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Malayalam ( , ) is one of the four major Dravidian languages of South India. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India with official language status in the state of Keralamarker and the union territories of Lakshadweepmarker and Mahémarker. It is spoken by around 37 million people. Malayalam is also spoken in the Kanyakumari districtmarker and Coimbatoremarker of Tamil Nadumarker, Dakshina Kannada and Kodagumarker districts of Karnatakamarker. Overseas it is also used by a large population of Indian expatriates living around the globe in the Persian Gulfmarker, United Statesmarker, Singaporemarker, Australia, and Europe.

Malayalam was derived from Proto Tamil-malayalam in the 6th century, of which Modern Tamil was also derived. An alternative theory proposes a split in more ancient times. Before Malayalam came into being, Old Tamil was used in literature and courts of a region called Tamilakam, a famous example being Silappadikaram. 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.

Malayalam is written in the Malayalam script, which is derived from the Grantha script. Its rounded form was well suited to write palm leaf manuscripts, a preferred way of writing in ancient South India. Malayalam uses a large proportion of Sanskrit vocabulary. Adoption have also been made from Portuguese, Arabic, Syriac, and in more recent times English.


The term "Malayalam" comes from the words mala meaning mountain and alam meaning land or locality. Hence malayali means Mountain's people who lived beyond the Western Ghats, and Malayalam the language that was spoken there. Another etymology is that it comes from mala (Mountain) and azham (Ocean) - referring to the Sahya mountains and Arabian Seamarker that bound Keralamarker. Malayazham later became Malayalam.

The word "Malayalam" is spelled as a palindrome in English. However, it is not a palindrome in its own language, for three reasons: the next to last vowel is long and should properly be spelled double or written ā (an a with a macron); the 'l' consonants represent different sounds, the first being dental ([l], Malayalam , Roman l) (although the consonant chart below lists that sound as [alveolar]) and the second retroflex ([ɭ], Malayalam , Roman ); and the final 'm' is a mark of nasalization , unlike the initial 'm', which is a full consonant.


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 branched from classical Tamil that 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 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, the trade relationships with Arabs, and the invasion of Kerala by the Portuguesemarker, establishing vassal states accelerated the assimilation of many Roman, Semitic and Indo-Aryan features into Malayalam at different levels spoken by 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:
  • 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 classical Tamil and Sanskrit 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 British 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
  • 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 Tirurmarker, 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. 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
  Short Long
Front Central Back Front Central Back
Close ഇ i * ŭ ഉ u ഈ ī   ഊ ū
Mid എ e * a ഒ o ഏ ē   ഓ ō
Open   അ a     ആ ā  

  • *{{IPA|/ɨ̆/}} is the {{Unicode|''saṁvr̥tōkāram''}}, an [[epenthesis|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 {{IPA|/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 {{IPA|/u/}} is attached to the preceding consonant and a chandrakkala is written above. * *{{IPA|/a/}} (phonetically central: {{IPA|[ä]}}) and {{IPA|/ə/}} are both represented as basic or "default" vowels in the abugida script (although {{IPA|/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 {{IPA|/äu/}} (represented in Malayalam as ഔ, au) and {{IPA|/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 {{Unicode|''saṁvr̥tōkāram''}}, which is not officially a vowel, and not as actual vocalic consonants) have been classified as vowels: vocalic r (ഋ, {{IPA|/rɨ̆/}}, {{Unicode|r̥}}), long vocalic r (ൠ, {{IPA|/rɨː/}}, {{Unicode|r̥̄}}), vocalic l (ഌ, {{IPA|/lɨ̆/}}, {{Unicode|l̥}}) and long vocalic l (ൡ, {{IPA|/lɨː/}}, {{Unicode|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. ===Consonants=== {|class="wikitable" |-bgcolor="#EFEFEF" !colspan="4"| !colspan="2"| '''[[Bilabial consonant|Bilabial]]''' | '''[[Labiodental consonant|Labiodental]]''' !colspan="2"| '''[[Dental consonant|Dental]]''' !colspan="2"| '''[[Alveolar consonant|Alveolar]]''' !colspan="2"| '''[[Retroflex consonant|Retroflex]]''' !colspan="2"| '''[[Palatal consonant|Palatal]]''' !colspan="2"| '''[[Velar consonant|Velar]]''' !colspan="2"| '''[[Glottal consonant|Glottal]]''' |- !bgcolor="#EFEFEF" rowspan="2" colspan="2"| '''[[Plosive consonant|Stop]]''' !bgcolor="#EFEFEF" colspan="2"| '''[[Aspiration (phonetics)|Unaspirated]]''' | {{IPA|/p/}} പ p || {{IPA|/b/}} ബ b || || {{IPA|/t̪/}} ത t || {{IPA|/d̪/}} ദ d || {{IPA|/t/}} * t || || {{IPA|/ʈ/}} ട {{Unicode|ṭ}} || {{IPA|/ɖ/}} ഡ {{Unicode|ḍ}} || {{IPA|/t͡ʃ/}} ച c || {{IPA|/d͡ʒ/}} ജ j || {{IPA|/k/}} ക k || {{IPA|/ɡ/}} ഗ g |colspan="2"| |- !bgcolor="#EFEFEF" colspan="2"| '''[[Aspiration (phonetics)|Aspirated]]''' | {{IPA|/pʰ/}} ഫ ph || {{IPA|/bʱ/}} ഭ bh || || {{IPA|/t̪ʰ/}} ഥ th || {{IPA|/d̪ʱ/}} ധ dh || || || {{IPA|/ʈʰ/}} ഠ {{Unicode|ṭh}} || {{IPA|/ɖʱ/}} ഢ {{Unicode|ḍh}} || {{IPA|/t͡ʃʰ/}} ഛ ch || {{IPA|/d͡ʒʱ/}} ഝ jh ||{{IPA|/kʰ/}} ഖ kh || {{IPA|/ɡʱ/}} ഘ gh |colspan="2"| |- !bgcolor="#EFEFEF" colspan="4"| '''[[Nasal consonant|Nasal]]''' |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/m/}} മ m | |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/n̪/}} ന n |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/n/}} ന * n |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/ɳ/}} ണ {{Unicode|ṇ}} |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/ɲ/}} ഞ ñ |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/ŋ/}} ങ {{Unicode|ṅ}} |colspan="2"| |- !bgcolor="#EFEFEF" colspan="4"| '''[[Approximant]]''' |colspan="2"| |style="font-weight: normal"|{{IPA|/ʋ/}} വ v |colspan="4"| |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/ɻ/}} ഴ l |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/j/}} യ y |colspan="4"| |- !bgcolor="#EFEFEF" colspan="4"| '''[[Liquid consonant|Liquid]]''' |colspan="2"| | |colspan="2"| |colspan="2" style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/r/}} റ r |colspan="7"| |- !bgcolor="#EFEFEF" colspan="4"| '''[[Fricative consonant|Fricative]]''' |colspan="2"| |style="font-weight: normal"| {{IPA|/f/}} ഫ* f

