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Word Malayalam.svg
Malayalam in Malayalam script
Pronunciation[mɐlɐjäːɭɐm]; pronunciation 
Native toIndia
RegionKerala with border communities in the Kodagu, and Dakshina Kannada of Karnataka, Nilgiris, Kanyakumari districts of Tamil Nadu, Lakshadweep and Mahé (Puducherry)
Native speakers
35 million (in India) (2011)[1][2][3][4]
L2 speakers: 700,000[3]
Early forms
Official status
Official language in
Regulated byKerala Sahitya Akademi, Government of Kerala
Language codes
ISO 639-1ml
ISO 639-2mal
ISO 639-3mal
A Malayalam speaker, recorded in South Africa

Malayalam (/ˌmæləˈjɑːləm/;[7] Malayalamമലയാളം, Malayāḷam ?, [mɐlɐjäːɭɐm] (listen)) is a Dravidian language[8] spoken in the Indian state of Kerala and the union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry (Mahé district) by the Malayali people. It is one of 22 scheduled languages of India and is spoken by 2.88% of Indians. Malayalam was designated a "Classical Language of India" in 2013.[9][10] Malayalam has official language status in Kerala, Lakshadweep and Puducherry (Mahé),[11][12][13] and is spoken by 34 million people in India.[2] Malayalam is also spoken by linguistic minorities in the neighbouring states; with significant number of speakers in the Kodagu and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka, and Nilgiris and Kanyakumari, districts of Tamil Nadu. It is also spoken by the Malayali Diaspora worldwide, especially in the Persian Gulf countries, due to large populations of Malayali expatriates there.

The origin of Malayalam remains a matter of dispute among scholars. The mainstream view holds that Malayalam descends from early Middle Tamil and separated from it sometime after the c. 9th century CE.[14] A second view argues for the development of the two languages out of "Proto-Dravidian" or "Proto-Tamil-Malayalam" in the prehistoric era,[15] although this is generally rejected by historical linguists.[16] It is generally agreed that the Quilon Syrian copper plates of 849/850 CE is the available oldest inscription written in Old Malayalam. The oldest literary work in Malayalam, distinct from the Tamil tradition, is dated from between the 9th and 11th centuries.[15]

The earliest script used to write Malayalam was the Vatteluttu script.[8] The current Malayalam script is based on the Vatteluttu script, which was extended with Grantha script letters to adopt Indo-Aryan loanwords.[8][17] It bears high similarity with the Tigalari script, a historical script that was used to write the Tulu language in South Canara, and Sanskrit in the adjacent Malabar region.[18] The modern Malayalam grammar is based on the book Kerala Panineeyam written by A. R. Raja Raja Varma in late 19th century CE.[19] The first travelogue in any Indian language is the Malayalam Varthamanappusthakam, written by Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar in 1785.[20][21]

Robert Caldwell describes the extent of Malayalam in the 19th century as extending from the vicinity of Chandragiri (both Chandragiri river and Chandragiri fort near Mangalore) in the north where it supersedes Kannada and Tulu to Neyyar river beyond Thiruvananthapuram in the south, where it begins to be superseded by Tamil,[22] besides the inhabited islands of Lakshadweep in the Arabian Sea.


The word Malayalam originated from the words mala, meaning 'mountain', and alam, meaning 'region' or '-ship' (as in "township"); Malayalam thus translates directly as 'the mountain region'. The term Malabar was used as an alternative term for Malayalam in foreign trade circles to denote the southwestern coast of the Indian peninsula, which also means The land of hills.[23][24][25][26] The term originally referred to the western hilly land of the Chera dynasty (later Zamorins and the Kingdom of Cochin), Kingdom of Ezhimala (later Kolathunadu), and Ay kingdom (later Travancore), and only later became the name of its language.[27] The language Malayalam was alternatively called Alealum, Malayalani, Malayali, Malabari, Malean, Maliyad, Mallealle, and Kerala Bhasha until the early 19th century CE.[28][29][30]

The earliest extant literary works in the regional language of present-day Kerala probably date back to as early as the 12th century. At that time the language was differentiated by the name Kerala Bhasha. The distinctive 'Malayalam' named identity of this language appears to have come into existence only around the 16th century, when it was known as "Malayayma" or "Malayanma"; the words were also used to refer to the script and the region.[31] According to Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese visitor who visited Kerala in the early 16th century CE, the people in the southwestern Malabar coast of India from Chandragiri in north to Kanyakumari in south had a unique language, which was called "Maliama" by them.[32][33]


The Quilon Syrian copper plates (849/850 CE) is the available oldest inscription written in Old Malayalam.[34] Besides Old Malayalam, the copper plate also contains signatures in Arabic (Kufic script), Middle Persian (cursive Pahlavi script) and Judeo-Persian (standard square Hebrew) scripts.[35]
Malayalam script in mobile phone

Due to the geographical isolation of the Malabar Coast from rest of Indian peninsula because of the presence of Western Ghats mountain ranges which lie parallel to the coast, the dialect of Old Tamil spoken in Kerala was different from that spoken in Tamil Nadu.[29] The mainstream view holds that Malayalam began to grow as a distinct literary language from the western coastal dialect of Medieval Tamil (Karintamil)[36] and the linguistic separation completed sometime between the 9th and 13th centuries.[37][38] The renowned poets of Classical Tamil such as Paranar (1st century CE), Ilango Adigal (2nd–3rd century CE), and Kulasekhara Alvar (9th century CE) were Keralites.[29] The Sangam works can be considered as the ancient predecessor of Malayalam.[39]

Some scholars however believe that both Tamil and Malayalam developed during the prehistoric period from a common ancestor, 'Proto-Tamil-Malayalam', and that the notion of Malayalam being a 'daughter' of Tamil is misplaced.[15] This is based on the fact that Malayalam and several Dravidian languages on the Western Coast have common archaic features which are not found even in the oldest historical forms of literary Tamil.[40]

Despite this the literary form of Malayalam shares many common innovations with literary Tamil that emerged during the early Middle Tamil period, thus making independent descent untenable.[41] For example, Old Tamil lacks the first and second person plural pronouns with the ending kaḷ. It is in the Early Middle Tamil stage that kaḷ first appears:[42]

Language Plural Pronouns
Old Tamil yārn, nām, nīr, nīyir
Middle Tamil nānkaḷ, nām, nīnkaḷ, enkaḷ
Malayalam ñaṅṅaḷ, nām, niṅgaḷ, nammaḷ

Indeed, most features of literary Malayalam morphology are derivable from a form of speech corresponding to early Middle Tamil.[43]

Robert Caldwell, in his 1856 book "A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages", opined that literary Malayalam branched from Classical Tamil and over time gained a large amount of Sanskrit vocabulary and lost the personal terminations of verbs.[27] As the language of scholarship and administration, Old-Tamil, which was written in Tamil-Brahmi and the Vatteluttu alphabet later, greatly influenced the early development of Malayalam as a literary language. The Malayalam script began to diverge from the Vatteluttu and the Western Grantha scripts in the 8th and 9th centuries of Common Era. And by the end of the 13th century a written form of the language emerged which was unique from the Vatteluttu script that was used to write Tamil on the eastern coast.[44]

Old Malayalam[edit]

Old Malayalam (Pazhaya Malayalam), an inscriptional language found in Kerala from c. 9th to c. 13th century CE,[45] is the earliest attested form of Malayalam.[46][47] The beginning of the development of Old Malayalam as a written language from a western coastal dialect of contemporary Tamil (Karintamil) can be dated to c. 7th - 8th century CE.[48][8][49] It remained a west coast dialect until c. 9th century CE or a little later.[50][48] The origin of Malayalam calendar dates back to year 825 CE.[51][52][53] The formation of the language is mainly attributed to geographical separation of Kerala from the Tamil country[50] and the influence of immigrant Tulu-Canarese Brahmins in Kerala (who also knew Sanskrit and Prakrit).[46] It is generally agreed that the western coastal dialect of Tamil began to separate, diverge, and grow as a distinct language, mainly due to the heavy influence of Sanskrit and Prakrit, those became common prominent languages on Malabar Coast, when the caste system became strong in Kerala under Nambudiri Brahmins.[29]

The Old Malayalam language was employed in several official records and transactions (at the level of the Chera Perumal kings as well as the upper-caste (Nambudiri) village temples).[46] Most of the inscriptions in Old Malayalam were found from the northern districts of Kerala, those lie adjacent to Tulu Nadu.[46] Old Malayalam was mostly written in Vatteluttu script (with Pallava/Southern Grantha characters).[46] Old Malayalam had several features distinct from the contemporary Tamil, which include the Nasalisation of adjoining sounds, Substitution of palatal sounds for dental sounds, Contraction of vowels, and the Rejection of gender verbs.[46][54][55] Ramacharitam and Thirunizhalmala are the possible literary works of Old Malayalam found so far.

