are different from their nominative singular forms - for example, the Sanskrit root of "Karma" is actually "Karman"- are also changed. The original root is ignored and "Karma" (the form in Malayalam being "Karmam" because it ends in a short "a") is taken as the basic form of the noun when declining. [7]
  4. Sanskrit words describing things or animals rather than people which end in a short "a" take an additional "m" in Malayalam. For example, Rāmāyaṇa -> Rāmāyaṇam. "Things and animals" and "people" are not always differentiated based on whether or not they are sentient beings - for example Narasimha becomes Narasimham and not Narasimhan whilst Ananta becomes Anantan even though both are sentient. This can be explained by saying that "Ananta" can also be a man's name and does not necessarily have to refer to the Hindu serpent-god, whereas "Simha" actually means lion and therefore must be of the neuter gender.[citation needed]
  5. Nouns ending in short vowels like "Viṣṇu", "Prajāpati" etc stay the same.[citation needed]
  6. Along with these tatsama borrowings, there are also many tadbhava words in common use. These were borrowed into Malayalam before it became distinct from Tamil. As the language did not then accommodate Sanskrit phonology as it now does, words were changed to conform to the Old Tamil phonological system. For example: Kṛṣṇa -> Kaṇṇan [8]

Malayalam also has its influence from Portuguese, as is evident from the use of word like 'mesa' for a small table, and 'janala' for window.

For a comprehensive list of loan words, see Loan words in Malayalam.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Malayalam. Ethnologue. Retrieved on 2007-05-28.
  2. ^ Languages of Malaysia. Ethnologue. Retrieved on 2007-05-28.
  3. ^ [Kerala Charithram (Malayalam)A.Sreedhara Menon p.494]
  4. ^ Caldwell, Robert (1875). A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Languages, 23. 
  5. ^ Menon, T.K. Krishna (1990). A Primer of Malayalam Literature. Asian Educational Services. ISBN 8120606035
  6. ^ Language. Retrieved on 2007-05-28.
  7. ^ Varma, A.R. Rajaraja (2005). Keralapanineeyam. Kottayam: D C Books, 303. ISBN 81-713-0672-1
  8. ^ Varma, A.R. Rajaraja (2005). Keralapanineeyam. Kottayam: D C Books, 301-302. ISBN 81-713-0672-1
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