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A sign in the Malayalam script.


The Malayalam script ( , ) is a Brahmic script used commonly to write Malayalam—which is the principal language of the Indianmarker state of Keralamarker, spoken by 36 million people in the world. It is an abugida, or a writing system that is partially “alphabetic” and partially syllable-based. The modern Malayalam alphabet has 13 vowel letters, 36 consonant letters, and a few other symbols. It is also used to write the Konkani language as well as several minority languages such as Paniya, Betta Kurumba, and Ravula. On the other hand, Malayalam was historically written in several different scripts. Even today it is sometimes written in Arabi Malayalam, a variant form of the Arabic script, mainly by Muslims in Singaporemarker and Malaysiamarker.

Overview

Characteristics

The basic characters can be classified as follows:
  • Vowels ( , svaram)
    1. Independent vowel letters
    2. Dependent vowel signs
  • Consonant letters ( , vyañjanam)


An independent vowel letter is used as the first letter of a word when the word begins with a vowel. A consonant letter, despite its name, does not represent a pure consonant, but represents a consonant + a short vowel a by default. For example, is the first consonant letter of the Malayalam alphabet, which represents ka, not a simple k. A vowel sign is a diacritic attached to a consonant letter to indicate that the consonant is followed by a vowel that is not a short a. If the vowel is a short a, no vowel sign is needed. The phoneme /a/ that follows a consonant by default is called an inherent vowel. In Malayalam, its phonetic value is unrounded , or as an allophone. To denote a pure consonant without a vowel, a special diacritic virama is used to cancel the inherent vowel. The following are examples where a consonant letter is used with or without a diacritic.
  • ki = ka + vowel sign i
  • ku = ka + vowel sign u
  • kai = ka + vowel sign ai
  • k = ka + virama
  • ka = consonant letter ka itself, with no vowel sign


Malayalam is written from left to right, but certain vowel signs are attached to the left (the opposite direction) of a consonant letter that it logically follows. In the word , the vowel sign ē visually appears in the leftmost position, though the vowel ē logically follows the consonant k.

History

The Malayalam language was first written in Vatteluttu, an ancient script for Tamil. However, modern Malayalam script evolved from Grantha, a script originally used to write Sanskrit. Both Vatteluttu and Grantha evolved from Brahmi, but independently.

Vatteluttu

Vatteluttu ( , “round writing”) is a script that had evolved from Tamil-Brahmi, and was once used extensively in the southern part of present-day Tamil Nadumarker and in Keralamarker.

Malayalam was first written in Vatteluttu. The Vazhappallimarker inscription issued by Rajasekhara Varman is the earliest example, dating from about 830 CE. In the Tamil country, the modern Tamil script had supplanted Vatteluttu by the 15th century, but in the Malabar region, Vatteluttu remained in general use up to the 17th century, or the 18th century. A variant form of this script, Kolezhuthu, was used until about the 19th century mainly in the Kochi area and in the Malabar area. Another variant form, Malayanma, was used in the south of Thiruvananthapurammarker.

Grantha

Grantha, Tulu, and Malayalam scripts
Accoding to Arthur Coke Burnell, one form of the Grantha script, originally used in the Chola kingdom, was imported into the southwest coast of India in the 8th or 9th century, which was then modified in course of time in this secluded area, where communication with the east coast was very limited. This script was used by both the Malayali and Tuluva people, but was originally only applied to write Sanskrit. The Tulu form and Malayalam form of this alphabet were identical up to about 1600, and are sometimes collectively called the Tulu-Malayalam alphabet. In Malabar, this writing system was termed Arya-eluttu ( , ), meaning “Arya writing” (Sanskrit is Aryan while Malayalam is Dravidian).

Vatteluttu was in general use, but was not suitable for literature, where many Sanskrit words were used. Like Tamil-Brahmi, it was originally used to write Tamil, and as such, did not have letters for voiced or aspirated consonants used in Sanskrit but not used in Tamil. For this reason, Vatteluttu and the Grantha script were sometimes mixed, as in Manipravalam. One of the oldest examples of the Manipravalam literature, Vaishikatantram ( , Vaiśikatantram), dates back to the 12th century, where the earliest form of the Malayalam script was used, which seems to have been systematized to some extent by the first half of the 13th century.