Middle Malayalam[edit]

The Old Malayalam got gradually developed into Middle Malayalam (Madhyakaala Malayalam) by 13th century CE.[56] The Malayalam literature also completely got diverged from Tamil literature by this period. The works including Unniyachi Charitham, Unnichiruthevi Charitham, and Unniyadi Charitham, are written in Middle Malayalam, those date back to 13th and 14th centuries of Common Era.[57][29] The Sandesha Kavyas of 14th century CE written in Manipravalam language include Unnuneeli Sandesam.[57][29] Kannassa Ramayanam and Kannassa Bharatham by Rama Panikkar of the Niranam poets who lived between 1350 and 1450, are representative of this language.[58] Ulloor has opined that Rama Panikkar holds the same position in Malayalam literature that Edmund Spenser does in English literature.[58] The Champu Kavyas written by Punam Nambudiri, one among the Pathinettara Kavikal (Eighteen and a half poets) in the court of the Zamorin of Calicut, also belong to Middle Malayalam.[29][57] The literary works of this period were heavily influenced by Manipravalam, which was a combination of contemporary Malayalam and Sanskrit.[29] The word Mani-Pravalam literally means Diamond-Coral or Ruby-Coral. The 14th-century Lilatilakam text states Manipravalam to be a Bhashya (language) where "Malayalam and Sanskrit should combine together like ruby and coral, without the least trace of any discord".[59][60] The scripts of Kolezhuthu and Malayanma were also used to write Middle Malayalam, in addition to Vatteluthu and Grantha script those were used to write Old Malayalam.[29] The literary works written in Middle Malayalam were heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Prakrit, while comparing them with the modern Malayalam literature.[57][29]

Copy of Ezhuthachan's stylus and Adhyatma Ramayanam preserved at Thunchan Parambu, Tirur

Modern Malayalam[edit]

The Middle Malayalam was succeeded by Modern Malayalam (Aadhunika Malayalam) by 15th century CE.[29] The poem Krishnagatha written by Cherusseri Namboothiri, who was the court poet of the king Udaya Varman Kolathiri (1446–1475) of Kolathunadu, is written in modern Malayalam.[57] The language used in Krishnagatha is the modern spoken form of Malayalam.[57] During the 16th century CE, Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan from the Kingdom of Tanur and Poonthanam Nambudiri from the Kingdom of Valluvanad followed the new trend initiated by Cherussery in their poems. The Adhyathmaramayanam Kilippattu and Mahabharatham Kilippattu written by Ezhuthachan and Jnanappana written by Poonthanam are also included in the earliest form of Modern Malayalam.[57]

It is Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan who is also credited with the development of Malayalam script into the current form through the intermixing and modification of the erstwhile scripts of Vatteluttu, Kolezhuthu, and Grantha script, which were used to write the inscriptions and literary works of Old and Middle Malayalam.[57] He further eliminated excess and unnecessary letters from the modified script.[57] Hence, Ezhuthachan is also known as The Father of modern Malayalam.[57] The development of modern Malayalam script was also heavily influenced by the Tigalari script, which was used to write Sanskrit, due to the influence of Tuluva Brahmins in Kerala.[57] The language used in the Arabi Malayalam works of 16th–17th century CE is a mixture of Modern Malayalam and Arabic.[57] They follow the syntax of modern Malayalam, though written in a modified form of Arabic script, which is known as Arabi Malayalam script.[57] P. Shangunny Menon ascribes the authorship of the medieval work Keralolpathi, which describes the Parashurama legend and the departure of the final Cheraman Perumal king to Mecca, to Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan.[61]

Kunchan Nambiar introduced a new literary form called Thullal, and Unnayi Variyar introduced reforms in Attakkatha literature.[57] The printing, prose literature, and Malayalam journalism, developed after the latter-half of 18th century CE. Modern literary movements in Malayalam literature began in the late 19th century with the rise of the famous Modern Triumvirate consisting of Kumaran Asan,[62] Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer[63] and Vallathol Narayana Menon.[64] In the second half of the 20th century, Jnanpith winning poets and writers like G. Sankara Kurup, S. K. Pottekkatt, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, M. T. Vasudevan Nair, O. N. V. Kurup, and Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri, had made valuable contributions to the modern Malayalam literature.[65][66][67][68][69] Later, writers like O. V. Vijayan, Kamaladas, M. Mukundan, Arundhati Roy, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, have gained international recognition.[70][71][72] Malayalam has also borrowed a lot of its words from various foreign languages, mainly from the Semitic languages including Arabic, and the European languages including Dutch and Portuguese, due to the long heritage of Indian Ocean trade and the Portuguese-Dutch colonisation of the Malabar Coast.[29][57]


Variations in intonation patterns, vocabulary, and distribution of grammatical and phonological elements are observable along the parameters of region, religion, community, occupation, social stratum, style and register.

According to the Dravidian Encyclopedia, the regional dialects of Malayalam can be divided into fifteen dialect areas.[73] They are as follows:

According to Ethnologue, the dialects are:[28] Malabar, Nagari-Malayalam, North Kerala, Central Kerala, South Kerala, Kayavar, Namboodiri, Nair, Mappila, Beary, Jeseri, Yerava, Pulaya, Nasrani, and Kasargod. The community dialects are: Namboodiri, Nair, Arabi Malayalam, Pulaya, and Nasrani.[28] Whereas both the Namboothiri and Nair dialects have a common nature, the Arabi Malayalam is among the most divergent of dialects, differing considerably from literary Malayalam.[28] Jeseri is a dialect of Malayalam spoken mainly in the Union territory of Lakshadweep and Beary is spoken in Tulu Nadu which are nearer to Kerala. Of the total 33,066,392 Malayalam speakers in India in 2001, 33,015,420 spoke the standard dialects, 19,643 spoke the Yerava dialect and 31,329 spoke non-standard regional variations like Eranadan.[74] The dialects of Malayalam spoken in the districts like Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad, Kozhikode, and Malappuram in the former Malabar District have few influences from Kannada.[29] For example, the words those start with the sound "V" in Malayalam become "B" in these districts as in Kannada.[29] Also the Voiced retroflex approximant (/ɻ/) which is seen in both Tamil and the standard form of Malayalam, are not seen in the northern dialects of Malayalam, as in Kannada.[29] For example the words Vazhi (Path), Vili (Call), Vere (Another), and Vaa (Come/Mouth), become Bayi, Bili, Bere, and Baa in the northern dialects of Malayalam.[29] Similarly the Malayalam spoken in the southern districts of Kerala, i.e., Thiruvananthapuram-Kollam-Pathanamthitta area is influenced by Tamil.[29]

Labels such as "Nampoothiri Dialect", "Mappila Dialect", and "Nasrani Dialect" refer to overall patterns constituted by the sub-dialects spoken by the subcastes or sub-groups of each such caste. The most outstanding features of the major communal dialects of Malayalam are summarized below:

  • Lexical items with phonological features reminiscent of Sanskrit (e.g., viddhi meaning 'fool'), bhosku 'lie', musku 'impudence', dustu 'impurity', and eebhyan and sumbhan (both meaning 'good-for-nothing fellow') abound in Nampoothiri dialect.[75]
  • The Muslim dialect, also known as Arabi Malayalam, shows maximum divergence from the literary Standard Dialect of Malayalam. It is very much influenced by Arabic and Persian rather than by Sanskrit or by English. The retroflex continuant zha of the literary dialect is realised in the Muslim dialect as the palatal ya. In some other dialects of Northern Kerala too, zha of the literary dialect is realised as ya.
  • The Syrian Christian or Nasrani dialect of Malayalam is quite close to the Nair dialect, especially in phonology. The speech of the educated section among Syrian Christians and that of those who are close to the church are peculiar in having a number of assimilated as well as unassimilated loan words from English and Syriac. The few loan words which have found their way into the Christian dialect are assimilated in many cases through the process of de-aspiration.[76][77][78]
  • The Ravula is a tribal dialect of Malayalam spoken by the members of Ravula tribe who are primarily inhabitants of the Kodagu district of Karnataka.[79]
  • Tamil spoken in the Kanyakumari district has influences from Malayalam language.[80]

