Both Malayalam and Tamil come from a common ancestor, but Malayalam evolved as a separate language due to certain reasons.
Courtesy: Sreekesh Raveendran Nair for The News Minute

Of the four literary Dravidian languages, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil, Malayalam has the youngest literary tradition, the least number of speakers, and the smallest linguistic area. In addition, it is the least studied of the four by linguists.

If that wasn’t enough, Malayalam has historically had to constantly assert its own identity, especially in relation to Tamil, its closest relative. This was because a sense of confusion around Malayalam’s origins (and by extension, its uniqueness) was a recurring theme in Kerala’s history over the last millennium.

It’s something the Malayalam literati were traditionally aware of, something they had to grapple with and make sense of, in their quest to cultivate a distinct Malayalam literary identity. This search for a cohesive national identity became increasingly important as linguistic nationalism took root in India, with print culture and standardised literary registers serving as manifestations of said nationalism.

Intellectuals from Kerala had to establish the distinctiveness of Malayalam, and one of the ways they sought to do so was by examining the language’s origins, cultural traditions, and very linguistic character in greater depth.

Understanding Malayalam’s origins

Modern (spoken) Tamil and modern Malayalam both descend from a common ancestor, Middle Tamil, which in turn evolved from Old Tamil - the language of Sangam literature. Both have undergone numerous changes and innovations since then, and both are equally removed from this earlier period in their linguistic history, since they both branch off from one common point.

This relationship has given rise to the erroneous understanding that modern Malayalam is an offshoot of modern Tamil, when in reality a better analogy would be that the two are sisters, and that one sister dresses up as their mother (ie, Middle Tamil) when the situation calls for something more formal.

Dialects of Middle Tamil evolved differently in different regions, in modern Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, and Kerala. While speakers in Tamil Nadu and Tamil-speaking Sri Lanka continued (and still continue) to use a literary form modelled on Middle Tamil (specifically, a variant described in a 13th century grammar, the Nannūl), speakers in Kerala broke from this tradition during the Middle Tamil period and went on to develop their own literary form, a form that would eventually be called Malayalam.

However, despite these linguistic changes in Kerala’s Middle Tamil dialects and the emergence of a tradition that used these dialects, people did not see themselves as speaking “Malayalam” yet.

As the scholar Rich Freeman writes, consciousness of a well-defined, singular Malayalam identity crystallised relatively late, only in the last few centuries or so. This is reflected in the fact that the very name 'Malayāḷam' for the language (which he calls a relatively modern coining) only gained widespread currency after the start of the colonial period — before that, the speech of Kerala was generally just called Tamiḻ by the average person, and bhāṣā (Sanskrit for language) in literary, Sanskritic registers.

Ensuring Malayalam’s place in linguistic nationalism

Freeman goes on to note that Malayalam borders three linguistic zones that have had differing levels of success in the modernist project of constructing a national identity on linguistic lines - Tamil, which has succeeded spectacularly, and Tulu and Kodava, which have conspicuously failed.

Tamil’s success, of course, derives from the antiquity and robustness of its literary form, while Tulu and Kodava’s lack of success is because they did not have an established literary tradition to begin with. Malayalam’s position was somewhere between the two, and only the efforts of intellectuals bound to its cause could place it in the same camp as the other literary Dravidian languages.

Indeed, the Malayalam literati strove to make this project a reality, zealously devoting themselves to the cause of linguistic nationalism that had seeped to Indian intellectual discourse of the time.

The Kerala Pāṇinīyam

One such Kerala intellectual who sought to define the independent character of his language was AR Raja Raja Varma, an accomplished scholar of Malayalam with an encyclopedic knowledge of the language’s workings and history.

Varma was the first native Malayalam speaker to write a grammar of the language, his 1896 work, the Kerala Pāṇinīyam. In his Kerala Pāṇinīyam, Varma listed six features found in literary Malayalam and not in literary (ie, Middle Tamil based) Tamil, features that he felt definitively gave the former a distinct identity from the latter, and by extension, legitimacy as a distinct literary language.

These features were basically innovations that had occurred in the western dialects of Middle Tamil over the centuries (while other Middle Tamil dialects, the ancestors of modern Tamil dialects, continued to innovate too). One of these innovations is unique to modern Malayalam among virtually all Dravidian languages - puruṣabhēda nirāsam (പുരുഷഭേദനിരാസം), the loss of personal markers, or endings on verbs that encode the grammatical categories of person (first, second, and third person), number (singular, plural), and gender (masculine, feminine, neuter).

Personal markers and their grammatical information

To illustrate the sort of grammatical information personal markers encode, let’s take different forms of the same verb in both Malayalam and Standard Tamil, past tense forms of "to come". In Standard Tamil, you have nān vandēn, avan vandān, avar vandār, avaḷ vandāḷ which mean I came, he came, they came, she came respectively. While vand- part remains constant, what comes after it, the personal marker - encoding person, number, and gender - changes.

In Malayalam on the other hand, these same forms would be ñān vannu, avan vannu, avar vannu, avaḷ vannu. There is only one form for the past tense, vannu, used across variations in person, number, and gender. In other words, a Malayalam verb by itself carries no information about what’s being referred to - it could be oneself, a dog, a group of people, a single person facing the speaker, anyone at all, really. There’s no way to tell, except from the pronouns, and well, context (of course).

Malayalam itself still makes these grammatical distinctions however, as the variation in pronouns indicates. As the term innovation suggests, this was a change that happened over time. Epigraphical and literary evidence available to us shows how the distribution of these markers evolved over the centuries, ultimately disappearing from the language, although persisting in some form in literature.

The evolution of personal markers In Malayalam

The first inscription that is now identified as being in Malayalam, the Vāḻappaḷḷi inscription dating back to the 8th century CE, features personal markers. These personal marker forms were near identical to their Middle Tamil counterparts (and by extension, those in modern literary Tamil).

The Old Malayalam texts and inscriptions that follow the inscription feature personal markers too, with phrases like avaḷ vandāḷ (she came), identical to what literary Tamil uses even today (while the same form is ava vandā in spoken Tamil). However, even in Old Malayalam, there are scattered occurrences of verbs without these personal markers.

These instances of omission would grow over time, becoming more and more frequent. The first grammar of Malayalam, the 14th century Sanskrit language Līlātilakam, references this ongoing innovation, something that would’ve been a contemporary development in the language at the time. However, it goes on to note that lower castes [hīnajātiya] in Malabar [Kerala] do say vandān, irundān - personal endings were still widely being used in day-to-day speech by many Malayalam speakers and hadn’t completely disappeared just yet.

An analysis of Malayalam inscriptions shows that personal markers stopped showing up around the 15th century. Since inscriptions traditionally reflect linguistic changes a lot more readily than literary works, it’s likely around this period that the language finally lost its personal markers for good.

The verse of Eḻuttaccan, the iconic 16th century Malayalam poet widely referred to as the father of modern Malayalam, features verbs both with and without personal markers, albeit with a reduced, partially collapsed system when he did use verbs with them. This convention was inherited from the past in deference to earlier literary tradition, and does not necessarily mean that personal markers were still used in day-to-day Malayalam.

Of course, by the time Varma wrote the Kerala Pāṇinīyam, the literary form that was being cultivated had done away with personal markers, allowing him to identify it as a feature characteristic of literary Malayalam.

Interestingly, some linguists report that personal markers survive in some Malayalam dialects spoken on the islands of Lakshadweep, an archipelago situated around 400 km from the coast of Kerala. The geographic isolation of the islands no doubt helped preserve these verb forms many centuries after they had died out on the mainland. These speakers would basically have to delete these endings in writing, while freely using them in speech.

Cementing linguistic nationalism

This strategic repurposing of Malayalam’s puruṣabhēda nirāsam is a good example of how divergent linguistic paths were used during the era of linguistic nationalism to help the process of forging distinct cultural identities for communities bound to a certain literary language.

It also offers a window of insight into the politics surrounding the formation of linguistic identities, a process that became increasingly important with the rise of nationalism in India and the subsequent solidification of historically fluid linguistic boundaries.

Ultimately, the efforts of the Malayalam literati to consolidate a unique, singular identity for their language bore fruit, and the language’s literary culture flourishes today. The roots of their success in building this identity for the language lie in the standardisation of a distinct Malayalam literary register and its subsequent propagation through print. This could only be achieved through discourse fueled by linguistic nationalism, and the efforts of scholars like AR Raja Raja Varma.

Views are the author's own

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.