Thunchath Ezhuthachan, a poet from around the 17th century, used Arya-eluttu to write his Malayalam poems based on Classical Sanskrit literature. For the three letters missing in Arya-eluttu ( ), he used Vatteluttu. His works became unprecedentedly popular to the point that the Malayali people eventually started to call him the father of the Malayalam language, which also popularized Arya-eluttu as a script to write Malayalam. However, Grantha was imperfect as it was as an alphabet to write a Dravidian language, not having distinctions between e and ē, and between o and ō. The Malayalam script as it is today was perfected in the middle of the 19th century when Hermann Gundert invented the new vowel signs to distinguish them.

By the 19th century, old scripts like Kolezhuthu had been supplanted by Arya-eluttu—that is, the current Malayalam script. Nowadays, it is widely used in the press of the Malayali population in Kerala.

The resemblance between the Malayalam script and the Tulu script is obvious. Some authors believe that the Tulu script is older and the Malayalam script evolved from it or was influenced by it, though the oldest written Tulu document available, Tulu Mahabharato, is from around 1500, relatively new compared to the history of the Malayalam writing system.



Orthography reform

In 1969–1971 and in 1981, the Government of Kerala reformed the orthography of Malayalam. In the traditional orthography, certain consonants followed by u, ū, or are represented by special glyphs (consonant-vowel ligatures), where the corresponding basic consonant letter, which represents the consonant + a, is transformed irregularly. For example:
  • ka ku
  • na nu
  • śa śu
This kind of irregular glyph was simplified in the new orthography: ku, nu, and śu are now denoted by the vowel sign u following the basic consonant letters ka, na, and śa, respectively.
  • ka ku
  • na nu
  • śa śu


Also, most of traditional consonant-consonant ligatures, especially less common ones only used to write words of Sanskrit origin, were split into non-ligated forms. For example:
  • g + da = gda (Traditional: )
  • l + ta = lta (Traditional: )


The new orthography, puthiya lipi ( ), is now used commonly, but has not completely replaced the traditional system, pazhaya lipi ( , ).



Malayalam letters

Vowels

Vowel letters and vowel signs

The following tables show the independent vowel letters and the corresponding dependent vowel signs (diacritics) of the Malayalam script, with romanizations in ISO 15919, pronunciations in the International Phonetic Alphabet (), and Unicode CHARACTER NAMES, partly abbreviated for simplicity.

Monophthongs
  Short Long
Independent Dependent Indep. Dependent
Vowel sign Example Vowel sign Example
a a

A

(none) pa

PA

ā

AA


 
AA



PA + VS AA

i i

I


 
VS I

pi

PA + VS I

ī

II


 
VS II



PA + VS II

u u

U


 
VS U

pu

PA + VS U

ū

UU


 
VS UU



PA + VS UU



VOCALIC R


 
VS R



PA + VS VOC R



VOC RR


 
VS VOC RR



PA + VS VOC RR



VOCALIC L


 
VS VOC L



PA + VS VOC L



VOC LL


 
VS VOC LL



PA + VS VOC LL

e e

E


 
VS E

pe

PA + VS E

ē

EE


 
VS EE



PA + VS EE

o o

O


 
VS O

po

PA + VS O

ō

OO


 
VS OO



PA + VS OO



A school sign.
Notice the word-initial a in akkādami, and the vowel sign ē in .
, used to write Sanskrit words, are treated as vowels. They are phonetically not vowels in Malayalam or in Classical Sanskrit, but originally they were (see Proto-Indo-European language and Vedic Sanskrit). The letters and signs for   are very rare, and are not considered as part of the modern orthography.


The vowel signs ā, i, ī are placed to the right of a consonant letter to which it is attached. The vowel signs e, ē, ai are placed to the left of a consonant letter. The vowel signs o and ō consist of two parts: the first part goes to the left of a consonant letter and the second part goes to the right of it. In the reformed orthography, the vowel signs u, ū, are simply placed to the right of the consonant letter, whereas they often make consonant-vowel ligatures in the traditional orthography.
Diphthongs
  Independent Dependent
Vowel sign Example
ai ai

AI


 
VOWEL SIGN AI

pai

PA + VOWEL SIGN AI

au au

AU


(archaic)
VOWEL SIGN AU

pau

PA + VOWEL SIGN AU


(modern)
AU LENGTH MARK

pau

PA + AU LENGTH MARK

Malayalam anusvara and visarga simply denote consonants, but are sometimes treated as vowel signs.