External influences and loanwords[edit]

Malayalam has incorporated many elements from other languages over the years, the most notable of these being Sanskrit and later, English.[81] According to Sooranad Kunjan Pillai who compiled the authoritative Malayalam lexicon, the other principal languages whose vocabulary was incorporated over the ages were Arabic, Dutch, Hindustani, Pali, Persian, Portuguese, Prakrit, and Syriac.[82]

Many medieval liturgical texts were written in an admixture of Sanskrit and early Malayalam, called Manipravalam.[83] The influence of Sanskrit was very prominent in formal Malayalam used in the medeival literature. Malayalam has a substantially high number of Sanskrit loanwords but these are seldom used.[84] Some Arabic loanwords like adālattŭ (court of justice), jāmyaṃ (bail), japti (foreclosure), jilla (district), tālukkŭ (subdistrict), etc, are used in the formal literary Malayalam for administrative purposes. Loanwords and influences also from Hebrew, Syriac, and Ladino abound in the Jewish Malayalam dialects, as well as English, Portuguese, Syriac, and Greek in the Christian dialects, while Arabic and Persian elements predominate in the Muslim dialects. The Muslim dialect known as Mappila Malayalam is predominantly in the northern districts of Kerala. Another Muslim dialect called Beary bashe is used in the extreme northern part of Kerala along with the southern part of Karnataka in a former region called Tulu Nadu.

Examples of vocabulary from various origins
Word Original word Language of origin Meaning
കത്ത് (kattŭ) خَطّ‎ (xaṭṭ) Arabic Letter
കുര്‍ബാന (kuṟbāṉa) ܩܘܪܒܢܐ (qurbānā) Aramaic Holy mass
തപാല്‍ (tabāl) de paal Dutch Post/Mail
ആപ്പിൾ (āppiḷ) apple English Apple
മെത്ത (metta) מיטה‎ (meta) Hebrew Bed
പഞ്ചായത്ത് (pañjāyattŭ) पंचायत (pañcāyat) Hindustani Panchayat
അച്ഛൻ (acchaṉ) 𑀅𑀚𑁆𑀚 (ajja) Maharashtri Prakrit Father
ഉഷാര്‍ (uṣāṟ) هوشیار (hūšyâr) Persian Alert
ജനാല or ജനൽ (jaṉāla or jaṉal) janela Portuguese Window
ലക്ഷം (lakṣam) लक्ष (lakṣa) Sanskrit Lakh

Geographic distribution and population[edit]

Rank State/Union Territory Malayalam speakers 2011[1] State's proportion 2011
India 34,838,819 2.88%
1 Kerala 32,413,213 97.03%
2 Lakshadweep 54,264 84.17%
3 Andaman and Nicobar Islands 27,475 7.22%
4 Puducherry 47,973 3.84%
5 Karnataka 701,673 1.14%
6 Tamil Nadu 957,705 2.70%

Malayalam is a language spoken by the native people of southwestern India and the islands of Lakshadweep in Arabian Sea. According to the Indian census of 2011, there were 32,413,213 speakers of Malayalam in Kerala, making up 93.2% of the total number of Malayalam speakers in India, and 97.03% of the total population of the state. There were a further 701,673 (1.14% of the total number) in Karnataka, 957,705 (2.70%) in Tamil Nadu, and 406,358 (1.2%) in Maharashtra.

The number of Malayalam speakers in Lakshadweep is 51,100, which is only 0.15% of the total number, but is as much as about 84% of the population of Lakshadweep. Malayalam was the most spoken language in erstwhile Gudalur taluk (now Gudalur and Panthalur taluks) of Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu which accounts for 48.8% population and it was the second most spoken language in Mangalore and Puttur taluks of South Canara accounting for 21.2% and 15.4% respectively according to 1951 census report.[85] 25.57% of the total population in the Kodagu district of Karnataka are Malayalis, and they form single largest linguistic group accounting for 35.5% in the Virajpet Taluk.[86] Around one-third of the Malayalis in Kodagu district speak the Yerava dialect according to the 2011 census, which is native to Kodagu and Wayanad.[86]

In all, Malayalis made up 3.22% of the total Indian population in 2011. Of the total 34,713,130 Malayalam speakers in India in 2011, 33,015,420 spoke the standard dialects, 19,643 spoke the Yerava dialect and 31,329 spoke non-standard regional variations like Eranadan.[87] As per the 1991 census data, 28.85% of all Malayalam speakers in India spoke a second language and 19.64% of the total knew three or more languages.

Just before independence, Malaya attracted many Malayalis. Large numbers of Malayalis have settled in Chennai, Bengaluru, Mangaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Pune, Mysuru and Delhi. Many Malayalis have also emigrated to the Middle East, the United States, and Europe. There were 179,860 speakers of Malayalam in the United States, according to the 2000 census, with the highest concentrations in Bergen County, New Jersey, and Rockland County, New York.[88] There are 344,000 of Malayalam speakers in Malaysia.[citation needed] There were 11,687 Malayalam speakers in Australia in 2016.[89] The 2001 Canadian census reported 7,070 people who listed Malayalam as their mother tongue, mainly in Toronto. The 2006 New Zealand census reported 2,139 speakers.[90] 134 Malayalam speaking households were reported in 1956 in Fiji. There is also a considerable Malayali population in the Persian Gulf regions, especially in Dubai and Doha.


Spoken Malayalam

For the consonants and vowels, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol is given, followed by the Malayalam character and the ISO 15919 transliteration.[91] The current Malayalam script bears high similarity with Tigalari script, which was used for writing the Tulu language, spoken in coastal Karnataka (Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts) and the northernmost Kasargod district of Kerala.[18] Tigalari script was also used for writing Sanskrit in Malabar region.


The first letter in Malayalam
Short Long
Front Central Back Front Central Back
Close /i/ i /ɨ̆/ ŭ /u/ u // ī // ū
Mid /e/ e /o/ o // ē // ō
Open /a/ a // ā
  • ്*/ɨ̆/ formed from word final short /u/s but now there are /u/s finally as well, mostly in loanwords like in guru but native pērŭ; It is also added to the end of loanwords ending in some consonants, e.g. Skt. manas, suhr̥t, Ml. manassŭ, suhr̥ttŭ, En. current Ml. karaṇḍŭ. It is the saṁvr̥tōkāram, an epenthentic vowel in Malayalam. Therefore, it has no independent vowel letter (because it never occurs at the beginning of words) but, when it comes after a consonant, there are various ways of representing it. In medieval times, it was just represented with the symbol for /u/കു⟩, but later on it was just completely omitted (that is, written as an inherent vowel ⟨⟩). In modern times, it is written in two different ways – the Northern style, in which a chandrakkala is used ⟨ക്⟩, and the Southern or Travancore style, in which the diacritic for a /u/ is attached to the preceding consonant and a chandrakkala is written above ⟨കു്⟩. According to one author, this alternative form ⟨കു്⟩ is historically more correct, though the simplified form without a vowel sign u is common nowadays.[92]
  • */a/ (phonetically central: [ä]) is represented as basic or the "default" vowel in the Abugida script.

Malayalam has also borrowed the Sanskrit diphthongs of /au/ (represented in Malayalam as , au) and /ai/ (represented in Malayalam as , ai), although these mostly occur only in Sanskrit loanwords. Traditionally (as in Sanskrit), four vocalic consonants (usually pronounced in Malayalam as consonants followed by the saṁvr̥tōkāram, which is not officially a vowel, and not as actual vocalic consonants) have been classified as vowels: vocalic r (, /rɨ̆/, r̥), long vocalic r (, /rɨː/, r̥̄), vocalic l (, /lɨ̆/, l̥) and long vocalic l (, /lɨː/, l̥̄). Except for the first, the other three have been omitted from the current script used in Kerala as there are no words in current Malayalam that use them.

Some authors say that Malayalam has no diphthongs and /aj, aw/ are clusters of V+glide j/w[93] while others consider all V+glide clusters to be diphthongs /aj, aw, ej, oj, ja/ as in kai, auṣadhaṁ, deivam, poikko and kāriaṁ[94]

Vowel length is phonemic and all of the vowels have minimal pairs for example paṭṭŭ "silk", pāṭṭŭ "song", koḍi "flag", kōḍi "crore" (10 million), er̠i "throw", ēr̠i "lots"[91]

Some speakers also have an /æ:/ from English loanwords eg. /bæ:ŋgɨ̆/ "bank" but most speakers switch it with /a:/, /e:/ or /ja/.[8]


The word Malayāḷalipi (Meaning: Malayalam script) written in the Malayalam script
Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Postalveolar/
Velar Glottal
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ ⟨n⟩ n ⟨ṉ⟩ ɳ ⟨ṇ⟩ ɲ ⟨ñ⟩ ŋ ⟨ṅ⟩
voiceless p ⟨p⟩ ⟨t⟩ t റ്റ ⟨ṯ⟩ ʈ ⟨ṭ⟩ t͡ɕ~t͡ʃ ⟨c⟩ k ⟨k⟩
aspirated ⟨ph⟩ t̪ʰ ⟨th⟩ ʈʰ ⟨ṭh⟩ t͡ɕʰ~t͡ʃʰ ⟨ch⟩ ⟨kh⟩
voiced b ⟨b⟩ ⟨d⟩ (d)[95]
ന്റ ⟨ḏ⟩
ɖ ⟨ḍ⟩ d͡ʑ~d͡ʒ ⟨j⟩ ɡ ⟨g⟩
breathy ⟨bh⟩ d̪ʱ ⟨dh⟩ ɖʱ ⟨ḍh⟩ d͡ʑʱ~d͡ʒʱ ⟨jh⟩ ɡʱ ⟨gh⟩
Fricative f ⟨f⟩ s ⟨s⟩ ʂ ⟨ṣ⟩ ɕ~ʃ ⟨ś⟩ h ⟨h⟩
Approx. central ʋ ⟨v⟩ ɻ ⟨ḻ⟩[96] j ⟨y⟩
lateral l ⟨l⟩ ɭ ⟨ḷ⟩
Tap ɾ ⟨r⟩
Trill r ⟨ṟ⟩
  • As in other Dravidian languages, the retroflex series are true subapical consonants, in which the underside of the tongue contacts the roof.[97]
  • All of the alveolars except /s/ are apical.[91]
  • /ɕ ~ ʃ, t͡ɕ ~ t͡ʃ, t͡ɕʰ ~ t͡ʃʰ, d͡ʑ ~ d͡ʒ, d͡ʑʱ ~ d͡ʒʱ/ can either be postalveolar or alveolo-palatal depending upon the speaker and dialect; the postalveolar and alveolo-palatal realizations are in free variation.[98]
  • The alveolar nasal once had a separate character ⟨ഩ⟩ that is now obsolete and the sound is now almost always represented by the symbol that was originally used only for the dental nasal. However, both sounds are extensively used in current colloquial and official Malayalam, and although they were allophones in Old Malayalam, they now occasionally contrast in gemination – for example, eṉṉāl ('by me', first person singular pronoun in the instrumental case) and ennāl ('if that is so'), which are both written ennāl (എന്നാൽ).
  • The unaspirated alveolar stop also had a separate character ⟨ഺ⟩ but it has become obsolete, as the sound only occurs in geminate form (when geminated it is written with a below another ⟨റ്റ⟩) or immediately following other consonants (in these cases, or ററ are usually written in small size underneath the first consonant).
  • The proto Dravidian alveolar stop *ṯ developed into an alveolar trill /r/ in many of the Dravidian languages while *ṯṯ and *ṉṯ remained in Malayalam.[8]
  • ന്റ is pronounced only as n̠d̠ but ൻറ can be pronounced as n̠d̠ or n̠r̠, n̠r̠ doesn't occur natively but it occurs in loans like എൻറോൾ (en̠r̠ōḷ) 'enroll' or ഹെൻറി (hen̠r̠i) 'Henry'.[99]
  • All non geminated voiceless stops and affricate become voiced in intervocalic position like in Tamil but unlike Tamil it doesnt spirantize, it remains a stop; eg. makaṉ Ml. [mɐgɐn] Ta. [mɐɣɐn]; it also gets voiced after a nasal.[91][8]
  • The geminated velars /k:/ and /ŋ:/ are sometimes palatalized word medially after /j, i(:), e(:)/ like in the words കിടക്കുക [kiɖɐk:ugɐ] vs ഇരിക്കുക [iɾikʲ:ugɐ] and മങ്ങൽ [mɐŋ:ɐl] vs. മത്തങ്ങ [mɐt̪:ɐŋʲ:ɐ], their distribution is unpredictable eg. it doesn’t palatalize in vikkŭ but does in irikkŭ. If the palatalization is from /j/ it is sometimes deleted e.g. poykko can be [pojkʲːo] or [pokʲːo], aḍaykka as [ɐɖɐjkʲːɐ] or [ɐɖɐkʲːɐ]. Some of the northern dialects might pronounce them without palatalization.[98][91]
  • The letter ഫ represents both /pʰ/, a phoneme occurring in Sanskrit loanwords, and /f/, which is mostly found in comparatively recent borrowings from European languages. Though nowadays most people (especially youngsters) pronounce /pʰ/ as /f/ like in the word ഫലം /falam/.[91] In the Jesari dialect the native /p/ too spirantized to [f].[100][does it also happen with intervocalic /p/ which get voiced and /pp/?]
  • /m, n, ɳ, l, ɭ/ are unreleased word finally.[94] Words will never begin or end with a geminated consonant. /ɻ/ never occur word initially. All consonants appear word medially.[91]
  • The plain stops, affricates, nasals, laterals, the fricatives /s/ and /ʃ/ and approximants other than /ɻ/ can be geminated and gemination can sometimes change the meaning of the word, e.g. കളം /kaɭam/ 'cell', കള്ളം /kaɭ:am/ 'lie'.[91] /n̪, ɲ, ŋ, t/ only occur in geminated form intervocalically.[98]
  • The retroflex lateral is clearly retroflex, but may be more of a flap [] (= [ɺ̢]) than an approximant [ɭ]. The approximant /ɻ/ has both rhotic and lateral qualities, and is indeterminate between an approximant and a fricative, but is laminal post-alveolar rather than a true retroflex. The articulation changes part-way through, perhaps explaining why it behaves as both a rhotic and a lateral, both an approximant and a fricative, but the nature of the change is not understood.[101]
  • /ɾ, l, ɻ/ are very weakly palatalized while /r, ɭ/ are clear.[98]
  • Around 75% of nk and 50% of ñc and nt from Old Malayalam got assimilated to ṅṅ, ññ and nn, almost all of the n̠t̠ merged with nn suggesting an earlier merger of some of the n̠t̠ and nt (for e.g. the cognate of Ta. nan̠r̠i is spelt as nandi and pronounced nanni); mp and ṇṭ were unchanged, e.g. Ta. mūṉṟu, maruntu, kañci, teṅku, Ml. mūnnŭ, marunnŭ, kaññi, teṅṅŭ. Many of the ai and āy also became a unless the word is monosyllabic, e.g. Ta. avai, māṅgāy Ml. ava, māṅṅa.[102]
  • Loanwords with /z/ are switched with /s/ but not /d͡ʒ/ like in Hindi or Telugu eg. /brasi:l/ En. "Brazil" unless it was loaned through Hindi then the Hindi pronunciation is taken eg. /d͡ʒil:a/ Hi. /d͡ʒila:/ Per. /zilʔ/, other Perso-Arabic phonemes like /q, x, ɣ, ħ, Cˤ, ʕ, ʔ/ are switched with /k, kʰ, g, h, C, ∅, ∅/, sometimes /q, x/ are switched with /kʰ, k/ eg. قطر (Qaṭar) as ഖത്തർ (khattaṟ) and Arb. خَطّ‎ (xaṭṭ) as കത്ത് (kattŭ). English loans with /θ, ð, ʒ/ are switched with /t̪, d̪, ʃ/; the dentals do not clash with English loans with /t, d/, which are switched with [t, d] or [ʈ, ɖ] though [d] is rare because of the limited distribution natively eg. "taxi" as ṯāksi or more commonly ṭāksi. The English /ɹ/ is loaned as either /ɾ/ or /r/ unpredictably, for e.g. 'current' got loaned as karaṇḍŭ but 'maroon' got loaned as 'mar̠ūṇ' or 'mer̠ūṇ' but the cluster /ɹs/ is loaned as /ɻs/ other clusters are loaned as /rC/ or /ɾC/, /ɻ/ only occurs in words with /ɹs/ e.g. 'force' as fōḻsŭ. Speakers with non rhotic English accents don't have /ɹC/ clusters in English loans and pronounce it as fōs(ŭ). In Sanskrit loans with /t̪C/ and /d̪C/ (unless C is a sonorant or a dental stop) sometimes the /t̪, d̪/ becomes /l/ especially in /t̪s/ e.g. utsava > ulsavam, utpādana > ulpādaṉam, udghāṭana > ulghāḍaṉam. There are some native words with /s/ (urasŭ) and /ʃ/ (vīśŭ) but rest of the fricatives (except /f/ in native words of Jesari) and aspirates are only found in loans.
  • Rarely some speakers pronounce the voiced aspirated consonants as voiceless so words like dhaṉam as thaṉam, it is more commonly deaspirated so dhaṉam as daṉam and kharam as karam, intervocalically the voiceless aspirate also becomes voiced so mukham as mugam.[103]

