Although the Malayalam language forms a cornerstone of modern Kerala’s national identity, its role in framing this identity has been quite muted, especially compared to the rather vocal assertions of linguistic pride that have occupied a prominent place in the political rhetoric of its eastern neighbour, Tamil Nadu.
Malayalam’s linguistic character has generally received less attention in broad non-academic discourse, but it has also been overlooked by professional linguists working with Dravidian languages. This is most probably an unintended consequence of Malayalam itself (and not its literature) not receiving much attention from the general public.
This is unfortunate, as the Malayalam language shows numerous linguistic features that its sister languages lack, setting it apart from them. Some of these even caught the eye of local intellectuals, who used these features to assert a distinct linguistic identity in the early days of linguistic nationalism.
The language also boasts of other features, especially sounds, that are uncommon for languages in general.
In fact, one of these features, present in the everyday speech of any Malayali, is especially noteworthy for just how unique it is – not just in a south Indian context, but indeed anywhere in the world.
Stop consonants is a category of sounds produced by blocking airflow completely, before releasing it in an audible burst. Stop consonants are extremely common sounds in any language. In Indian English, stop consonants are generally represented by the letters p, t, k, th, b, d, and g.
There are many different classes of stop consonants, categorised depending on where in the mouth airflow is blocked. Although their linguistic labels sound technical, they basically refer to the mouth parts involved in pronouncing them, and if you pronounce them slowly, you can feel these parts work together.
For example, the English stop sounds p and b, produced by the lips, are called bilabial (labia is Latin for “lips”) stops, while k and g, produced at the back of the mouth or the velum, are called velar stops.
Most major Indian languages – as well as the Indian English of most Indians – have two classes of stop consonants articulated with the front part of the tongue: dental stops, like the “th” in Indian English “thin”, with the upper teeth; and retroflex stops, like the “t” in Indian English “tin”, with the front of the palate and the tongue curled back.
In fact, retroflex stops are a distinctive feature of Indian (and Pakistani, Bangladeshi) English; they do not appear in any other major English variety outside the subcontinent.
Malayalam stop consonants
In addition to dental stops and retroflex stops common across India, Malayalam adds something extra to the mix – a stop consonant pronounced with the front of the tongue and the ridge of gum right behind the upper teeth, what is called the alveolar ridge. This is the alveolar stop, and is pronounced somewhere between the dental and retroflex stops.
It’s not so much the presence of the alveolar stop that’s interesting as the fact that it co-exists with these two other sounds, the dental and retroflex stops, produced very close to it in the mouth, forming a sound contrast that serves to distinguish between words.
Here are audio samples of each sound used in Malayalam, from the front of the mouth backwards – dental stop, alveolar stop, and retroflex stop. For ease of reading, let’s use -tt-, -ṯṯ-, and -ṭṭ- to romanize these respective sounds.
As a Malayalam speaker pronounces the words pattu (ten), paṯṯi (about), and paṭṭi (dog), her tongue moves down the roof of her mouth in an ever so gradual progression. As you can hear, there is very little difference between each successive sound.
A slip of the tongue
Indranil Dutta, professor of linguistics at Hyderabad’s English & Foreign Languages University (EFLU) and an expert in articulatory phonology, offers some insight into why this seemingly random Malayalam feature is of such interest, linguistically speaking. Dutta and his team at EFLU, along with Charles Redmon of the University of Kansas, recently conducted an acoustic study of this contrast in Malayalam, reporting their findings in an academic paper presented at the 2019 International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Melbourne.
The reason is a lot simpler than you’d think; simply put, it’s because the tongue doesn’t move much in differentiating between these sounds. According to Dutta, since the stop consonants are articulated so close to one another, there is not much perceivable difference between them, and it is easy for the tongue to simplify the contrast.
This low degree of perceptual difference is what makes this distinction quite rare cross linguistically; Dutta adds that only a handful of languages in the entire world feature this. Of these, Malayalam is the most widely spoken with over 35 million speakers, and the only one widely used for written purposes.
