How does a widely spoken language variety go unrecognised by academics for decades? How do its speakers challenge and overturn this perception, giving their language a new linguistic identity in the process?
The story of Byari Bashe and the quest for its distinct identity can show us how.
The spatial and linguistic dimensions of richly diverse Tulu Nadu - a primarily Tulu speaking region in coastal southwestern India, mostly within the state of Karnataka - include speakers of many other languages. The second most widely spoken mother tongue in the region is Byari Bashe (commonly spelled Beary, a less faithful transliteration), a southern Dravidian language spoken by the Muslim Byari community (who form over 80% of the Tulu Nadu’s Muslim population), mutually unintelligible with the Tulu of their neighbours. Mangaluru, the economic and cultural capital of Tulu Nadu, is called Maikāla in Byari.
Byari is also spoken outside Tulu Nadu in central coastal Karnataka, western Malenāḍu, and Koḍagu.
The very name Byari points to the history of the speaker community. Byāri is a Tulu form of the Sanskrit vyāpārī, trader, a reference to the Byaris’ traditional occupation in trading and business. In fact, the community dominated the overseas trade of the region. According to the Byari scholar KM Ichlangod, around 97% of traders and businessmen in the undivided South Canara of 1891 were Byaris, easily identifiable in colonial government records by the surname “Beary”.
Byari’s ties to Malayalam and the Malabar
Like Tulu, Byari is a non-literary language. While Tulu was intermittently used in inscriptions over the centuries, there are no such records for Byari. Unlike Tuluvas, however, Byaris traditionally used Malayalam and not Kannada for written purposes, mostly in religious texts.
This is because the Byaris historically shared a close relationship with their co-religionists further south, the Mappilas of the Malabar. Both communities trace their origins back to contact with Arab traders who spread their religion across the coast, which in local folklore was facilitated by the mythical Chera king Cheraman Perumal, merely decades after the establishment of Islam. One of the oldest mosques in the country is Mangaluru's Zeenat Baksh Masjid (beliye palli in Byari), said to originally have been built in the 7th century CE, in the early days of the faith.
Byari religious scholars traditionally traveled to centers of Islamic learning in the Malabar, especially Ponnani, for religious training that was imparted in Malayalam and Arabic. These religious institutions used the Arabi-Malayalam script, a modified form of the Arabic script designed to represent Malayalam sounds. Many madrassas in Byari speaking regions still use Malayalam as their language of instruction.
There are some isolated 20th century samples of Byari written in a script called baṭṭe baraha (lit. “cloth script” in Kannada), descended from the classical Grantha script. Grantha is also the ancestor of the Malayalam script, as well as the now mostly moribund Tigalari or Tulu script that is undergoing a revival of sorts. Baṭṭe baraha was never widely used, and does not seem to appear in records.
Byari’s linguistic characteristics
Unfortunately, there is only one academic linguistic description of Byari, a grammatical sketch of Byari written by the linguist Susheela P. Upadhyaya, based on her PhD thesis. According to her, Byari can be seen as linguistically transitional between Tulu and Malayalam, the two languages it is usually defined in relation to. The study even compares Byari with Malayalam and to some extent Tulu to show how it differs from both. In her sketch, she notes that the community spoke “a language made of Malayalam idioms with Tulu phonology and grammar.”
Indeed, while Byari’s vocabulary is very similar to Malayalam’s (especially the northern dialects of the Malabar), its grammar and sound system mostly mirror that of Tulu. Byari has also undergone the same sound changes that Tulu has, for example the v to b shift at the beginning of words that Tulu itself likely picked up from Kannada (compare Byari bayaru, bale, with Malayalam vayaṟu, vala; stomach, net).
Sounds found in Malayalam but not in Tulu are absent in Byari as well. For example, while Malayalam distinguishes between two r sounds (one trilled, one flapped), there is no such distinction in Tulu or Byari.
An example of a grammatical difference is the presence of verb markers in Byari that encode the grammatical person, number, and gender information of who or what is being referred to, a feature that Malayalam lacks entirely. Byari uses nānu banne, avonu banna (I came, he came; -e is used for “I”, -a for “he”) while Standard Malayalam has ñān vannu, avan vannu where vannu is used regardless of who or what the verb refers to. Personal markers in Byari are somewhat similar to those in Tulu.