Sample text[edit]


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


മനുഷ്യരെല്ലാവരും തുല്യാവകാശങ്ങളോടും അന്തസ്സോടും സ്വാതന്ത്ര്യത്തോടുംകൂടി ജനിച്ചിട്ടുള്ളവരാണ്‌. അന്യോന്യം ഭ്രാതൃഭാവത്തോടെ പെരുമാറുവാനാണ്‌ മനുഷ്യന് വിവേകബുദ്ധിയും മനസാക്ഷിയും സിദ്ധമായിരിക്കുന്നത്‌.

Romanisation (ISO 15919)[edit]

man̠uṣyarellāvaruṁ tulyāvakāśaṅṅaḷōṭuṁ antassōṭuṁ svātantryattōṭuṅkūṭi jan̠icciṭṭuḷḷavarāṇ‌ŭ. an̠yōn̠yaṁ bhrātr̥bhāvattōṭe perumāṟuvān̠āṇ‌ŭ man̠uṣyan̠ŭ vivēkabuddhiyuṁ man̠asākṣiyuṁ siddhamāyirikkunnat‌ŭ.


/manuʂjaɾellaːʋaɾum t̪uljaːʋaɡaːʃaŋŋaɭoːɖum an̪d̪assoːɖum sʋaːd̪an̪d̪rjat̪t̪oːɖuŋguːɖi d͡ʒanit͡ʃt͡ʃiʈʈuɭɭaʋaɾaːɳɨ̆ ǁ anjoːnjam bʱraːt̪ribʱaːʋat̪t̪oːɖe peɾumaːruʋaːnaːɳɨ̆ manuʂjanɨ̆ ʋiʋeːɡabud̪d̪ʱijum manasaːkʂijum sid̪d̪ʱamaːjiɾikkun̪n̪ad̪ɨ̆ ǁ/


Malayalam has a canonical word order of SOV (subject–object–verb), as do other Dravidian languages.[104] A rare OSV word order occurs in interrogative clauses when the interrogative word is the subject.[105] Both adjectives and possessive adjectives precede the nouns they modify. Malayalam has 6[106] or 7[107][unreliable source?] grammatical cases. Verbs are conjugated for tense, mood and aspect, but not for person, gender nor number except in archaic or poetic language. The modern Malayalam grammar is based on the book Kerala Panineeyam written by A. R. Raja Raja Varma in late 19th century CE.[19]


The declensional paradigms for some common nouns and pronouns are given below. As Malayalam is an agglutinative language, it is difficult to delineate the cases strictly and determine how many there are, although seven or eight is the generally accepted number. Alveolar plosives and nasals (although the modern Malayalam script does not distinguish the latter from the dental nasal) are underlined for clarity, following the convention of the National Library at Kolkata romanization.

Personal pronouns[edit]

Vocative forms are given in parentheses after the nominative, as the only pronominal vocatives that are used are the third person ones, which only occur in compounds.



1st person 2nd person informal[i] 3rd person (distal)[ii]
masculine feminine neutral


ñāṉ avaṉ (voc. avaṉē) avaḷ (voc. avaḷē) adŭ (voc. athinē)


eṉṉe niṉṉe avaṉe avaḷe atiṉe


eṉte (also eṉ, eṉṉute) niṉte (also niṉ, niṉṉute) avaṉte (also avaṉute) avaḷute atiṉte


eṉikkŭ niṉakkŭ avaṉŭ avaḷkkŭ atiṉŭ


eṉṉāl niṉṉāl avaṉāl avaḷāl atiṉāl


eṉṉil niṉṉil avaṉil avaḷil atil


eṉṉōḍŭ niṉṉōḍŭ avaṉōḍŭ avaḷōḍŭ adinōḍŭ
  1. ^ 2nd person singular formal is similar to 2nd person plural.
  2. ^ For proximal form, replace the initial 'a' with an 'i'.


1st person 2nd person 3rd person
exclusive inclusive


ñaṅṅaḷ nām/ nammaḷ niṅṅaḷ avar̠ (voc. avarē)


ñaṅṅaḷe nammaḷe niṅṅaḷe avare


ñaṅṅaḷuḍe (also ñaṅṅuḍe) nammuḍe niṅṅaḷuḍe avaruḍe


ñaṅṅaḷkkŭ nammaḷkkŭ (also namukkŭ) niṅṅaḷkkŭ avar̠kkŭ


ñaṅṅaḷāl (also ñaṅṅāl) nammāl niṅṅaḷāl avarāl


ñaṅṅaḷil nammil niṅṅaḷil avaril (also avaṟkal)


ñaṅṅaḷōḍŭ nammōḍŭ niṅṅaḷōḍŭ avarōḍŭ

Other nouns[edit]

The following are examples of some of the most common declension patterns.

Word (translated) "Tree" "Elephant" "Human" "Dog"
Case Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative മരം
Vocative മരമേ
Accusative മരത്തെ
Genitive മരത്തിൻ്റെ
Dative മരത്തിന്
Instrumental മരത്താൽ
Locative മരത്തിൽ
Sociative മരത്തോട്

Words adopted from Sanskrit[edit]

When words are adopted from Sanskrit, their endings are usually changed to conform to Malayalam norms:


