Malayalam the native language of Kerala State India


Malayalam- Growth of the Language and Birth of Literature

By P K Balakrishnan

The evolution of Malayalam language explained here is part of a social transformation that took place between AD 7th and 15th centuries in areas north of Kollam of today’s Kerala.  And the natural back drop is the agrarian village communities that were forming amidst the dense monsoon forests.  Important of the two human elements here is the half tribal people that had taken its first step from savagery to an agrarian village life.  They constitute 90 or 95 percent.  Having a dialect of Pali as mother tongue and proficient in Sanskrit, the Namboodiris, without stepping foot in TamilNadu or breathing the air there reached the forests of this hilly terrain and colonised this ancient tribe and became the instruments of social and linguistic transformation.  The direction and kind of linguistic transformation that took place were determined by the strange respect they got here and the Sanskrit –Prakriti languages they knew.  In a situation where contacts with the local tribes were unavoidable for survival, the evolution of the language was an indispensable part of that relation.  The venue of this evolution drama was a ‘hilly terrain’ where organised agriculture was nonexistent with land fully covered by forests; alien to any kind of political organisation and by its natural peculiarities inaccessible to the world outside.  It is an undisputable historical fact that this area was isolated and culturally far less developed than contemporary Tamil areas.

       The theories of linguistic evolution that rests on the concept that Malayalis were part of a larger Tamil area speaking an early Dravidian dialect like the Tamilians would naturally lead to erroneous conclusions.  The completely absurd idea that the Tamil Brahmin and the Namboodiri of this hilly terrain are the same Brahmin stock that represents the colonisation of the Sanskrit forms a fundamental thought of the existing linguistic evolution theories.  The 8th century Tamil is a language that is adequately developed with proper grammatical structure and was a counted literary language.  Extending this Tamil language and the causative social background to Kerala also is another of the basic concepts of our language theories.  Having proceeded on these undoubtably erroneous presumptions, it is not surprising that they reached the arguments as to whether Malayalam is the daughter or sister of Tamil.  And it is not surprising that those having more intense love for the language discovered that Malayalam is the mother of Tamil.  We need not be surprised that they could not think of enquiring into the origins of the language of a people that existed in an inaccessible hilly terrain in the dialects of the hill tribes that existed then and still exists.  In the case of early historians, they could not see or remedy the limitations of the historical concepts of 1850s.

       The first scientific study on Malayalam language is by F.W. Ellis.  ‘A Dissertation on the Malayalam Language’ later earned him a permanent place in the history of Malayalam literature.    He was the genius who first stated the concept of Comparative Grammar in his dissertation.  This amazing genius who died of poisoning at the age of 40 in 1819 wrote his Dissertation in 1816.  It was after 1850 –after publishing of Carldwell’s Study of Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages and Dr Gundert’s Malayalam Grammar – that this study of Ellis was discovered.  It was a misfortune that produced far reaching effects.    Had Carldwell or Gundert seen it, we have to think that it would have substantially altered their thoughts on evolution of the language.

       This study of Malayalam by Ellis is also written accepting the erroneous historical milieu and social development backdrop mentioned earlier.  When Kerala history was not yet written it was not possible for someone in 1816 to assume that the Tamil kings of the Chera dynasty had not ruled Kerala  or poems like ‘Chilapathikaram’ were not composed in the Chera court at Kodungalloor.  Similarly it was not possible for one to assume that the reign of the Perumals were just myth.  And no one could say that the concept of a wider Tamil area speaking the early Dravidian language was absurd.  In spite of all these, the contradiction between the peculiarities of the evolution of the language being described and the historical and natural background caught the attention of that genius.  Consequently the study of that genius moved to some exceptional assumptions.  He saw that the areas south of Kollam and the traditional areas of ‘the land of hills’ to the north showed difference in the matter of language.  He clearly stated that though the use of chaste Chentamil was widespread he did not think that the people of north knew Tamil.  When he says that this situation is most strange considering the duration of the period Kerala was under the Chera Kings and considering that many of the eminent Tamil literary works were written here, it shows an incompatibility between the facts of the language and the historical conditions.

