Know India
This page in Hindi (External website that opens in a new window)


Principal Language

The principal language being used in Kerala is Malayalam. The term 'Malayalam' as referring to the language of Kerala is of comparatively recent origin. To begin with, it denoted the land itself. It is probable that the term is the resultant of a combination of two words, mala meaning mountain and alam meaning the land or locality (which lies along side the mountain). Subsequently the synonyms Malayanma and Malayayma came into being as denoting the language of the Malayalam County and finally the name of the land itself was taken over as the name of its language.

Evidently Malayalam belongs to the Dravidian family of languages, but there is considerable difference of opinion about the exact nature of its relationship with the other languages of the stock, with Tamil in particular towards which it bears the closest affinity. Quite a few scholars are of the opinion that Malayalam is but an offshoot of Tamil, or rather, a daughter. This view, first held by Bishop Caldwell, has since been elaborated and substantiated by a well-known grammarian of Kerala, A.R.Raja Raja Varma. The intimacy that subsisted between the two languages all through the centuries, the identity that the grammars and vocabularies of both the languages evince, and the old practice of using the term 'Tamil' as a synonym for Malayalam have all lent considerable support to this theory. But in the light of the increasing application of scientific methodologies in the assessment of affinities between languages and the comparative studies since carried out in respect of the two languages, this theory would seem to require further examination.


Malayalam is classified as a South Dravidian language. It is the official language of Kerala. All Keralites consider Malayalam as their mother tongue. Possessing an independent written script, it also has a rich modern literature. There are at least five main regional dialects of Malayalam and a number of communal dialects. It belongs to the Dravidian family. Many words have been borrowed from Sanskrits. There are 37 consonants and 16 vowels in the script. Malayalam has a written traditional dating back from the late 9th century and the earliest work dates from 13th century. The script used is called Kolezhethu (Rod-script) which is derived from ancient Grandha Script. Malayalam differs from other Dravidian language as the absence of personal endings on verbs. It has a one to one correspondence with the Indo Aryan Devanagari syllabarry.


At present Malayalam has a script of its own, but in the early centuries it used a form called the vattezhuthu which had currency all over the regions of the Cheras and the Pandyas. It disappeared from the rest of the peninsula by about the fifteenth century, but in Kerala it continued to be in use for three more centuries. Documents, letters, books and inscriptions were mostly written in this script, and even after giving it up, children first initiated into the study of the language were required to learn the vattezhuthu characters also, besides those of Malayalam and Tamil.

From the vattezhuthu was derived another script called the kolezhuthu. It is said that the ezhuthu or writing was done with a kol, a stick, and hence the name kolezhuthu for the script. There is no fundamental difference between the two scripts except that in kolezhuthu there are no specific symbols for endings in u and for a and o. This script was more commonly used in the Cochin and Malabar areas than in Travancore. Yet another script derived from the vattezhuthu was the Malayanma, which was in common use to the south of Thiruvananthapuram. Malayanma also does not differ fundamentally from the vattezhuthu.

With three scripts in current use the writing and reading of Malayalam must indeed have been a difficult affair. Vattezhuthu was perhaps the better form, for it had currency all over Kerala and did not have any regional variations. But the absence of character combinations, the vowels a and o and conventions for symbols were real difficulties. The trouble with kolezhuthu was still more considerable, for it knew regional variations also. And in the case Malayanma, the complexity of the script, Tamil usages and conventional abbreviations for words were handicaps which made it unintelligible to the rest of the region. It is likely that in course of time these difficulties contributed to their disappearance and brought in the grandhalipi which is the basis of the present script.

It is held that grandhalipi the term literally means 'book-script' was in use all over South India since the seventh century A.D. The advent of Manipravala literature must have been the major factor that paved the way for its introduction in Kerala.


Malayalam, the mother tongue of nearly thirty million Malayalis, ninety per cent of whom live in Kerala State in the south-west corner of India, belongs to the Dravidian family of languages. Like the speakers, the languages also has been receptive to influences from abroad and tolerant of elements added from outside.

Malayalam literature too reflects this spirit of accommodation and has over the centuries developed a tradition which, even while rooted in the locality, is truly universal in taste. It is remarkably free from the provincialism and parochial prejudices that have bedeviled the literature of certain other areas. To its basic Dravidian stock have been added elements borrowed or adopted from non-Dravidian literature such as Sanskrit, Arabic, French, Portuguese and English. The earliest of these associations was inevitably with Tamil. Sanskrit, however, accounts for the largest of the "foreign" influences, followed closely in recent times by English. This broad based cosmopolitanism has indeed become a distinctive feature of Malayalam literature.

According to the most dependable evidence now available to us, Malayalam literature is at least a thousand years old. The language must certainly be older, but linguistic research has yet to discover unmistakable evidence to prove its antiquity. Historical accuracy has often been a problem since the records in most cases show no reference to the exact date of their composition. Legends and folklore have often taken the place of historical facts and chronology has been consciously or unconsciously tampered with. Modern research on scientific lines, however, has gone a long way to explain the origin and early development of the language.

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala