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Classification: Dravidian, Southern Dravidian. Other major South Dravidian languages are Tamil and Kannada.

Overview. Malayalam is a major literary language of South India, together with Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, all belonging to the Dravidian family. Malayalam is closest to Tamil from which it has diverged from the 8th century onwards. It is agglutinative, adding suffixes to nominal and verbal stems to indicate grammatical categories like case, number, and tense but, unusually among Dravidian languages, it has lost person-number agreement in the finite verb. It has been deeply influenced by Sanskrit, the classical language of religion and scholarship, at the phonological and lexical levels.

Distribution. Malayalam is spoken in the state of Kerala, in southwest India, and in the Lakshadweep Islands, 200 to 400 km off the coast of Kerala. There are also Malayalam speakers in the states bordering Kerala (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu) and in other parts of India.

Speakers. Malayalam is spoken by about 39 million people in the following Indian states: Kerala (36.4 million), Karnataka (800,000), Tamil Nadu (700,000), Maharashtra (500,000). In the Lakshadweep Islands it is the mother-tongue of 60,000 people or 85% of the total population.

Status. Malayalam is the official language of the state of Kerala and of the Lakshadweep Islands. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India (90% of the population).


Varieties. Malayalam has literary and colloquial varieties. Literary Malayalam is understood by the majority of the people and is used in administration and in the media. It is considered the standard language though a colloquial standard is also developing. Colloquial Malayalam includes many regional dialects overlapping with caste and religious varieties (Hindu, Muslim and Christian).


830-1300. Old Malayalam.

1300-1700. Middle Malayalam.

1700-present. Modern Malayalam.

Oldest Documents. The earliest is the Vazhappalli inscription of king Rajasekhara dating back to 830 CE. The first literary works appeared in the 13th century.


Vowels (10). Malayalam has five short and five long vowels. Vowels occur in all positions in a word, except for o which is not permitted at the end of it.


It also has two diphthongs, ai, au, which occur in the literary language.

Consonants (35-36). Besides a Dravidian consonantal inventory, Malayalam has aspirated stops and supplementary sibilants borrowed from Indo-Aryan. [f] occurs mostly in European borrowings. Voiceless unaspirated stops, nasals and laterals [l], [ɭ] can be geminated. The distinction between single and geminated consonants is phonemic. Only six consonants, [m], [n], [ɳ], [r], [l], and [ɭ], can occur word finally.


Sandhi: internal and external sandhi are commonplace. They result in vowel and consonant deletion, assimilation of consonants and fusion.

Stress: it falls always on the first syllable of a word.

Script and Orthography

Malayalam is written in an abugida script derived ultimately from Brāhmī in which every consonant carries an inherent a. The signs for initial vowels (shown here) are different from those for internal vowels (not shown). The alphabetic order is based on phonological principles: it begins with the simple vowels and diphthongs followed by 25 stops and nasals arranged in five groups according to their place of articulation. It continues with semivowels (liquids and glides) and fricatives to end in two retroflex liquids which don't exist in Sanskrit and, thus, were not represented in Brāhmī.

Geminated consonants and other consonant clusters are written side by side or one above the other. Below each Malayalam sign appears the standard transliteration in the Latin alphabet, and between square brackets its equivalent in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

  1. is a syllabic vowel found only in Sanskrit loanwords.

  1. [f] is found mostly in Urdu and English loanwords and doesn't have a specific sign; it is represented with ph that also serves for [pʰ].


Malayalam is an agglutinative language adding suffixes to nominal and verbal stems to mark grammatical categories.

  1. Nominal. Nouns are marked for case, number and natural gender. Malayalam has very few true adjectives; attributive adjectives precede the noun and are invariable.

  1. gender: masculine, feminine, neuter. Gender is not marked on the noun, but it is indicated on 3rd person and demonstrative pronouns or in the form of a noun expressing natural gender. Sanskrit words retain their original gender.

  1. number: singular, plural. Masculine and feminine nouns ending in a take the plural suffix -mār. Feminine nouns ending in i take -mār or -kaḷ. Other feminine nouns take -kaḷ. Masculine or feminine nouns ending in ā or ṛ take -kkaḷ. Masculine nouns ending in an change it to -ar. Most neuter nouns take -kaḷ, -kkaḷ or -ṅṅaḷ except if preceded by a quantifier when are unmarked for plural.


  1. case: nominative, accusative, dative, instrumental, comitative, genitive, locative. Cases are marked by suffixes except the nominative that is unmarked: accusative with -a or -e, dative with -u or -kku, instrumental with -āl in literary Malayalam but with the postposition kontu (with) in the colloquial language, comitative with -ōṭu, genitive with -te, locative with -il.

  2. The declension of manuyan (‘man’) is:

  1. nominative: manuṣyan

  2. accusative: manuṣyane

  3. dative: manuṣyannu

  4. instrumental: manuṣyanāl

  5. comitative: manuṣyanōṭu

  6. genitive: manuṣyante

  7. locative: manuṣyanil

  1. The base for the oblique case is not always identical to the nominative. If the noun is plural the case suffix comes after the plural marker (accusative manuyare, instrumental manuyarāl, etc).