  • Masculine Sanskrit nouns with a word stem ending in a short /a/ take the ending /an/ in the nominative singular. For example, Kr̥ṣṇa → Kr̥ṣṇan. The final /n/ is dropped before masculine surnames, honorifics, or titles ending in /an/ and beginning with a consonant other than /n/ – e.g., "Krishna Menon", "Krishna Kaniyaan" etc., but "Krishnan Ezhutthachan". Surnames ending with /ar/ or /aḷ/ (where these are plural forms of "an" denoting respect) are treated similarly – "Krishna Pothuval", "Krishna Chakyar", but "Krishnan Nair", "Krishnan Nambiar", as are Sanskrit surnames such "Varma(n)", "Sharma(n)", or "Gupta(n)" (rare) – e.g., "Krishna Varma", "Krishna Sharman". If a name is a compound, only the last element undergoes this transformation – e.g., "Kr̥ṣṇa" + "dēva" = "Kr̥ṣṇadēvan", not "Kr̥ṣṇandēvan".
  • Feminine words ending in a long /ā/ or /ī/ are changed to end in a short /a/ or /i/, for example "Sītā" → "Sīta" and "Lakṣmī" → "Lakṣmi". However, the long vowel still appears in compound words, such as "Sītādēvi" or" Lakṣmīdēvi". The long ī is generally reserved for the vocative forms of these names, although in Sanskrit the vocative actually takes a short /i/. There are also a small number of nominative /ī/ endings that have not been shortened – a prominent example being the word "strī" for "woman".
  • Nouns that have a stem in /-an/ and which end with a long /ā/ in the masculine nominative singular have /vŭ/ added to them, for example "Brahmā" (stem "Brahman") → "Brahmāvŭ". When the same nouns are declined in the neuter and take a short /a/ ending in Sanskrit, Malayalam adds an additional /m/, e.g. "Brahma" (neuter nominative singular of "Brahman") becomes "Brahmam". This is again omitted when forming compounds.
  • Words whose roots end in /-an/ but whose nominative singular ending is /-a-/ (for example, the Sanskrit root of "karma" is actually "karman") are also changed. The original root is ignored and "karma" (the form in Malayalam being "karmam" because it ends in a short /a/) is taken as the basic form of the noun when declining.[108] However, this does not apply to all consonant stems, as "unchangeable" stems such as "manas" ("mind") and "suhr̥t" ("friend") are identical to the Malayalam nominative singular forms (although the regularly derived "manam" sometimes occurs as an alternative to "manas").
  • Sanskrit words describing things or animals rather than people with a stem in short /a/ end with an /m/ in Malayalam. For example,"Rāmāyaṇa" → "Rāmāyaṇam". In most cases, this is actually the same as the Sanskrit accusative case ending, which is also /m/ (or, allophonically, anusvara due to the requirements of the sandhi word-combining rules) in the neuter nominative. However, "things and animals" and "people" are not always differentiated based on whether or not they are sentient beings; for example, "Narasimha" becomes "Narasiṃham" and not "Narasiṃhan", whereas "Ananta" becomes "Anantan" even though both are sentient. This does not strictly correspond to the Sanskrit neuter gender, as both "Narasiṃha" and "Ananta" are masculine nouns in the original Sanskrit.
  • Nouns with short vowel stems other than /a/, such as "Viṣṇu", "Prajāpati" etc. are declined with the Sanskrit stem acting as the Malayalam nominative singular (the Sanskrit nominative singular is formed by adding a visarga, e.g., as in "Viṣṇuḥ")
  • The original Sanskrit vocative is often used in formal or poetic Malayalam, e.g. "Harē" (for "Hari") or "Prabhō" (for "Prabhu" – "Lord"). This is restricted to certain contexts – mainly when addressing deities or other exalted individuals, so a normal man named Hari would usually be addressed using a Malayalam vocative such as "Harī". The Sanskrit genitive is also occasionally found in Malayalam poetry, especially the personal pronouns "mama" ("my" or "mine") and "tava" ("thy" or "thine"). Other cases are less common and generally restricted to the realm of Maṇipravāḷam.
  • Along with these tatsama borrowings, there are also many tadbhava words in common use. These were incorporated via borrowing before the separation of Malayalam and Tamil. As the language did not then accommodate Sanskrit phonology as it now does, words were changed to conform to the Old Tamil phonological system, for example "Kr̥ṣṇa" → "Kaṇṇan".[109] Most of his works are oriented on the basic Malayalam family and cultures and many of them were path-breaking in the history of Malayalam literature

Writing system[edit]

Aside from the Malayalam script, the Malayalam language has been written in other scripts like Roman, Syriac[110][77][78] and Arabic. Suriyani Malayalam was used by Saint Thomas Christians (also known as Nasranis) until the 19th century.[110][77][78] Arabic scripts particularly were taught in madrasahs in Kerala and the Lakshadweep Islands.[111][112]

Malayalam script[edit]

A Malayalam signboard from Kannur, Kerala. Malayalam is official language in the Indian state of Kerala and the union territories of Lakshadweep and Puduchery
Letters in Malayalam script

Historically, several scripts were used to write Malayalam. Among these were the Vatteluttu, Kolezhuthu and Malayanma scripts. But it was the Grantha script, another Southern Brahmi variation, which gave rise to the modern Malayalam script. The modern Malayalam script bears high similarity to Tigalari script, which was used for writing Tulu language in Coastal Karnataka (Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts) and the northernmost Kasaragod district of Kerala.[18] It is syllabic in the sense that the sequence of graphic elements means that syllables have to be read as units, though in this system the elements representing individual vowels and consonants are for the most part readily identifiable. In the 1960s Malayalam dispensed with many special letters representing less frequent conjunct consonants and combinations of the vowel /u, u:/ with different consonants.

Malayalam script consists of a total of 578 characters. The script contains 52 letters including 16 vowels and 36 consonants, which forms 576 syllabic characters, and contains two additional diacritic characters named anusvāra and visarga.[113][114] The earlier style of writing has been superseded by a new style as of 1981. This new script reduces the different letters for typesetting from 900 to fewer than 90. This was mainly done to include Malayalam in the keyboards of typewriters and computers.

In 1999 a group named "Rachana Akshara Vedi" produced a set of free fonts containing the entire character repertoire of more than 900 glyphs. This was announced and released along with a text editor in the same year at Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. In 2004, the fonts were released under the GNU GPL license by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation at the Cochin University of Science and Technology in Kochi, Kerala.

Chillu letters[edit]

A chillu (ചില്ല്, cillŭ), or a chillaksharam (ചില്ലക്ഷരം, cillakṣaram), is a special consonant letter that represents a pure consonant independently, without help of a virama. Unlike a consonant represented by an ordinary consonant letter, this consonant is never followed by an inherent vowel. 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.[115] In Unicode 5.1 and later, chillu letters are treated as independent characters, encoded atomically.

Chillu letters
Letter Unicode name Base Remarks Examples
CHILLU NN ṇa കൂൺ (kūṇ, "mushroom")
CHILLU N ṉa Chillu of alveolar nasal ṉa. അവൻ (avaṉ, "he")
CHILLU RR ṟa Historically stood for ra , not ṟa . അവർ (avar̠, "they")
CHILLU L la കാൽ (kāl, "foot")
CHILLU LL ḷa അവൾ (avaḷ, "she")
ൿ CHILLU K ka Not in modern use വാൿചാതുരി (doesn't occur word finally.)
CHILLU M ma Not in modern use
CHILLU Y ya Not in modern use
CHILLU LLL ḻa Not in modern use

Number system and other symbols[edit]

Praślēṣam 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 (:').
(Malayalamപ്രശ്ലേഷം, praślēṣam ?)
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 longer used. Instead, the common Hindu-Arabic numeral system is followed. Note that there is a confusion about the glyph of Malayalam digit zero. The correct form is oval-shaped, but occasionally the glyph for 14 () is erroneously shown as the glyph for 0.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 100 1000 14 12 34

Number "11" is written as "൰൧" and not "൧൧". "32" is written as "൩൰൨" similar to the Tamil numeral system.

11 20 21 30 110 10,099
൰൧ ൨൰ ൨൰൧ ൩൰ ൱൰ ൰൲൯൰൯

For example, the number "2013" is read in Malayalam as രണ്ടായിരത്തി പതിമൂന്ന് (raṇḍāyiratti padimūnnŭ). It is split into:

  • രണ്ട് (raṇḍŭ) : 2 –
  • ആയിരം (āyiram) : 1000 –
  • പത്ത് (pattŭ) : 10 –
  • മൂന്ന് (mūnnŭ) : 3 –

Combine them together to get the Malayalam number ൨൲൰൩.[116]

And 1,00,000 as "൱൲" = hundred(), thousand() (100×1000), 10,00,000 as "൰൱൲" = ten(), hundred(), thousand() (10×100×1000) and 1,00,00,000 as "൱൱൲" = hundred(), hundred(), thousand() (100×100×1000).

Later on this system got reformed to be more similar to the Hindu-Arabic numerals so 10,00,000 in the reformed numerals it would be ൧൦൦൦൦൦൦.[117]


In Malayalam you can transcribe any fraction by affixing (-il) after the denominator followed by the numerator, so a fraction like 710 would be read as പത്തിൽ ഏഴ് (pattil ēḻŭ) 'out of ten, seven' but fractions like 12 14 and 34 have distinct names (ara, kāl, mukkāl) and 18 (arakkāl) 'half quarter'.[117]

Ponnani script[edit]

Arabi Malayalam alphabet with Malayalam alphabet correspondences

The Arabi Malayalam script, otherwise known as the Ponnani script,[118][119][120] is a writing system – a variant form of the Arabic script with special orthographic features – which was developed during the early medieval period and used to write Arabi Malayalam until the early 20th century CE.[121][122] Though the script originated and developed in Kerala, today it is predominantly used in Malaysia and Singapore by the migrant Muslim community.[123][124]

Vattezhuthu alphabet[edit]

A medieval Tigalari manuscript (Bears high similarity with modern Malayalam script)

Vatteluttu (Malayalamവട്ടെഴുത്ത്, Vaṭṭezhuthŭ ?, "round writing") is a script that had evolved from Tamil-Brahmi and was once used extensively in the southern part of present-day Tamil Nadu and in Kerala.

