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Malayalam is the language spoken predominantly in the state of Kerala, in southern India. It is one of the 22 official languages of India, spoken by around 37 million people. A native speaker of Malayalam is called a ‘Malayali’. Malayalam is also spoken widely in the union territories of Lakshadweep and Mahé, the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu and the Kodagu and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka. Malayalam is also spoken by a large population of Indian expatriates living in Arab States, the United Kingdom the United States and Canada.

The language belongs to the family of Dravidian languages. There are conflicting theories concerning the origin of the language. Robert Caldwell, in his book A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Languages considers Malayalam to be an ancient off-shoot of Tamil, that over time, gained a large amount of Sanskrit vocabulary and lost the personal terminations of verbs.However, linguists like Hermann Gundert consider Malayalam to have diverged from Proto-Tamil-Malayalam, or Proto-Dravidian. Malayalam has a script of its own, covering all the symbols of Sanskrit as well as special Dravidian letters.

The word "Malayalam" is an apparent palindrome; however, strictly, it is not, as the next to last vowel is long and should properly be written with a diacritic or spelled double, and both the first and second 'l' consonants represent different sounds.

With Tamil, Toda, Kannada and Tulu, Malayalam belongs to the southern group of Dravidian languages, most closely resembling Tamil. Its affinity to Tamil is most striking. Proto-Tamil Malayalam, the common stock of Tamil and Malayalam apparently diverged over a period of four or five centuries from the ninth century on, resulting in the emergence of Malayalam as a language distinct from Tamil. As the language of scholarship and administration, Tamil greatly influenced the early development of Malayalam. Later the irresistible inroads the Namboothiris made into the cultural life of Kerala, the Namboothiri-Nair dominated social & political setup, the trade relationships with Arabs, and the invasion of Kerala by the Portuguese, establishing vassal states accelerated the assimilation of many Romance, Semitic and Indo-Aryan features into Malayalam at different levels spoken by different castes and religious communities like Muslims, Christians, Jews and Jainas

In his Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages (1875), Bishop Robert Caldwell argued that Malayalam evolved out of Tamil and that the process took place during the Sangam period (first five centuries A.D.) when Kerala belonged to the larger political unit called Tamilakam, the apogee of Dravidian civilization.

Development of literature

The earliest written record of Malayalam is the Vazhappalli inscription (ca. 830 AD). The early literature of Malayalam comprised three types of composition:

* Classical songs known as Naadan Paattu of the Tamil tradition
* Manipravalam of the Sanskrit tradition, which permitted a generous interspersing of Sanskrit with Malayalam
* The folk song rich in native elements

Malayalam poetry to the late twentieth 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 of the twelfth century.

The earliest extant prose work in the language is a commentary in simple Malayalam, Bhashakautaliyam (12th century) on Chanakya’s Arthasastra. Adhyathmaramayanam by Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan (known as the father of the Malayalam language) who was born in Tirur, one of the most important works in Malayalam literature. Malayalam prose of different periods exhibit various levels of influence from different languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Hebrew, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Although this may be true, Malayalam is strikingly similar to Tamil, considerably more than the similarity between modern Dutch and German. Modern literature is rich in poetry, fiction, drama, biography, and literary criticism.

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