Evolution of the Language

[ The Script ] [ Script reform ]

Traces of emergence of Malayalam as a distinct language can be observed in the inscriptions of 9th century A.D.  Belonging to the southern group of Dravidian languages, along with Tamil, Kota, Toda, Kodagu and Kannada,  Malayalam is genetically most related to Tamil. Proto - Tamil - Malayalam, the common stock of Tamil and Malayalam, apparently disintegrated 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.  

Prior to 9th century, the people of both sides of the Western Ghats spoke the same language which had only dialectal variations within itself.  The language employed in literary compositions by writers of both the regions was also one and the same.  Many a reputed figure of ancient Tamil literature, like Paranar, Ilankoo Adikal and Kulasekhara Aalwarbelonged to the west coast.  The Sangham Literature may, therefore, be considered the common heritage of both Tamilnadu and Kerala.

 During the course of its slow evolution the language of the west coast was exposed to the influence of various circumstances in different periods of its history.  Thus early centuries of evolution of Malayalam are characterised by the predominance of Tamil influence.  Tamil had acquired the status of the language of  scholarship and served that purpose not only in the eastern side of the Western Ghats, but also in the west coast, where Malayalam was the language of the masses.  Slowly, but steadily, the colloquial language of Kerala rose in status so that it could penetrate into the highly stylized and rigid language employed even in the imperial documents.

During the Brahmins' cultural conquest of South India in general and of Kerala in particular, the influence of Sanskrit and Prakrit on the regional language became irresistible.   The influence of the Brahmins and their language on the life and language of the people inhabiting Kerala has had long standing effects.   Aryan influence on the Malayalam language appears to be all pervasive, infiltrating into almost all levels of the language. It did have a catalytic effect in the final disintegration of  Proto-Tamil-Malayalam  and separation of Malayalam and Tamil from each other.

The source of the present day Malayalam script is to be traced to one specific style of writing known as vattezhuttu, current  in the west coast till the end of the 18 th century. Most of the early records in Malayalam are written in this style. vattezhuttu (round writing) in its turn is derived from the Brahmi script  prevalent all over India during the period of Ashoka. vattezhuttu was known by different other names, such as gajavativu (elephant shape) cerapandyalipi and nanam monam. gajavativu probably refered to the fact that the letters in this style of writing were rounded in shape, resembling the foot prints of an elephant;  cerapandyalipi, indicated that the script was current not only in Kerala but also in the Tamil Nadu. One variety of vattezhuttu predominant in places north of Kochi developed special symbols to represent the high back unrounded vowel in Malayalam, and also ' e '   and ' o ' .  The general shape of the script became peculier in due course. This style later came to be known as kolezhuttu.  Subsequently vattezhuttu, prevalent in places  south of Trivandrum also assumed special features and came to be known as Malayanma.  Compared to vattezhuttu, both kolezhuttu and malayanma were devoid of symbols to represent consonants, fricatives and aspirated and voiced varieties of plosives.  During the course of evolution of Malayalam, when more and more Sanskrit elements found their way into the language, inability of these scripts to represent such items satisfactorily became quite obvious.  In the initial stages special symbols known as grandhakshars, which can also be traced ultimately to Brahmi, were employed in order to represent unassimilated Sanskrit loan words occurring in a text in the regional language.  Thus in early inscriptions of the Kerala Coast we come across symbols of   both vattezhuttu and grandhakshara. The modern Malayalam scripts derived from such a style of writing.  Systematisation of the present day Malayalam script appears to have been more or less complete as early as the first half of the 13th century.

Barring a few letters representing non-initial consonants, the Malayalam  script is syllabic in nature, since, in most cases, each  letter represents either a word, initial vowels or a consonant with an inherent 'a'.


The most significant attempt to reform the Malayalam script so as to make it better suited for easier learning by children, fast type-writing and printing has taken place in 1981. A considerable amount of reduction in the number of special letters representing less frequent conjunct consonants and combinations of vowels with consonants is the chief advantage of the new system.  Instead of 500 different letters required for handling the traditional script, the present system which is equally efficient needs only 90.  Another advantage of this new system is that it does not involve any radical change in the shape of the letters. This was mainly done to include Malayalam in the keyboards of typewriters and computers.



Back Home Next