Malayalam was first written in Vattezhuthu. The Vazhappally inscription issued by Rajashekhara Varman is the earliest example, dating from about 830 CE.[125][126] During the medieval period, the Tigalari script that was used for writing Tulu in South Canara, and Sanskrit in the adjacent Malabar region, had a close similarity to the modern Malayalam script.[18] In the Tamil country, the modern Tamil script had supplanted Vattezhuthu by the 15th century, but in the Malabar region, Vattezhuthu remained in general use up to the 17th century,[127] or the 18th century.[128] A variant form of this script, Kolezhuthu, was used until about the 19th century mainly in the Malabar-Cochin area.[129]

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 alphabet were sometimes mixed, as in the Manipravalam. One of the oldest examples of the Manipravalam literature, Vaishikatantram (വൈശികതന്ത്രം, Vaiśikatantram), dates back to the 12th century,[130][131] 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.[125][128]

Another variant form, Malayanma, was used in the south of Thiruvananthapuram.[129] 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.[132]


East Syriac Script Thaksa (Chaldean Syrian Church, Thrissur, Kerala, India)

Suriyani Malayalam (സുറിയാനി മലയാളം, ܣܘܪܝܢܝ ܡܠܝܠܡ), also known as Karshoni, Syro-Malabarica or Syriac Malayalam, is a version of Malayalam written in a variant form of the Syriac alphabet which was popular among the Saint Thomas Christians (also known as Syrian Christians or Nasranis) of Kerala in India.[133][110][77][78] It uses Malayalam grammar, the Maḏnḥāyā or "Eastern" Syriac script with special orthographic features, and vocabulary from Malayalam and East Syriac. This originated in the South Indian region of the Malabar Coast (modern-day Kerala). Until the 20th century, the script was widely used by Syrian Christians in Kerala.


According to Arthur Coke Burnell, one form of the Grantha alphabet, originally used in the Chola dynasty, 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.[134] It later evolved into Tigalari-Malayalam script was used by the Malayali, Havyaka Brahmins and Tulu Brahmin people, but was originally only applied to write Sanskrit. This script split into two scripts: Tigalari and Malayalam. While Malayalam script was extended and modified to write vernacular language Malayalam, the Tigalari was written for Sanskrit only.[134][135] In Malabar, this writing system was termed Arya-eluttu (ആര്യ എഴുത്ത്, Ārya eḻuttŭ),[136] meaning "Arya writing" (Sanskrit is Indo-Aryan language while Malayalam is a Dravidian language).


The Sangam literature can be considered as the ancient predecessor of Malayalam.[39] According to Iravatham Mahadevan, the earliest Malayalam inscription discovered until now is the Edakal-5 inscription (ca. late 4th century – early 5th century) reading ī pazhama (English: 'this is old').[137] Although this has been disputed by other scholars.[138] The use of the pronoun ī and the lack of the literary Tamil -ai ending are archaisms from Proto-Dravidian rather than unique innovations of Malayalam.[note 1]

The early literature of Malayalam comprised three types of composition:[57] Malayalam Nada, Tamil Nada and Sanskrit Nada.[57]

  • Classical songs known as Nadan Pattu[57]
  • Manipravalam of the Sanskrit tradition, which permitted a generous interspersing of Sanskrit with Malayalam. Niranam poets[140] Manipravalam Madhava Panikkar, Sankara Panikkar and Rama Panikkar wrote Manipravalam poetry in the 14th century.[57]
  • The folk song rich in native elements

Malayalam literature has been profoundly influenced by poets Cherusseri Namboothiri,[141][57] Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan,[57] and Poonthanam Nambudiri,[57][142] in the 15th and the 16th centuries of Common Era.[57][143] Unnayi Variyar, a probable 17th–18th century poet,[144] and Kunchan Nambiar, a poet of 18th century,[145] also greatly influenced Malayalam literature in its early form.[57] The words used in many of the Arabi Malayalam works those date back to 16th–17th centuries of Common Era are also very closer to the modern Malayalam language.[57][146] The prose literature, criticism, and Malayalam journalism began after the latter half of 18th century CE. Contemporary Malayalam literature deals with social, political, and economic life context. The tendency of the modern poetry is often towards political radicalism.[147] Malayalam literature has been presented with six Jnanapith awards, the second-most for any Dravidian language and the third-highest for any Indian language.[148][149]

Malayalam poetry to the late 20th century betrays varying degrees of the fusion of the three different strands. The oldest examples of Pattu and Manipravalam, respectively, are Ramacharitam and Vaishikatantram, both from the 12th century.[150][57]

The earliest extant prose work in the language is a commentary in simple Malayalam, Bhashakautalyam (12th century) on Chanakya's Arthashastra. Adhyatmaramayanam by Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan (known as the father of modern Malayalam literature) who was born in Tirur, one of the most important works in Malayalam literature. Unnunili Sandesam written in the 14th century is amongst the oldest literary works in Malayalam language.[151] Cherusseri Namboothiri of 15th century (Kannur-based poet), Poonthanam Nambudiri of 16th century (Perinthalmanna-based poet), Unnayi Variyar of 17th–18th centuries (Thrissur-based poet), and Kunchan Nambiar of 18th century (Palakkad-based poet), have played a major role in the development of Malayalam literature into current form.[57] The words used in many of the Arabi Malayalam works, which dates back to 16th–17th centuries are also very closer to modern Malayalam language.[57] The basin of the river Bharathappuzha, which is otherwise known as River Ponnani, and its tributaries, have played a major role in the development of modern Malayalam Literature.[152][57]

By the end of the 18th century some of the Christian missionaries from Kerala started writing in Malayalam but mostly travelogues, dictionaries and religious books. Varthamanappusthakam (1778), written by Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar[153] is considered to be the first travelogue in an Indian language. The modern Malayalam grammar is based on the book Kerala Panineeyam written by A. R. Raja Raja Varma in late 19th century CE.[19]

Folk Songs[edit]

For the first 600 years of the Malayalam calendar, Malayalam literature remained in a preliminary stage. During this time, Malayalam literature consisted mainly of various genres of songs (Pattu).[57] Folk songs are the oldest literary form in Malayalam.[19] They were just oral songs.[19] Many of them were related to agricultural activities, including Pulayar Pattu, Pulluvan Pattu, Njattu Pattu, Koythu Pattu, etc.[19] Other Ballads of Folk Song period include the Vadakkan Pattukal (Northern songs) in North Malabar region and the Thekkan Pattukal (Southern songs) in Southern Travancore.[19] Some of the earliest Mappila songs (Muslim songs) were also folk songs.[19]

Old and Middle Malayalam[edit]

The earliest known poems in Malayalam, Ramacharitam and Thirunizhalmala, dated to the 12th to 14th century, were completed before the introduction of the Sanskrit alphabet. It was written by a poet with the pen name Cheeramakavi who, according to poet Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer, was Sree Veerarama Varman, a king of southern Kerala from AD 1195 to 1208.[154] However the claim that it was written in Southern Kerala is expired on the basis of new discoveries.[155] Other experts, like Chirakkal T Balakrishnan Nair, Dr. K.M. George, M. M. Purushothaman Nair, and P.V. Krishnan Nair, state that the origin of the book is in Kasaragod district in North Malabar region.[155] They cite the use of certain words in the book and also the fact that the manuscript of the book was recovered from Nileshwaram in North Malabar.[156] The influence of Ramacharitam is mostly seen in the contemporary literary works of Northern Kerala.[155] The words used in Ramacharitam such as Nade (Mumbe), Innum (Iniyum), Ninna (Ninne), Chaaduka (Eriyuka) are special features of the dialect spoken in North Malabar (Kasaragod-Kannur region).[155] Furthermore, the Thiruvananthapuram mentioned in Ramacharitham is not the Thiruvananthapuram in Southern Kerala.[155] But it is Ananthapura Lake Temple of Kumbla in the northernmost Kasaragod district of Kerala.[155] The word Thiru is used just by the meaning Honoured.[155] Today it is widely accepted that Ramacharitham was written somewhere in North Malabar (most likely near Kasaragod).[155]

But the period of the earliest available literary document cannot be the sole criterion used to determine the antiquity of a language. In its early literature, Malayalam has songs, Pattu, for various subjects and occasions, such as harvesting, love songs, heroes, gods, etc. A form of writing called Campu emerged from the 14th century onwards. It mixed poetry with prose and used a vocabulary strongly influenced by Sanskrit, with themes from epics and Puranas.[44]