  • 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.
  • 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, and there is no distinction made in the spelling.
  • The letter ഫ represents both , a native phoneme, and , which only occurs in adopted words.

Writing system

Historically, several scripts were used to write Malayalam. Among these scripts were Vattezhuthu, Kolezhuthuand Malayanmascripts. But it was the Grantha script, another Southern Brahmivariation close to the modern Tamil script, 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 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 fontscontaining the entire character repertoire of more than 900 glyphs. This was announced and released along with an editor in the same year at Thiruvananthapurammarker, the capital of Keralamarker.In 2004, the fonts were released under the GNU GPLlicense by Richard Stallmanof the Free Software Foundationat the Cochin University of Science and Technologyin Kochi, Kerala.

Dialects and external influences

Variations in intonationpatterns, vocabulary, and distribution of grammatical and phonologicalelements are observable along the parameters of region, religion, community, occupation, social stratum, style and register. Influence of Sanskritis very prominent in formal Malayalam used in literature. Malayalam has a substantially high amount of Sanskrit loan words. Loan words and influences also from Hebrew, Syriacand Ladinoabound in the Jewish Malayalam dialects, as well as English, Portuguese, Syriacand Greekin the Christiandialects, while Arabicand Persian elements predominate in the Muslimdialects. This Muslim dialect known as Mappila Malayalamis used in the Malabar region of Kerala. Another Muslim dialect called Beary basheis used in the extreme northern part of Kerala.

The regional dialects of Malayalam can be divided into thirteen dialect areas.They are as follows:

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, -> . The "an" reverts to an "a" before masculine surnames, honorifics, or titles ending in "an" and beginning with a consonant other than "n" - E.g. Krishna Menon, Krishna Kaniyaan etc., but Krishnan Ezhutthachan. Surnames ending with "ar" or "aL" (where these are plural forms of "an" denoting respect) are treated similarly - Krishna Pothuval, Krishna Chakyar, but Krishnan Nair, Krishnan Nambiar. "an" also reverts to "a" before Sanskrit surnames like "Varma(n)", "Sarma(n)", or "Gupta(n)" (rare) - e.g. Krishna Varma, Krishna Sharman. If a name is a compound of multiple names, only the last name in the compound undergoes this transformation - e.g. Krishnadevan.

  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 -> . However, the long vowel still appears in compound words like Sītādēvi or . 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.
  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.
  4. Sanskrit words describing things or animals rather than people which end in a short "a" take an additional "m" in Malayalam. For example, -> . "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.
  5. Nouns ending in short vowels like " ", "Prajāpati" etc stay the same.
  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: ->

Malayalam also has been influenced by Portuguese, as is evident from the use of words like mesafor a small table, and janalafor window.

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


Ezhuthachanis considered the father of Malayalam. He was born at Tirur in the Malabar area of Kerala, where there is now a monument to 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.

See also


  4. Malayalam, R. E. Asher, T. C. Kumari, Routledge, ISBN 0415022428, 1997
  5. -go to the website and click the link - language & literature to retrive the information
  6. "Dravidian languages." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  7. Subramoniam, V. I. (1997). Dravidian encyclopaedia. vol. 3, Language and literature. Thiruvananthapuram: International School of Dravidian Linguistics. Cit-P-487. Dravidian Encyclopedia

External links

സ s
ശ ś
ഹ h
ര r
Lateral approximant
ല l
South Travancore
Central Travancore
West Vempanad
North Travancore
Kochi (Cochin)
South Malabar
South Eastern Palghat
North Western Palghat
Central Malabar
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