Anusvara and visarga


A + ANUSVARA



ANUSVARA



PA + ANUSVARA



A + VISARGA



VISARGA



PA + VISARGA

It is important to note the vowel duration as it can be used to differentiate words that would otherwise be the same. For example, /kalam/ means "earthenware pot" while /kaalam/ means "time" or "season".

Half-u

A special mark called chandrakkala ( ) is sometimes used at the end of a word to denote a very short vowel, known as “half-u”, or samvruthokaram ( ). The exact pronunciation of this vowel varies from dialect to dialect, but it is approximately or , and transliterated as ŭ. For example, na .

Optionally, a vowel sign u in inserted, as in (= + + ). According to one author, this alternative form is historically more correct, though the simplified form without a vowel sign is common nowadays.

Note that a chandrakkala is also used as the virama sign, which means that the same spelling represents either n or depending on the context. Generally, it is at the end of a word, and n elsewhere; always represents .

Consonants

Basic consonant letters

The following tables show the basic consonant letters of the Malayalam script, with romanizations in ISO 15919, pronunciations in , and Unicode CHARACTER NAMES. The character names used in the report of the Government of Kerala committee (2001) are shown in lowercase italics when different from Unicode character names. Those alternative names are based on the traditional romanization used by the Malayali people. For example, tha in “Thiruvananthapurammarker” is neither ISO tha nor Unicode THA, but tha in this sense ( ). The ISCII (IS 13194:1991) character names are given in parentheses when different from the above.
Varga]] consonants
  Voiceless Voiced
Unaspirated Aspirated Unaspirated Aspirated Nasal
Velar ka
KA
 

kha
KHA
 

ga
GA
 

gha
GHA
 


NGA
 

Palatal
or
Postalveolar

ca
CA
cha

cha
CHA
chha

ja
JA
 

jha
JHA
 

ña
NYA
nha (jna)

Retroflex
TTA
ta (hard ta)


TTHA
tta (hard tha)


DDA
hard da


DDHA
hard dda (hard dha)


NNA
hard na

Dental ta
TA
tha (soft ta)

tha
THA
ttha (soft tha)

da
DA
soft da

dha
DHA
soft dda (soft dha)

na
NA
soft na

Labial pa
PA
 

pha
PHA
 

ba
BA
 

bha
BHA
 

ma
MA
 



Other consonants
ya
YA
 

ra
RA
 

la
LA
 

va
VA
 

śa
SHA
soft sha (sha)


SSA
sha (hard sha)

sa
SA
 

ha
HA
 


LLA
hard la


LLLA
zha


RRA
(hard ra)


NNNA
 


TTTA
 



  • Pronounced as a dental nasal or an alveolar nasal, depending on the word.
  • Sometimes described as dental trill .
  • (1) Repetition of this letter ( ) often represents a geminated voiceless alveolar plosive, ; (2) chillu-n + this letter ( ) often represents ; (3) otherwise . Optionally, (1) may be transliterated as instead of , (2) as (not ) instead of .
  • More accurately, the consonant is —apical , retracted and lowered, i.e. voiced apico-palatal approximant. This consonant is usually described as , but also can be approximated by .
  • More accurately, the consonant is —apical , retracted and lowered, i.e. voiceless apico-palatal approximant. This consonant is sometimes described as .
  • Sometimes described as dental sibilant fricative .
  • Corresponds to Tamil . Used rarely in scholarly texts to represent the alveolar nasal, as opposed to the dental nasal. In ordinary texts both are represented by na .
  • Used rarely in scholarly texts to represent the voiceless alveolar plosive, as opposed to the voiceless dental plosive represented by ta . In ordinary texts this sound is represented by .


There is no distinction of case, i.e. no uppercase and lowercase letters. Vowel signs are used to associate a non-default vowel to a consonant. To denote the absence of a vowel specifically, a chandrakkala is used.

Anusvaram

Anusvaram ( ), or anusvara, originally denoted the nasalization of the preceding vowel. In Malayalam, it simply represents , though it may be assimilated to another nasal consonant. Anusvara is usually transliterated as in ISO 15919, but Malayalam anusvara is always transliterated as m (without a dot) at the end of a word.