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, possessive, reflexive, relative.

  2. Personal pronouns: those for the 3rd person are identical to the remote demonstrative pronouns and distinguish gender and number. In the singular they have different masculine, feminine and neuter forms, in the plural they have just two forms, one common for masculine and feminine and the other neuter. Besides, there are inclusive and exclusive 1st person plural pronouns. Pronouns are declined like nouns by adding case suffixes.

  1. 1sg: ñān

  2. 2sg: nī

  3. 3sg.m: avan

  4. 3sg.f: avaḷ

  5. 3sg.nt: atu

  1. 1pl.incl.: nām/nammaḷ

  2. 1pl.excl.: ñaṅṅaḷ

  3. 2pl.: niṅṅaḷ

  4. 3pl.m-f: avar(kaḷ)

  5. 3pl.nt: ava/atukaḷ

  1. Demonstrative pronouns recognize proximate (‘this’) and remote (‘that’) locations as well as gender and number. The proximate demonstrative pronouns are formed by replacing the initial a of 3rd person pronouns by i: ivan (‘this’, masc.), ivaḷ (‘this’, fem), itu (‘this’, neuter), ivar (‘these’, masc-fem), iva (‘these’, neuter). Remote demonstrative pronouns are identical to 3rd person pronouns.

  1. Verbal. Malayalam has lost all personal endings except in the imperative. Finite and non-finite forms consist of a stem plus tense markers.

  1. tense: present, future, past.

  2. To form the present -unnu is added to the root or derived stem. The future tense is marked by -um and occasionally by -ū; it can also express an habitual action and eternal truths. Stems ending in vowel take (k)k before the present and future markers. The past tense markers are -i, or -u preceded by a number of consonant sequences like the nasals nn,-ññ, ṇ, nt or the stops t, ṭ, ṛ, c.

  1. For example the conjugation of the root po (‘go’) is: poyi (past), pokunnu (present), pokum (future). Further examples of past conjugations are: -i (‘sang’), iru-nnu (‘sat’), kara-ññu (‘wept’), etu-ttu (‘took’), ka-u (‘saw’).

  1. Negative conjugations are marked with ā + tense marker or by affixation of the particle illa/alla after the tense marker:

  1. eṣtap-ett-illa

  2. like-PAST-NEG

  3. didn't like


  1. aspect: perfective, imperfective.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative, conditional, necessitative.

  2. The affirmative imperative has 2nd person singular, formed by suffixing -kku to the stem(nōkku = look!), second plural, marked by the suffix -in, as well as 3rd person forms ending in -(a)ṭṭe (varaṭṭe = let him come). A negative imperative is formed with the suffix -ruthu.

  3. The conditional is formed with the suffixes -āl or -eṅkil. The necessitative is used to express a necessity or obligation; it has past, present and future forms.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, participles.

  2. The infinitive is formed by adding -(k)kuka or -yuka to the stem e.g. varuka (‘to come’), paayuka (‘to speak’).


Malayalam lacks, exceptionally among Dravidian languages, subject-verb agreement. Word order is flexible, the usual one is Subject-Object-Verb:

  1. Aankutti-kal mūnnu valiya meen pidi-chu.

  2. boy-PL     three     big     fish   catch-PAST

  3. The boys caught three big fish.

Noun modifiers occur in the noun phrase in the following order:

possessive + demonstrative + numeral + adjective + noun. For example:

  1. enre ā oru nalla pēna

  2. my that one good pen

  3. That good pen of mine.

Verb objects, direct and indirect, can be formed by nouns or noun phrases. The direct object takes accusative case and the indirect one takes dative.

The interrogative clitic o added at the end of the verb is used to pose yes-no questions. Interrogative sentences, can also be formed with interrogative words such as: āru ‘who?’, ētu ‘which?’, and entu ‘what?’. Possession may be expressed by genitives or possessive pronouns.


Malayalam has borrowed a great deal from Sanskrit and also from Tamil. Muslim dialects have many loanwords from Arabic and Persian, Christian dialects from Syriac and Greek.

Basic Vocabulary

one: oru, onnu

two: raṇṭu

three: mūnnu

four: nālu

five: añcu

six: āru

seven: ēḷu

eight: eṭṭu

nine: onpatu

ten: pattu

hundred: nūru

father: appa, acha

mother: amma

brother: sahōdara

sister: sahōdari

son: makan

daughter: makaḷ

head: tala

eye: kaṇṇu

hand: kai

heart: aduppu

tongue: nākku

Key Literary Works. Forthcoming.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Malayalam. R. E. Asher & T. C. Kumari. Routledge (1996).

  2. -Malayalam: A University Course and Reference Grammar. R. F. Moag. Michigan University (1980).

  3. -Malayalam. S. Essey, E. Silkensen & L. Spangler (2009).

  4. -The Dravidian Languages. Bh. Krishnamurti. Cambridge University Press (2003).

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