       Spreading his thoughts to the side that Malayalam language was never subjected to treatment as an independent language nor a single book written on the language or grammar (1816) and wondering how this happened in a language that was just a step away from a well developed language (Tamil), Ellis did get to see the difference between the Tamil and Malayali people.  And he found the reason in the fundamental difference between the position of the Tamil Brahmin and that of the Namboodiris in Kerala.  Ellis writes that if there were science and literature in Malayalam, it is generally true that they are in Sanskrit.  But even in these fields, no works in Sanskrit – barring the books of Sankaracharya which cannot be said to be of Kerala – are linked to the area which can be counted as Kerala. In Tamil Nadu there was competition between Brahmins and the lower castes for   supremacy in knowledge.  From north they brought the language of science (Sanskrit) there.  When they took their place in southern India, the Brahmins found that there was a local literature in existence.  In their long struggle with the entrenched Jains, for their own safety, they were compelled to promote the local language…All the saintly Alwars are Sudras (lower castes).  But the Brahmins had to become their followers and worship them as saints.  When the absolute authorities in many Shiva temples were of the Sudra caste, Brahmins were the regular priests.  These kind of things never happened in Kerala.  The worship of Shiva and other deities continues undisturbed here as when the Namboodiris established it.  The situation did not change even after they were naturalised by laying claim on the women in the area except those of the lower castes and creating a kindred race among the locals.  These Brahmins were able to stand separate and above this kindred race born of their own blood. 

       In this circumstance it cannot be expected that Namboodiris will nourish the Malayalam language.  Religious and logical rivalries have at all times and all countries been a model that has encouraged attempts of lofty literary creations.  Since this competitive encouragement was absent (in Malayalam), the reason for the neglect of Sudras (by Namboodiris) were self evident.  In these circumstances it is natural that there was no independent literature in a sub language that was one step away from a much developed language (Tamil).

       It is because of the fact that Ellis’ study stops at the cardinal point of difference between the Malayalam and Tamil people, that I said that Cardwell and Gundert would have altered their thoughts on the evolution of Malayalam language if they had chanced to see it.  It is not my aim to examine the existing theories of evolution of the language in the light of scientific language theories.    But any one can see that the special facts that link the natural milieu and human elements have to be considered for language study.  It’s a simple truth that it has not happened in the study of evolution of the Malayalam language. 

       The language of the tribes surviving on primitive methods will be limited to a primitive dialect necessary for the communication needs of such a survival.  The vocabulary of such a dialect will not touch the institution or methods of an advanced social life.  In a situation where the contact between different tribes and clans were limited to attacking rivalry, it is extremely rare for the dialects to merge or be modified for mutual communication.  It is seen that when western contacts started in America in 16th century, among the Red Indian tribes of the mainland there were 2000 dialects which were mutually exclusive and none of them had the written form.  In Assam where there are divergent people including partially civilised hill tribes, the number of languages and dialects which are not mutually understandable touches 175.  In Kerala where hill tribes still speak divergent dialects, it can certainly be assumed that there were several intertribal dialects in 7th,8th centuries.  In such a Kerala , merging it with the Tamil areas by doing away with the Western Ghats and in that nonexistent communion searching for the origins of Malayalam language in the ‘Aadidramila language is a pathetic repetition of the beaten track. 

       For students of the science of language, the details of Paniya language is available today.   It may not be contrary to established fundamentals of language to assume that with its grammar and other tools it is an independent dialect though full of Malayalam words through limited contacts throughout the ages with the malayali people.  Anyway Anthropology will not permit to say that the dialect with its grammatical equipments is a subordinate language derived from Malayalam.  A similar dialect of the hilly terrain, due the influence of Sanskrit and Prakriti languages with its own grammatical equipments developed into the Malayalam language.  It has to be assumed that the language replaced the various tribal dialects of the agrarian villages in the hilly land.  It is a widely known fact of World history that Greek language developed out of the Attic dialect, one among the tribal dialects expelling others. 