Visargam

Visargam ( ), or visarga, adds voiceless breath after vowel, transliterated as .


Chillus

A chillu, or a chillaksharam ( ), is a Malayalam glyph that represents a pure consonant by itself without a virama. Anusvara and visarga fit this definition but are not usually included. ISCII and Unicode 5.0 treat a chillu as a glyph variant of a normal (“base”) consonant letter. In Unicode 5.1 and later, however, chillu letters are treated as independent characters, encoded atomically.

There are at least six known chillu letters. Chillu-k is rare. The other five are quite common.
Chillu letters
Letter Unicode name Base Remarks
CHILLU NN  
CHILLU N na  
CHILLU RR ra Historically from ra, not from (RRA) .
CHILLU L la Historically from ta .
CHILLU LL  
CHILLU K ka  


Chandrakkala

Chandrakkala ( ) is the virama ( )—also knows as halant ( )—of the Malayalam script, which denotes the absence of a vowel. At the end of a word, the same symbol sometimes represents a vowel known as half-u.


Ligatures

Consonant ligatures

Like in other Indic scripts, a virama is used in the Malayalam script to cancel—or “kill”—the inherent vowel of a consonant letter and represent a consonant without a vowel, so-called a “dead” consonant. For example,
  1. is a consonant letter na,
  2. is a virama; therefore,
  3. (na + virama) represents a dead consonant n.
If this n is further followed by another consonant letter, for example, ma , the result may look like , which represents nma as na + virama + ma. In this case, two elements n and ma are simply placed one by one, side by side. Alternatively, nma can be also written as a ligature .

Generally, when a dead consonant letter C1 and another consonant letter C2 are conjoined, the result may be either:
  1. A fully-conjoined ligature of C1+C2;
  2. Half-conjoined—
    • C1-conjoining: a modified form (half form) of C1 attached to the original form (full form) of C2
    • C2-conjoining: a modified form of C2 attached to the full form of C1; or
  3. Non-ligated: full forms of C1 and C2 with a visible virama.


If the result is fully- or half-conjoined, the (conceptual) virama which made C1 dead becomes invisible, only logically existing in a character encoding scheme such as Unicode. If the result is non-ligated, a virama is visible, attached to C1. The glyphs for nma has a visible virama if not ligated ( ), but if ligated, the virama disappears ( ). Usually the difference between those forms is superficial and both are semantically identical, just like the meaning of the English word palaeography does not change even if it is spelled palæography, with the ligature æ.

Common consonant ligatures
Several consonant-consonant ligatures are used commonly even in the new orthography.

  kka ñca ñña
ക്‌ക ങ്‌ക ങ്‌ങ ഞ്‌ച ഞ്‌ഞ ട്‌ട ണ്‌ട
ക്ക ങ്ക ങ്ങ ഞ്ച ഞ്ഞ ട്ട ണ്ട
  tta nta nna ppa mpa mma
ണ്‌ണ ത്‌ത ന്‌ത ന്‌ന പ്‌പ മ്‌പ മ്‌മ
ണ്ണ ത്ത ന്ത ന്ന പ്പ മ്പ മ്മ
The ligature mpa was historically derived from npa .

The ligatures cca, bba, yya, and vva are special in that a doubled consonant is denoted by a triangle sign below the consonant letter.
  cca bba yya vva
ച്‌ച ബ്‌ബ യ്‌യ വ്‌വ
ച്ച ബ്ബ യ്യ വ്വ


Consonant + ya, va, la, ra
(1) The consonant letter ya is generally C2-conjoining after a consonant in both orthographies. For example,
  • k + ya = kya
  • p + ya = pya


In kya , a variant form of ya ( ) is placed after the full form of ka , just like ki is written ka followed by the vowel sign i . In other words, the variant form of ya ( ) used after a dead consonant letter can be considered as a diacritic attached to that letter. Since it is placed after the base character, it is sometimes referred to as a post-base form. An exception is yya (see above).

(2) Similarly, va after a consonant takes a post-base form:
  • k + va = kva
  • p + va = pva
An exception is vva (see above).

