Malayalam – the mountainous country

Malayalam – the mountainous country About 74 Dravidian languages are spoken by over 200 million people across the globe. Out of these, an estimated 169 million Indians speak 23 different Dravidian languages, mainly in southern India. However, the 4 major Dravidian tongues recognized as official state languages are —Tamil (Tamil Nadu), Telugu (Andhra Pradesh), Kannada (Karnataka) and of course Malayalam (Kerala and Lakhshadweep). Telugu is the largest spoken tongue; Tamil, extremely ancient has the richest literature and it is spoken over the widest area, including northwestern Sri Lanka; Kannada script has served as the source base for Telugu and finally Malayalam is the only language, whose almost 100% speakers are literate and speak English too.  All the four Dravidian languages have long literary histories and their own scripts to write in. As Latin in European history, Sanskrit was an aristocratic and scholastic language in many parts of India, the reason why it influenced evolution of other languages. Some basic vocabulary from Sanskrit has also found its way into Malayalam. These all having been greatly been influenced by Sanskrit and as a result have absorbed and adapted a large number of its words into their vocabularies. Thus, a large number of words in all four Dravidian languages have same root and therefore similar or similar sounding words. Other Dravidian languages, offshoots of these four languages, maybe resemble or mostly similar to these are spoken by few and practically no script to write with.  Mala-y-alam – (mala – (mountain) + alam – (place) meaning mountainous country) is one of the 23 official languages of India and the principal language of the South Indian state of Kerala and also of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep Islands on the west coast of India. Malayalam is the only name of a language that is spelt and read alike forwards and backwards – i.e., is a  Malayalam, besides being spoken predominantly in Kerala, “Malayalis” (people speaking Malyalam) living in Mahé (Mayyazhii), Union Territories of Andaman Islands, Nicobar Islands and Puducherry in southern India also speak it. In all, it is spoken by around 37 million native (who account for only 4 percent of the Indian population; they constitute 96 percent of the population of Kerala) and 10 million else where. Kerala boasts of bringing out nearly 170 daily newspapers, 235 weeklies and over 565 monthly periodicals – good enough to whet the appetite of almost totally literate Malayali population. Malayalam writing round writing or vattezhuthu system has evolved in the early 9th century from Tamil script, adopted from the brahmi script. Many are of the opinion that as the grammar and vocabulary of the two languages are common, and therefore Malayalam is more of an offspring of Tamil than an original language. However, it is not so, as Malayalam already has a rich modern literature dating thousands years and an independent written script (Kolezhethu) of its own.  The original Dravidian settlers commonly used Tamil as their Language. Tamil was the court Language too. Around the 10th century, Malayalam started to develop its own distinctive character. After Aryans started to settle, the Brahmin Namboodiris used Sanskrit only. Sanskrit influence put a brake on the growth of Malayalam. This instead enriched Malayalam rather than putting a question mark on its further evolution. The local language absorbed these words from Sanskrit and adopted them with a Malayali modification. Thus the Mani Pravlam or Malayalam evolved, heavily relying on Sanskrit words. Due to coexistence of different cultures, languages and people, one language has influenced the evolution and growth of the other. The Dravidian languages acquired, absorbed and adapted many words from the Indic languages, especially from Sanskrit, while, the Indic languages borrowed Dravidian sounds and grammatical structures, enriching each other. In Malayalam script, individual vowels and consonants can be easily differentiated. This script is syllabic – the syllables (taken as sequence of graphic elements) have to be read as one. After mid 20th century, like in Kannada language, Malayalam language also dropped many special, but not frequently used conjunct consonants and combinations of the vowel “u” with different consonants letters.  Malayalam currently has 53 letters, of which 20 are long and short vowels and the rest consonants. From late 20th century, the earlier style of writing has now been replaced with a new style. This new script reduces the different letters for typeset from 900 to less than 90, which makes it easier to develop Malayalam on the keyboards of typewriters and computers for use and promotion in local language. Malayalam, during its evolution, developed 3 distinct dialects and several smaller ones, indicating how dialects change under the local influence, culture and religious influence from one region to another. Influence of Sanskrit in Malayalam, like for most other Indian languages cannot be wished away. This is most prominently visible in the Brahimin dialects but to a lesser extent in the Harijan dialects. Malayalam has borrowed thousands of nouns and verbs and few indeclinable words.  Words adopted from other languages – English, Syriac, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Portuguese abound in the Christian dialects and those from Arabic and Urdu in the Muslim dialects make up a large chunk of Malayalam vocabulary. English is only second to Sanskrit in its influence on Malayalam. Hundreds of individual lexical items and many idiomatic expressions in modern Malayalam are taken from English too.  Together with Tamil, Kannada and two smaller dialects Kota and Kodagu, Malayalam belongs to the southern group of Dravidian languages. It resembles Tamil more than with others. Proto-Tamil Malayalam, the common source for both Tamil and Malayalam most likely separated into two branches from the ninth century onwards and this went on for over a period of four of five centuries. This gave rise to a new language – Malayalam, a language, distinct from Tamil and having its on script and spoken language. Tamil, as the language used by scholars and administrators, greatly influenced the development of Malayalam in its early period. Brahmins influence on the cultural life of Malyalis in later period helped to acquire and assimilate Indo-Aryan features into Malayalam language. Both the language and its writing system are closely related to Tamil; however Malayalam has a script of its own, distinct from Tamil or any other Dravidian language. Tamil is its neighbor on the south and east and Kannada on the north and east.  The earliest written record of Malayalam is the vazhappalli inscription of 830 AD. The works of early Malayali writers were of three types:

  1. Classical songs of the Tamil tradition, known as pattu
  2. maniprvalam, which permitted free intermingling of Sanskrit and Malayalam vocabularies
  3. The rich native folk songs

 Malayalam poetry of the late twentieth century reflects a combination of all these three different trends. The oldest (twelfth century) example of ramacharitam is the oldest work in pattu, while vaishikatantram is of maniprvalam trend. Another earliest (12th century) existing prose work in Malayalam is Bhashakautaliyam, a commentary on Chanakya’s Arthasastra.  Malayalis have always welcomed other languages to coexist with their own and the interaction of these with Malayalam has helped its development and evolution. Malayalam prose of different periods exhibit degree of influence of different languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrits, Pali, Hindi, Urdu, Arabi, Persian, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Modern literature is rich in poetry, fiction, drama, biography, and literary criticism. It is no doubt that with such an open mind, not only the language has flourished, but also Malayalis have become fully literate.     

8 thoughts on “Malayalam – the mountainous country

  1. great work. I want you guys to make an article about the Dravidian influence on Sanskrit, Indo-Aryan languages, or at least its influence on Marathi. It is important that these Sanskrit-thumpers understand that the Dravidian influence on the Indo-Aryan languages is quite preponderant.

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