        The Namboodiris developed a strange interaction with the castes that they converged out of the hilly tribes in the agrarian village.  In spite of depending on erroneous historical and cultural backgrounds, moving to thoughts on language development through an analysis of the internal structure of the language, Ellis could think that special reasons were required for the skewed development of the language.  Thus thinking he could find the reason in the strange position and mentality of the Namboodiri.  This is a fact that salutes the miraculous gift of his genius.  We have already seen one side of the evolution that occurred to the local dialect brought about by the contact of the Namboodiris with the Keralite community and contact with the Sanskrit-Prakriti languages (both these contacts were unconditional dominances).  We need to see a few more facets that completes and further clarifies this insight.

       Logan observes that the only serious difference that Malayalam has from other Dravidian languages is that it is comparatively filled with words adapted or derived from Sanskrit.  Dr Godavarma starts his study on borrowed terms in Malayalam with the observation that Malayalam is the most sanskritised of the Dravidian languages and in addition to the words derived and adapted from Sanskrit, it contains many words from Prakriti.  Prof P.Sankaran Nambiar points out that in north Indian languages like Hindi, Bangali, Marathi etc it is seen that fifty percent of the words are Sanskrit, and in the case of Malayalam it is greater.  It also won’t be wrong to say that for a consummate scholar of the language, his Malayalam dictionary is ‘Amaram Paaremeshwari’ and any word in that Sanskrit dictionary can be accepted as a Malayalam word.  The state of the language shows the role and position of the Namboodiris in the interaction that came into existence between them and the local populace.

       However much a language transforms, it is impossible to change names or natural relations.  This statement of Prof Nambiar contains a well established common law of the science of language.  What was ordinarily impossible was easily achieved in Malayalam as can be seen by the observations of Dr.Godavarma noted below or through own observation:
      “That even the illiterate Malayalis use Sanskrit words in their speech for the ordinary ideas in daily life like ‘pleasure’, sorrow’, ‘kindness’, ‘danger’ points out to the rooted influence that Sanskrit could exercise in the initial stages of development of the language.   The examples of Sanskrit replacing common nouns in Malayalam are plenty.  The corresponding  Malayalam words for ‘sun’, ‘moon’, ‘ornament’, ‘wife’ are not used widely now.   In this context we can also observe that the Malayalam words for ‘father’ and ‘mother’ are used mostly in ridicule.  Dr. Godavarma expresses surprise in a particular situation that several Prakriti words that are not seen in Tamil are seen in Malayalam and in a language that had depended on all matters on Tamil before it developed its own literature, these Prakriti words were unlikely to come through Tamil.
       He also points out some words as examples. These prakriti words, seen in Malayalam but not in Tamil must be a pointer to the mother tongue which came with the Namboodiris which they discarded later. 

       It is one of the fundamental concepts of language that it is impossible to have a language with hybrid forms of grammar.  Though the concept exists without much of a difference in the Malayalam for common parlance, its literary form deserves special attention of the language experts.  It has not been properly enquired as to the reason why the first book of grammar on Malayalam was written in the 15th century based on the Manipravala (hybrid language of Sanskrit and Malayalam) poetry and written in Sanskrit. “Most of the time entire verses are in Sanskrit; it may end with some Malayalam words.  It is seen that this unbridled use of Sanskrit words in the higher literature has lead some Italian scholars to strange misconceptions”.  This description on the method of composition of Manipravala works is of Ellis (1816).  Thus if it is understood that this body of  poetry form filled with Sanskrit words and retaining the grammatical forms of Sanskrit was not a strange section of the language, but the first manifested form of the language, it can be seen straight why the first grammar book on Malayalam was ‘Leelathilakam’ and that it was in Sanskrit.

