Malayalam (/malayALam/) is the principal language of the South Indian state of Kerala and also of the Lakshadweep Islands (Laccadives) of the west coast of India. Malayalis (speakers of Malayalam), who - males and females alike - are almost totally literate, constitute 4 percent of the population of India and 96 percent of the population of Kerala (29.01 million in 1991). In terms of the number of speakers Malayalam ranks eights among the fifteen major languages of India. The word /malayALam/ originally meant mountainous country) (/mala/- mountain + /aLam/-place). Tamil is its neighbor on the south and east and Kannada on the north and east.
With Tamil, Kota, Kodagu and Kannada, Malayalam belongs to the southern group of Dravidian languages. Its affinity to Tamil is the most striking. Proto-Tamil Malayalam, the common stock of Tamil and Malayalam apparently disintegrated over a period of four of 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 irresistable inroads the Brahmins made into the cultural life of Kerala accelerated the assimilation of many Indo-Aryan features into Malayalam at different levels.
The earliest written record of Malayalam is the /vazhappaLLi/ inscription (ca. 830 AD). The early literature of Malayalam comprised three types of composition:
The earliest extant prose work in the language is a commentary in simple Malayalam, Bhashakautaliyam (12th century) on Chanakya's Arthasastra. Malayalam prose of different periods exibit degree of influence of different languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrits, Pali, Hindi, Urdu, Arabi, Persian, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Modern literature is rich in poetry, fiction, drama, biography, and literary criticism.
In the early thirteenth century /vattezhuthu/ (round writing) traceable to the pan-Indian brahmi script, gave rise to the Malayalam writing system, which 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/ with different consonants.
Malayalam now consists of 53 letters including 20 long and short vowels and the rest consonants. The earlier style of writing is now substituted with a new style from 1981. This new script reduces the different letters for typeset from 900 to less than 90. This was mainly done to include Malayalam in the keyboards of typewriters and computers.
Variations in intonation patterns, vocabulary, and distribution of grammatical and phonological elements are observable along the parameters of region, community, occupation, social stratum, style and register. Influence of Sanskrit is most prominent in the Brahimin dialects and least in the Harijan dialects. Loanwords from English, Syriac, Latin, and Portuguese abound in the Christian dialects and those from Arabic and Urdu in the muslim dialects. Malayalam has borrowed from Sanskrit thousands of nouns, hundreds of verbs and some indeclinables. Some items of basic vocabulary (eg/mukhum/ face, /nakham/ nail, /bhArya/ wife, bharthAvu/ husband) also have found their way into Malayalam from Sanskrit.
English stands only second to Sanskrit in its influence in Malayalam. Hundreds of individual lexical items and may idiomatic expressions in modern Malayalam are of English origin.
As the language of administration and as the medium of instruction in schools and colleges, Malayalam is coming into its own. A scientific register in the language is slowly evolving. Remarkably liberal in their attitudes, Malayalis have always welcomed other languages to coexist with their own and the interaction of these with Malayalam has helped its development in different respects.
This material compiled by Hem P. Ramachandran (firstname.lastname@example.org)is heavily adapted from Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Pergamon Press, Oxford.
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