Within India itself, only a few Dravidian languages spoken by small Adivasi communities in the Nilgiris feature this contrast, including Kota, Toda, and Irula. Elsewhere, this contrast occurs in a few Australian Aboriginal languages (which are, of course, unrelated to Malayalam).
Malayalam’s old Tamil connect
The roots of Malayalam’s unique dental-alveolar-retroflex stop contrast go much deeper than one might imagine.
Old Tamil (spoken circa 300 BCE – 700 CE, according to linguist Thomas Lehmann), the language of Sangam poetry and the ancestor of both modern Malayalam and modern Tamil, featured this contrast as well.
As this language evolved, its various descendants followed different paths, as did their sound inventories. According to medieval Tamil texts, Old Tamil’s alveolar stop was being lost in common speech east of the Western Ghats – in what would later become modern Indian Tamil – as early as the 12th century. The sound was preserved west of the Ghats (as well as on the island of Sri Lanka), and this variety of Old Tamil spoken west of the Ghats eventually developed into modern Malayalam.
Parts of this region (corresponding roughly to modern central Kerala through the Palakkad Gap) formed the early Chera realm, one of the three primary dynasties of ancient Tamilakam. The Chera kings actively took part in contemporary literary production – numerous poems in the Sangam corpus of poetry, most notably the anthologies the Patiṯṯuppattu and the Aiṅkuṟunūṟu, belonging to the Puṟam and Akam (erotic and heroic) genres respectively, were commissioned by the Chera kings. The very name Kerala comes from the name of this dynasty.
An ancient treatise on Old Tamil grammar, the Tolkāppiyam – also the oldest extant literary work in the Tamil canon – includes descriptions of Old Tamil sounds and their articulation, establishing the presence of dental t, alveolar ṯ, and retroflex ṭ, just like in Malayalam. When the bards of Sangam-era Tamilakam recited their poems, they made use of all three sounds, the way a modern Keralite would.
If you think about it, Malayalam’s alveolar stop is distinct, and a tangible marker of its linguistic continuity with Old Tamil, as well as the Sangam poetry celebrating the Chera realm and exploits, a relationship that is all too easily glossed over.
It doesn’t end there, though. While Malayalam inherits the alveolar stop from Old Tamil, Old Tamil itself inherited it from Proto Dravidian, the ancestor of all Dravidian languages, said to have been spoken as early as circa 2500 BCE.
In other words, this everyday sound contrast of modern Malayalam, in addition to being exceedingly rare for a language to have in the first place, has also seen remarkable continuity through millennia, despite how easy it is for the tongue to simplify it.
From South India’s late pre-history, through early urbanisation in ancient Tamilakam, through the composition of the Patiṯṯuppattu and the Aiṅkuṟunūṟu under the early Cheras, through the heyday of Kerala’s trade with the Roman Empire, through the Rajaraja Chola I’s conquest of Kerala, through the decline of the former Chera port of Muziris, through the emergence of Malayalam bhakti poetry, through the dawn of maritime contact with the Portuguese, through the introduction of Malayalam printing, through the first stirrings of nationalism in Kerala, all the way down to a toddler in today’s Kottayam district gleefully speaking her first confident sentences in her newly found mother tongue, the unstable contrast has survived intact.
A closer look at linguistic features
India’s rich linguistic heritage goes beyond merely its manifestations in literature, rich as they are; Indian languages deserve to be looked at as languages, for their own linguistic characteristics.
Understanding how our languages themselves work offers valuable insights into what makes them what they are as well as how they relate to one another, both in distinctiveness and in similarity. It can also help us appreciate dialects and non-literary languages better, by looking at them beyond what they have to offer by way of the written word.
In this case for example, shining a spotlight on south India’s youngest and most overlooked literary language reveals more than just a striking linguistic curiosity; it offers a brief yet vivid vision of Malayalam’s development through the centuries right from its intimate ties to the language of ancient Tamilakam, simultaneously reinforcing both the very roots of the language, as well as its distinct linguistic identity.
Karthik Malli is a Bengaluru-based communications professional with a keen interest in language, history, and travel. He tweets at @SandalBurn, and posts on Indian languages at @TianChengWen.