The works including Unniyachi Charitham, Unnichirudevi Charitham, and Unniyadi Charitham, are written in Middle Malayalam, those date back to 13th and 14th centuries of Common Era.[57][29] The Sandesha Kavyas of 14th century CE written in Manipravalam language include Unnuneeli Sandesam[57][29] The literary works written in Middle Malayalam were heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Prakrit, while comparing them with the modern Malayalam literature.[57][29] The word Manipravalam literally means Diamond-Coral or Ruby-Coral. The 14th-century Lilatilakam text states Manipravalam to be a Bhashya (language) where "Malayalam and Sanskrit should combine together like ruby and coral, without the least trace of any discord".[59][60] The Champu Kavyas written by Punam Nambudiri, one among the Pathinettara Kavikal (Eighteen and a half poets) in the court of the Zamorin of Calicut, also belong to Middle Malayalam.[29][57]

Modern Malayalam[edit]

The poem Krishnagatha written by Cherusseri Namboothiri, who was the court poet of the king Udaya Varman Kolathiri (1446–1475) of Kolathunadu, is written in modern Malayalam.[57] The language used in Krishnagatha is the modern spoken form of Malayalam.[57] It appears to be the first literary work written in the present-day language of Malayalam.[57] During the 16th century CE, Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan from the Kingdom of Tanur and Poonthanam Nambudiri from the Kingdom of Valluvanad followed the new trend initiated by Cherussery in their poems. The Adhyathmaramayanam Kilippattu and Mahabharatham Kilippattu written by Ezhuthachan and Jnanappana written by Poonthanam are also included in the earliest form of Modern Malayalam.[57] The words used in most of the Arabi Malayalam works, which dates back to 16th–17th centuries, are also very closer to modern Malayalam language.[57] P. Shangunny Menon ascribes the authorship of the medieval work Keralolpathi, which describes the Parashurama legend and the departure of the final Cheraman Perumal king to Mecca, to Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan.[61]

Kunchan Nambiar, the founder of Thullal movement, was a prolific literary figure of the 18th century.[57]

Impact of European scholars[edit]

Cover page of Nasranikal okkekkum ariyendunna samkshepavedartham which is the first book to be printed in Malayalam in 1772.

The British printed Malabar English Dictionary[157] by Graham Shaw in 1779 was still in the form of a Tamil-English Dictionary.[158] Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar wrote the first Malayalam travelogue called Varthamanappusthakam in 1789.

Hermann Gundert, (1814–1893), a German missionary and scholar of exceptional linguistic talents, played a distinguishable role in the development of Malayalam literature. His major works are Keralolpathi (1843), Pazhancholmala (1845), Malayalabhaasha Vyakaranam (1851), Paathamala (1860) the first Malayalam school text book, Kerala pazhama (1868), the first Malayalam dictionary (1872), Malayalarajyam (1879) – Geography of Kerala, Rajya Samacharam (1847 June) the first Malayalam news paper, Paschimodayam (1879) – Magazine.[159] He lived in Thalassery for around 20 years. He learned the language from well established local teachers Ooracheri Gurukkanmar from Chokli, a village near Thalassery and consulted them in works. He also translated the Bible into Malayalam.[160][161]

In 1821, the Church Mission Society (CMS) at Kottayam in association with the Syriac Orthodox Church started a seminary at Kottayam in 1819 and started printing books in Malayalam when Benjamin Bailey, an Anglican priest, made the first Malayalam types. In addition, he contributed to standardizing the prose.[162] Hermann Gundert from Stuttgart, Germany, started the first Malayalam newspaper, Rajya Samacaram in 1847 at Talasseri. It was printed at Basel Mission.[163] Malayalam and Sanskrit were increasingly studied by Christians of Kottayam and Pathanamthitta. The Marthomite movement in the mid-19th century called for replacement of Syriac by Malayalam for liturgical purposes. By the end of the 19th century Malayalam replaced Syriac as language of Liturgy in all Syrian Christian churches.


Malayalam letters on old Travancore Rupee coin

Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar, (1861–1914) from Thalassery was the author of first Malayalam short story, Vasanavikriti. After him innumerable world class literature works by was born in Malayalam.[57]

O. Chandu Menon wrote his novels "Indulekha" and "Saradha" while he was the judge at Parappanangadi Munciff Court. Indulekha is also the first Major Novel written in Malayalam language.[164]

Shakuntala writes to Dushyanta. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma. The poetry was translated by Kerala Varma as Abhijnanasakuntalam


The third quarter of the 19th century CE bore witness to the rise of a new school of poets devoted to the observation of life around them and the use of pure Malayalam. The major poets of the Venmani School were Venmani Achhan Nambudiripad (1817–1891), Venmani Mahan Nambudiripad (1844–1893), Poonthottam Achhan Nambudiri (1821–1865), Poonthottam Mahan Nambudiri (1857–1896) and the members of the Kodungallur Kovilakam (Royal Family) such as Kodungallur Kunjikkuttan Thampuran. The style of these poets became quite popular for a while and influenced even others who were not members of the group like Velutheri Kesavan Vaidyar (1839–1897) and Perunlli Krishnan Vaidyan (1863–1894). The Venmani school pioneered a style of poetry that was associated with common day themes, and the use of pure Malayalam (Pachcha Malayalam) rather than Sanskrit.[57]

Twentieth century[edit]

In the second half of the 20th century, Jnanpith winning poets and writers like G. Sankara Kurup, S. K. Pottekkatt, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, M. T. Vasudevan Nair, O. N. V. Kurup, and Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri, had made valuable contributions to the modern Malayalam literature.[65][66][67][68][69] Later, writers like O. V. Vijayan, Kamaladas, M. Mukundan, Arundhati Roy, and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, have gained international recognition.[70][71][72][165]


The travelogues written by S. K. Pottekkatt were turning point in the travelogue literature.[57] The writers like Kavalam Narayana Panicker have contributed much to Malayalam drama.[19]

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai turned away from party politics and produced a moving romance in Chemmeen (Shrimps) in 1956. For S. K. Pottekkatt and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, who had not dabbled in politics, the continuity is marked in the former's Vishakanyaka (Poison Maid, 1948) and the latter's Ntuppuppakkoranendarnnu (My Grandpa had an Elephant, 1951). The non-political social or domestic novel was championed by P. C. Kuttikrishnan (Uroob) with his Ummachu (1955) and Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum (Men and Women of Charm, 1958).[57]

In 1957 Basheer's Pathummayude Aadu (Pathumma's Goat) brought in a new kind of prose tale, which perhaps only Basheer could handle with dexterity. The fifties thus mark the evolution of a new kind of fiction, which had its impact on the short stories as well. This was the auspicious moment for the entry of M. T. Vasudevan Nair and T. Padmanabhan upon the scene. Front runners in the post-modern trend include Kakkanadan, O. V. Vijayan, E. Harikumar, M. Mukundan and Anand.[57]

Kerala has the highest media exposure in India with newspapers publishing in nine languages, mainly English and Malayalam.[166][167]


Contemporary Malayalam poetry deals with social, political, and economic life context. The tendency of the modern poetry is often towards political radicalism.[147]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Pillai, Anitha Devi (2010). Singaporean Malayalam. Saarbrücken: VDM. ISBN 978-3-639-21333-1.
  • Dr. K. Ayyappa Panicker (2006). A Short History of Malayalam Literature. Thiruvananthapuram: Department of Information and Public Relations, Kerala.
  • Pillai, A.D. & Arumugam, P. (2017). From Kerala to Singapore: Voices of the Singapore Malayalee Community. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International (Asia). Pte. Ltd. ISBN 9789814721837
  • Menon, A. Sreedhara (2007). A Survey of Kerala History. DC Books. ISBN 9788126415786.
  • Mathrubhumi Yearbook Plus - 2019 (Malayalam ed.). Kozhikode: P. V. Chandran, Managing Editor, Mathrubhumi Printing & Publishing Company Limited, Kozhikode. 2018. ASIN 8182676444.


  1. ^ "*aH and *iH are demonstrative adjectives reconstructed for Proto-Dravidian, as they show variation in vowel length. When they occur in isolation they occur as ā, and ī but when they are followed by a consonant initial word then they appear as a- and i- as in Ta. appoẓutu 'that time'., : Te. appuḍu id. and Ta. ippoẓutu 'that time'., : Te.ippuḍu id. However, Modern Tamil has replaced ā, and ī with anda and inda but most Dravidian languages have preserved it."[139][page needed]

External links[edit]