       During the middle ages in Kerala when Namboodiris and Nayars reigned as the leaders, Manipravala literature formed as a bye product of that co existence reveals more about its society than its language.  The fact that Malayalam developed into literary creations through this hybrid language of Sanskrit and Malayalam and that the subject of these were women was in a logical reasoning and sequence.  We have already seen the initial stages of the method of development of the caste system and Malayalam language.  It was the survival need of the Namboodiris to develop the dialect of the tribal folk now amalgamated into the caste system to one that would suit the requirement of an established society.  And they did it only up to that level.  But they also restrained further growth of the language to the extent of forbidding speaking with clarity the Sanskrit words infused into Malayalam.  Thus the possibility of 99 percent of the people speaking Malayalam improving the language ceased.  Namboodiris gave a literary form to the only relation they developed with the local tribes and it resulted in the Manipravala literature composed in the hybrid language of  ‘3 quarters Sanskrit and one quarter malayalam’.  It can be seen that Namboodiris were capable of little else and that society’s capability was limited to what Namboodiri could do.

The family system of the Namboodiris and their conjugal relation with Nayars altered their mental framework.  Having come to a situation were marriage was not possible for 90 percent of the Namboodiris, love between a man and woman and relations suited for a society became alien concepts to them.  In the absence of marriage, love for a wife and children were unknown to them.  Since they could not freely enter and move around at home, the family love also was a rarity.  The only relation they could have with women were the relations they could have with the Nayar women at night.  It was natural that in the absence of any legality or indebtedness to these untouchable women who were subservient, this degraded into mere sexual intercourse. The natural springs of love in life having dried up, Namboodiris became a lot who could not distinguish the social appropriateness in their natural senses or interactions. 

       Knowledgeable in Sanskrit they were also by and large knowledgeable in epics, poetry and drama.  Unable to move around at will at home, their only occupation during the day was to gather somewhere and gossip.  They spent the day eagerly looking forward to their companion at night and gossiping.  Enemies to script, these Brahmins were exemplary in learning and keeping things in memory.  It must have been as part of this gossiping that they created this imaginative couplets and poetic compositions on their fair companions.  It can be assumed that like today’s poetry competitions they competed to create couplets paying attention to language and the mood of love in their familiar three quarter Sanskrit and one quarter Malayalam mix.  It can be assumed that the more imaginative among them composed longer poetry and these instant poetic compositions were a part of their gossiping group to pass their day time.  Being masters in the art of memorising, we can think that these were known by heart to many.  No other social circumstance can be seen that would prompt the Namboodiris to compose poetry in Malayalam and on the society. 

       It has been pointed out by many readers of ‘Leelathilakam’ that the couplets cited as examples in it must have been from the memorised version of the manipravala poetry. It has to be assumed that like this conjugal games at night, the competitive poetic fireworks conducted as groups during daytime was a routine and that thousands of the compositions were lost.    However we have to note one thing with gratitude.  Manipravala poetry was the first literary form that evolved in Kerala.  The encouragement for Malayalam language to move to a literary language was also provided by the manipravala literature.  The reason why breasts of women and related words frequent Malayalam poetry before the 20th century like shells on the sea shore is because of this. For those who discover and place songs as the origin of  Malayalam poetry, the songs quoted by them and their language, however hard you push will not date to the 15th century when viewed historically.  It has to be concluded that Malayalam language entered the realms of literature through the Manipravala poetry.  The cultural excellences of any society are the creation of its upper classes.  Seen that way Manipravala literature is the truthful expression of the Kerala caste society of that time. The development of the society, the evolution of the language and the forces that moulded them are exemplified by Manipravala literature.

(Based on a chapter on development of Malayalam in “The Caste System and History of Kerala” by P K Balakrishnan.  Some aspects in this article may refer or need reference to other chapters in the book for clarity and better understanding.)