Malayalam is the official language of Kerala. Spoken by over 35 million people, it is one of the 22 officially recognized languages of India and ranks eighth in its number of speakers. The speakers of Malayalam are called 'Malayalees'. Apart from Kerala, Malayalam is also spoken by the people of Lakshadweep (a union territory on the western coast of India).
It is supposed that the term 'Malayalam' is derived from the words 'Mala' meaning mountain and 'Alam' meaning land or place. The term 'Malayalam', when spelled in English, is a palindrome.
The language consists of a total of 53 characters comprising of 37 consonants and 16 long and short vowels. A new lipi or style of writing was introduced to replace the old style in 1981. This new style reduced the number of characters radically.
History of Malayalam
Malayalam along with Tamil, Kota, Kodagu and Kannada, belongs to the south Dravidian family of languages. Malayalam is not considered as an ancient language and is the youngest of all developed languages of the Dravidian family. It almost took four to five centuries for Malayalam to emerge as a distinct language from its Proto Tamil-Malayalam variant. It has striking similarity to Tamil. Tamil and Sanskrit being the languages of administration and scholarship, greatly influenced the early development of the Malayalam. Later, with the entry of Brahmins, many Indo-Aryan features were taken up by the language.
The Malayalam vocabulary consists of a number of words borrowed from Sanskrit and Tamil. The arrival of the Europeans further enriched the Malayalam vocabulary, with the language absorbing numerous words and idioms from English, Portuguese, Dutch etc. Infact English stands next to Sanskrit in lending words to Malayalam. Likewise, many Malayalam words found their way into other languages (e.g. Coir, Copra, Catamaran etc.)
Malayalam Scripts and Writing Malayalam
Oldest written record of Malayalam is the vazhappaLLi inscription from circa 830 A.D. The Malayalam script, known as kolezhuthu (Rod-Script), is derived from the ancient Grandha Script. Malayalam consists of 37 consonants (/vyanJanam/) and 16 vowels (swaram). To make typewriting possible in Malayalam, a new style of writing was introduced in 1981. This new style reduced the number of characters considerably. Malayalam also have numerals of its own, but seldom used now a days.
Malayalam has a number of regional and even more number of communal dialects among the native speakers. The variation are evident in accent, vocabulary, grammar etc as region, community, religion, social status differ. Unlike other Dravidian languages, Malayalam differs in such aspects as the absence of personal endings on verbs.
Though Malayalam is a regional language with relatively less number of speakers compared to other Indian languages, 170 daily papers, 235 weekly and over 550 monthly periodicals are published from Kerala alone. The most circulated daily newspaper in any regional language in India is in Malayalam.
With the migration of Malayalees from Kerala to various parts of the world, the language also found its way abroad. Malayalam is now taught in many universities outside Kerala including some in the United States.