The Malayalam language has an intriguing history of development enriched by the early evolution of literary culture that includes everything from erotic poetry to award-winning novels. Malayalam's historical ties to other languages such as Tamil and Sanskrit have endowed it with a number of unique characteristics still evident in the modern language. Today, an estimated 35 million Malayalam speakers can be found around the world, the majority of them concentrated in India.
Classification of the Malayalam Language
The Malayalam language is classified as part of the South Dravidian subfamily, a member of the Dravidian family of languages. Other major members of the Dravidian language family include Tamil, Teluga and Kannada. The majority of modern Dravidian languages are spoken in India, mostly in northern areas. It is thought that at one time, however, the Dravidian languages covered a much larger expanse of India's territory.
Origins and Early History of the Malayalam Language
The majority of modern Dravidian languages are thought to have developed from one single Proto-Dravidian language, evolving over time until distinct languages were formed. The process of linguistic division within the Proto-Dravidian language is thought to have begun as long ago as 4000 BCE, giving Dravidian languages some of the oldest roots among today's living languages. The earliest known existing record of a distinct Malayalam language is found in the form of an inscription dating to circa 830 CE.
Details surrounding Malayalam's origins as a distinct language remain a point of debate among linguists. Some believe that Malayalam was originally a dialect of the Tamil language. According to this theory, the dialect was limited primarily to the western coast, where it was separated from the major Tamil language community by the western Ghats Mountains. This geographical division eventually allowed the dialect to develop into the distinct language that would become known as Malayalam. An alternate theory proposes that, rather than first emerging as a Tamil dialect, the Malayalam language evolved directly as a distinct language from the Proto-Dravidian form.
Influence of Sanskrit on the Malayalam Language
Throughout its development, Malayalam has been heavily influenced by the Sanskrit language, a relationship that sets Malayalam apart from other Dravidian languages such as Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. In its early development, Malayalam borrowed heavily from Sanskrit, not only acquiring many Sanskrit loan words, but also adopting various styles of spoken Sanskrit inflection.
Sanskrit influence is evident in early inscriptions and other writings of the Malayalam language. For example, the first Malayalam language grammar, the "Lilatikalam" (or "Book of the Sacred Mark"), appeared in the 14th century and actually was written in the Sanskrit script. Sanskrit's influence on the Malayalam language is still evident today, as the modern Malayalam script includes letters capable of representing all the sounds of both Dravidian and Sanskrit languages.
Written Malayalam Script
The Malayalam script is generally referred to as Koleluttu (literally meaning "Rod Script") and is derived from the Grantha script, which developed from the ancient Indic script of Brahmi.
The Grantha script once was used to write the Sanskrit language in Tamil-speaking areas of Southern Asia. In the 1970s and '80s, the complex Malayalam script was simplified with the introduction of a number of linguistic reforms designed to make Malayalam easier to print. Adjustments included a movement to write consonants and diacritic marks individually, rather than combining them into a complicated set of characters.
The changes of the '70s and '80s are not consistently applied throughout all Malayalam-speaking areas, however, so the modern written script often includes a mixture of traditional and new characters.
The earliest Malayalam language literary work is the "Ramacharitam" (which translates literally to "Deeds of Rama"), an epic poem dating to the 12th or 13th century. In the centuries that followed the appearance of the Ramacharitam, literature that appeared was limited primarily to popular song texts, known as "pattu," and a flourishing body of erotic poetry. The erotic poetry of the time was written in the manipravalam (or "ruby coral") style, consisting of a combination of the Sanskrit and Malayalam scripts.
In later centuries, a more comprehensive body of Malayalam literary work began to emerge. Some well-known Malayalam language writers include the classical poets Thunchath Ezhuthachan and Kunjan Nambiar, as well as the writer Chandu Menon, who received a certificate from Queen Victoria in recognition of his work.
Another Malayalam author of note is Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, who portrayed the society and events surrounding him in his home state of Kerala. Some common themes that recur throughout his body of work, which includes an estimated 40 novels and more than 600 short stories, include social class, poverty and the effects of India's controversial caste system.
Malayalam Dialects and the Indian Caste System
Today Malayalam is characterized by three primary regional dialects, each of which houses a number of smaller dialectical groups. As is often the case with major languages in India, different Malayalam dialects have emerged along the lines of the caste system, a structure of social stratification common throughout India. The influence of the caste system on Malayalam's development contributed to the development of a diglossia within the Malayalam language, meaning that a formal literary language developed completely distinct from every-day colloquial speech.
Modern Malayalam Language
Modern Malayalam is spoken by an estimated 35 million people around the world today, most of them located in India. India is an immense country that is home to many languages, most of them geographically concentrated in select regions or provinces.
The Malayalam language is found primarily in the north of the country and serves as an official language for both the state of Kerala and the territory of Lakshadweep. Many second-language Malayalam speakers can also be found in the bordering areas of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Malayalam Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Alealum, Malayalani, Malayali, Malean, Maliyad, Mallealle, Mopla
Language Family: Dravidian, Southern, Tamil-Kannada, Tamil-Kodagu, Tamil-Malayalam
Spoken by Approximately 35,757,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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