Introduction to the Malayalam Language

BEFORE I START THIS INTRODUCTION, I would like to ask all those who speak a dialect of Malayalam other than Central Travancore dialect to help me teach dialects of Malayalam. Thank you very much for reading this!

What is Malayalam?

Malayalam is the native language of those who originate in Kerala (me, for instance!). Kerala is a state in Southern India. In fact, it used to be home to the world's biggest ports! 

Well, OK, I may be exaggerating here, but you have to admit that many big explorers, including Marco Polo, had to stop there!!! Other such explorers include: Vasco da Gama from Portugal, Ibn Battuta from Morocco, and Admiral Zheng He from China. (Vasco da Gama is mentioned below. Ibn Battuta was a scholar from Tangiers who first went to Mecca, then, for some reason, decided to explore several parts of Asia. But Admiral Zheng He is the most interesting of them all, because he was the first explorer to bring a giraffe from Africa to China!) 

Today, Kerala maintains its openness to all who desire to come and/or share their ideas. While in other parts of India, Hindus attempted to fight off Christians and Muslims, in Kerala both were welcome. Malayalees are very adaptable and open to change, so that's why Christian missionaries from Assyria, Muslims from the Middle East, and often persecuted Jews from Europe and Israel all settled in Kerala.

Kerala is sometimes called "the spice bowl of India." This is because the climate is suitable for growing all sorts of fruits and vegetables, including the spices once so prized in Europe. Because of this, the Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, and even Spaniards and Italians (where do you think Christopher Columbus thought he was?) struggled to conquer Kerala as a step to gain control of the Spice Trade. 

(Note: While Columbus was insisting that he had found Asia, one Portuguese explorer named Vasco da Gama actually did make it to Kerala. He landed at the town of Calicut, now known as Kozhikode, the capital of one of the many kingdoms within Kerala at the time. As a result, Kerala was under Portuguese control for some time, and anyone who did not embrace Roman Catholicism (e.g. Syrian Christians, Hindus, etc.) could be subject to the Inquisition.)

For more information on Kerala, I advise you to go to www.kerala.com

Of course, the best way to find out about Kerala is to do a search on, say, www.google.com!

Why should I care about Malayalam? After all, everybody in Kerala speaks English!

True, most people you come across in Kerala DO speak at least a little bit of English. In fact, every ordinary Malayalee I have come across even uses English words when speaking Malayalam! And sure enough, anyone from Kerala will tell you that business is best conducted in English, not in Malayalam. So what IS the point of learning Malayalam, then?!

Even Malayalees underestimate the value of their own language. Consider the fact that if you know even a very little bit of Malayalam, you can:

1. really impress the locals (maybe even surprise them completely!), 

2. get things done much quicker (everyone's always more eager to help you when they know you're interested in learning their language!!!), and

3. really learning more about the locals and making your trip a lot more interesting than otherwise!

Even if you're trying to conduct business, it's very effective to use Malayalam...as long as you don't try to use the formal, Sanskrit-adopted terms for technical words! (So, for example, don't say vaahanam for "car," just say kaarr!). Generally, when dealing with technical terms, use the English word, with an Indian pronounciation if possible. 

Why is it called Malayalam? And where did the name Kerala come from?

Did you ever notice that the word "Malayalam" is a palindrome? That is to say, it can be read both forwards and backwards (in languages using the Roman script, that is). But since Malayalam uses a different script, this is purely coincidental.

However, that does not mean that the origin of the word "Malayalam" is at all uninteresting! The land (now known as Kerala) was once known as "Malayalam" while the language (now known as Malayalam) was known variously as Malaya mozhi, Malayayma, Malaya bhasha, etc. (All of these names for the language implied that this was the "mountain language," or language spoken across the Nilgiri Hills, the mountains that the first Malayalam-speakers supposedly crossed from the east to get into Kerala.)

The word Malayalam is actually a combination of the words mala (mountain) and aazhi (sea). (The "zh" became an "l" because many words in Tamil are written with a zh and often pronounced with an l sort of sound. Take the word thamizh (Tamil) for example...!) The land was known thus because it is almost surrounded on two sides by mountains and entirely surrounded by the Arabian Sea on the other two sides. 

The word Kerala also has an interesting origin, especially because of the popular myth concerning its name. Many people claim and have claimed that the word came from the name of the state tree: the keram or coconut tree! However, of course, this is just a myth; the name actually came from a combination of the words Chera and aazhi (sea...again!). The Chera dynasty (which was originally Hindu) ruled Kerala for a certain period of time, and it is said that the last of the Chera kings, Cheraman Pirunal, converted to Islam.

Where does Malayalam come from?

Basically, it comes from two languages: Manipravaalam and Paattu. More people seem to have heard of Manipravaalam than Paattu. Manipravaalam basically came from Sanskrit; in the old days Malayalee poets would use this language to write non-religious poetry.

Paattu, however, was less well-known. (FYI- The word paattu means "song" in Malayalam.) It came from Tamil. Poets apparently used this language in religious poetry. (Well, I don't know; I read this somewhere, so tell me if you know I'm wrong, okay?) 


However, Malayalam has been influenced over the centuries, and there are several different dialects. The Christians (that's me again!) often tend to use a lot more English. In Syrian Christian churches, prayers are offered in Malayalam but with many Syriac (or Greek!) terms in between (e.g. "kurie ilaison," "baarakhmar," etc.).

The Hindus sometimes prefer using more Sanskrit, while some Muslims use many Arabic words (e.g. "kithaab" for "pusthakam").

In Northern Kerala, the Malabar dialect is highly influenced by Kannada (I don't know much about it, but I'll find out sometime), whereas in the South, the Travancore dialect is just as influenced by Tamil. In Central Kerala, right in the middle, it's somewhat similar to the Southern dialect but uses a heavy accent which can be hard to understand. (Malayalam as is spoken in Central Travancore is taught here, but I will try to teach the dialects also. Again, if ANYBODY seeing this site can help me with the dialects, please e-mail me!) See the dialects page.

Because of this, the Northern Malayalees can understand Kannada very well, and the Southerners can understand Tamil. And sometimes Northerners and Southerners just don't understand each other! My family comes from Tiruvalla in Southern Kerala, so it seems pretty easy to me at times to understand Tamil (though Malayalam grammar is very different!)

Thank you for your patience with me! I'm not planning to make a weekly course, but I'll try to make lessons and answer e-mails when I can!

OK, OK, that's enough learning for today. Now for some Malayalee jokes!