(3) The consonant letter la after a consonant traditionally takes a below-base form. These forms are used also in the new orthography, though some fonts do not support them.
  • k + la = kla
  • p + la = pla
  • l + la = lla (Not )


(4) A consonant letter ra after a consonant usually takes a pre-base form in the reformed orthography, while this combination makes a fully-conjoined ligature in the traditional orthography.
  • k + ra = kra (Traditional: )
  • p + ra = pra (Traditional: )


nṯa and ṯṯa
The ligature is written as n + and pronounced . The ligature is written as + .
  nṯa ṯṯa
ന്‌റ റ്‌റ
റ്റ
ൻറ ററ
In those two ligatures, a small is written below the first letter (chillu-n if it is a dead n). Alternatively, the letter is sometimes written to the right of the first letter, making a digraph (just like used instead of in Greek). The spelling is therefore read either (two separate letters) or (digraph) depending on the word. Similary, is read either or .

Dot reph
In the traditional orthography, a dead consonant r before a consonant sometimes takes an above-base form, known as a dot reph, which looks like a short vertical line or a dot. Generally, a chillu- is used instead of a dot reph in the reformed orthography.
  • r + ga = rga (Reformed: )
  • r + ja = rja (Reformed: )


Consonant-vowel ligatures

Other symbols

Praslesham Corresponds to Devanagari avagraha, used when a Sanskrit phrase containing an avagraha is written in Malayalam script. The symbol indicates the elision of the word-initial vowel a after a word that ends in ā, ē, or ō, and is transliterated as an apostrophe (’), or sometimes as a colon + an apostrophe (:’).
( )
Malayalam date mark Used in an abbreviation of a date.
Danda Archaic punctuation marks.
Double danda


Malayalam numbers and fractions are written as follows. These are archaic and no more commonly used. Note that there is a confusion about the glyph of Malayalam digit zero. The correct form is oval-shaped, but occasionally the glyph for ¼ is erroneously shown as the glyph for 0.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 100 1000 ¼ ½ ¾


Malayalam in Unicode

Code chart

The Unicode range for Malayalam is U+0D00–U+0D7F. Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points.

Chillus in Unicode

For example, avan (“he”) is written as a + va + chillu-n , where chillu-n represents the n sound without a vowel. In another Indic script, the same word would be possibly written as a + va + na + virama. However, in Malayalam script, that sequence represents a different word, avanŭ (“to him”), and is not interchangeable with avan. This is because in modern Malayalam script, the sign for a virama also works as the sign for a vowel ŭ at the end of a word, and is not able to cleanly “kill” the inherent vowel in this case.

To differentiate a pure consonant (chillu) and a consonant with ŭ, zero-width joiner (ZWJ) and zero-width non-joiner (ZWNJ) were used before Unicode 5.1. However, this system was problematic. Among other things, glyph variants specified by ZWJ or ZWNJ are supposed to be non-semantic, whereas a chillu (expressed as letter + virama + ZWJ) and the same consonant followed by a ŭ (expressed as letter + virama + ZWNJ) are often semantically different. After a long debate, six chillus now have their own code points starting from Unicode 5.1, though their representation in Unicode 5.0 is still valid.

The ligature is very common and supported by most Malayalam fonts in one way or another, but exactly how it should be encoded was not clear in Unicode 5.0 and earlier, and two incompatible implementations are currently in use. In Unicode 5.1 (2008), the sequence to represent it was explicitly redefined as chillu-n + virama + ( ), but is not widely supported yet (as of 2009).

See also



Notes

  1. Ethnologue (16th ed.): " Paniya", " Kurumba, Betta", and " Ravula".
  2. Burnell (1874), p. 35.
  3. Nampoothiri, N. M. (1999), " Cultural Traditions in Medieval Kerala" (PDF) in Cherian, P. J., Perspecives on Kerala History: The Second Millennium, Kerala Council for Historical Research, ISBN 8185499357, retrieved 2009-11-20.
  4. Andronov, Mikhail Sergeevich. A Grammar of the Malayalam Language in Historical Treatment. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz, 1996.
  5. See also the May 2001 version (PDF).
  6. Asher, R. E. Malayalam. Ed. T. C. Kumari 1934-. London ; New York : Routledge, 1997.
  7. See also L2/05-085 (PDF).


References

External links




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