Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala

Malayalam Language

Etymology of Malayalam
The word ‘Malayalam’ may have been a local dialect in the beginning. The first part in the word ‘Malayalam’, ie, ‘Mala’ may refer to hill, and the last part ‘Alam’ to the depths of the ocean (‘Alam’ over the years transformed to Azham’ meaning ‘depths’). So the word ‘Malayalam’ may refer to the land lying between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. Or, ‘Alam’ may be the ‘alam’ in words like Kovalam, Pandalam etc, meaning ‘place’. If that be so, Malayalam refers to a hilly region. It goes with words like ‘Malanad’, ‘Malabar’ etc. It has other names too like Kerala Bhasha, Malayampazha, Malayalim, Malayanma, Malayazhma, and so on. ‘Kerala bhasha’ finds mention in the 14th century grammar text, Leelatilakam (Book of the Sacred Mark). The word ‘Malayampuzha’ as ‘Malayalabasha’ is mentioned in the Latin work Hortus Malabaricus, a treatise on plants brought out by the Dutch of Amsterdam between 1673 and 1703. The word, ‘Malayalam’ appears as ‘Malayalim’ in the grammar text ‘Malayalim bhasha’ written by Pitt and published in 1841. In some of the writings that came out in 1891, the word ‘Malayanma’ (‘Malayalariti’) is used. George Mathan’s (1819- 70) grammar book was titled ‘Malayazhmayude Vyakaranam’ (1863). In the olden days, the Malayalam interpretations of Sanskrit works were known as ‘Tamizh kuthu’ (Tamil book). For e.g., the Sanskrit ‘Amaraghosham’ and its interpretation was ‘Amaram Tamizh Kuthu’. Among the Niranam poets who lived during the 15th century, Rama Panicker claimed that he interpreted ‘Brahmaandapuranam’ in Tamil without mixing it with any other language.

Grammarians, linguists, and scholars have put forward their own ideas about the origins of Malayalam. But most of these views are mere ideas. One of the most conservative ideas in that Malayalam originated from Sanskrit. Some scholars believe that Malayalam developed from ancient Prakrit. There is another school of thought who says that tribes living in the forests spoke an independent language mixed with the Dravidian language and got transformed over the years to become Malayalam. Scholars have also expressed surprise on how Malayalam and Tamil having similarity on many themes remained distinct. While some argue that Malayalam is the daughter of Tamil, there are others who contend that Malayalam is the daughter of Dravidian language and sister of Tamil.

However, scholars familiar with modern language history and comparative literature developed a new view regarding Malayalam. Today, everybody is in unison on including Malayalam along with Tamil, Kotha, Todak, Kodak, and Kannada as belonging to the Dakshina Dravidian family. It’s true that Malayalam has close affinity with Tamil. It is because at one point in history Tamil and Malayalam had a common root. Malayalam’s evolution as an independent language is found in the records and proclamations of the 9th century. Probably in the course of four or five centuries (9th century to 13th century) Tamil and Malayalam became different languages. Though it was necessary to recreate the spoken language of the period, it never materialised. Among the four major Dravidian languages Malayalam happened to be the last to develop literary works of its own. No doubt, Tamil has proved its existence of being the most ancient and possessing a rich tradition. So, it is only natural that Keralites too would want to get into the bandwagon of being the oldest language.

The influence of Tamil on Malayalam language can be discerned in the very first decades of its evolution. Though Malayalam was the language of the masses, Tamil received the state of a scholarly language in the western parts of Kerala. Gradually, with the passage of time, Malayalam rose to dizzy heights, finding place in royal proclamations and documents.

Brahmins in South India, and Kerala in particular, had an upperhand in matters of culture, thanks to the overarching influence and understanding of Sanskrit. Thus they could influence Kerala life and language. The influence of the Aryan language can be noticed in the sounds, forms of sentence structure, meanings etc. in use in Malayalam. This influence has acted like a catalyst.

Language forms and influence of other languages on Malayalam
Different kinds of language forms can be seen in modern Malayalam. Caste, region vocation, style and innumerable language forms constitute Malayalam. Newspaper, radio, study materials and education have helped in fostering a humane language form. Apart from geography, society and culture, caste and religion have also contributed to Malayalam. The language forms used by brahmins, harijans, nairs, ezhavas, Christians, and Muslims have been discovered. While Sanskrit words are commonly used by brahmins in their language to a large extent, it is sparsely used by the marginalized sections. In the language spoken by the Christians, we can find English, Syriac, Latin, and Portuguese words. Muslims use Arabic and Urdu words.

The influence of some other languages like Prakrit, Pali, Marathi, Hindi, Persian, Dutch and French can be seen in the course of its evolution and transformation. So, it is little wonder that many foreign words have become part and parcel of Malayalam.

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