Monday, March 18, 2013

Language Profile: Malayalam

This week's language profile is on Malayalam, an official regional language of India with 35.9 million native speakers. It is a member of the Dravidian language family, and was originally a dialect of the Tamil language. Much of its lexicon derives from Sanskrit, though most of these words are generally used only in formal literary contexts.

Sunrise near Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala.
The name of the language likely comes from the Malayalam and Tamil words mala meaning "hill" and elam meaning "region". The term Malayalam was originally used in reference to the hilly region where the language was spoken. The language itself was called Malayanma until sometime in the 19th century, when people got lazy and decided to use the same name for the region and the language.

The Malayalam language is primarily spoken in the Indian state of Kerala on the country's southwest coast. It was originally a local dialect of Tamil, the language now spoken in the bordering state of Tamil Nadu, but gained recognition as a separate language sometime around the 10th century. It's also an official language in Lakshadweep and Puducherry, which are part of the Union Territories of India.

The language boasts many distinct dialects which exist for regional, social, and even occupational reasons. Several dialects of Malayalam have been influenced by the religion of their speakers. The dialects spoken in Christian communities show elements from Latin, Greek, Portuguese, and English. Muslim dialects are more influenced by Arabic and Urdu, while Jewish dialects have many Hebrew, Syriac, and Ladino loanwords. There's also a dialect principally spoken by fishermen!

"Malayalam" written in Malayalam script.
Malayalam script is an abugida and has the largest number of letters among Indian languages, with 52 letters that combine to make 578 characters. This large inventory of symbols includes letters that represent all the sounds used in all other Dravidian languages as well as Sanskrit! While that probably sounds like a nightmare to learn, it should make it considerably easier for Malayalam native speakers to learn other Indian languages since they should already be familiar with all the sounds.