These are just a few examples of many signs that point to close, intimate language contact between Byari and Tulu, with the smaller language picking up features and innovations from the larger one, converging with its grammatical and phonological structure.
In addition, Byari’s lexicon contains many Arabic and Persian loanwords, from trade and religious links. At the same time however, the language uses words drawn from Dravidian and Sanskrit sources for Islamic concepts, like the Dravidian-origin words nōmbu for fasting during Ramzan (as opposed to Persian rozā used in Urdu) and palli for mosque.
Byari’s oral tradition
Like almost all other languages of Tulu Nadu, including Tulu itself, Beary is a non-literary language, meaning it has no tradition of written literature. However, like Tulu, Byari possesses an oral literature, albeit not as robust as Tulu’s. Many genres of Byari oral literature, particularly religious ones, are heavily Mappila Malayalam influenced, and indeed shared with the Mappilas. These genres include oppane pāṭu, sung during weddings (mangila in Byari), kōlkali played with sticks (kōl), and ūnjal pāṭu sung by mothers to babies in cradles.
In 2011, a movie made in Byari, just titled Byari, won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film. Interestingly, Byari characters even feature in the primary genre of Tulu oral poetry, the pāḍdana, and there are Byari bhūtas in Tulu Nadu’s pre-Vedic bhūta kōla worship tradition.
Lack of official or academic recognition
Given Byari’s clearly distinct linguistic character (made apparent by Upadhyaya’s study, as we’ve seen above) and its sizeable speaker community numbering in the lakhs, it’s disappointing that the language itself finds scant mention in academic literature and records.
In fact, the name Beary isn’t even found in the Census of India’s language tables - speakers are generally counted under “others”, or Malayalam. According to the 2011 Census, 16.07% of Dakshina Kannada district speaks “others”. Byari doesn’t find mention in otherwise meticulously detailed books on Dravidian linguistics either, including in leading Dravidian linguist Bhadriraju Krishnamurti’s monumental The Dravidian Languages. Upadhyaya’s study is the only academic work that actually analyses the language and indeed recognises it as a distinct language.
Byari’s transitional linguistic nature, its lack of written tradition, and its ties to Kerala’s Malayalam-based traditions of Islamic learning meant that Byari itself was traditionally classified as a Malayalam dialect by scholars. As a result, its unique identity as a part of Tulu Nadu’s linguistic landscape was not acknowledged.
Ironically, Upadhyaya’s study of the language was originally titled 'Mapila Malayalam : A Descriptive And Comparative Study' when it was first published in 1969, treating it as “a northern Malayalam dialect” with no mention of a distinct Byari cultural or linguistic identity. In the (relatively recent) revised edition, she mentions that when she originally conducted the study, the community was referred to as the Mapilas, and their language variety the Mapila dialect of Malayalam.
She uses its distinct linguistic features to illustrate the language variety, but what makes a language variety an independent language and not a dialect is a shared awareness amongst the members of a speaker community that what they speak bears a distinct linguistic identity. These considerations are more political and cultural than linguistic.
More significantly, these factors can change.
Changing fortunes, growing cultural assertion
Byari’s modern history is an illustrative example of how language varieties that were originally considered dialects of certain language can eventually be seen as distinct languages themselves, through growing social and cultural identification with such an identity.
In the foreword to the book The Bearys Of Tulu Nadu, the Byari community leader M B Abdul Rehman, writes there has been a growing awareness of a Byari linguistic identity in the last few decades, roughly since the '80s. This led to the founding of numerous bodies to oversee the growth of the language, with regular events and book publications to reinforce this growth and ensure its wider spread among the community, even initiating outreach efforts with other linguistic groups.
The most important of these bodies is the Karnataka Beary Sahitya Akademi, headquartered in Bunder, Mangaluru. The Akademi has published numerous books on the Byari language, some even in English. Beary Sahitya Sammelans take place annually, involving the community more and more in their mother tongue, rewarding speakers who’ve managed to contribute original research and literature.
It’s significant that Upadhyaya’s study was edited and republished in 2011 by the Akademi with references to “Mapila Malayalam” and “dialect” replaced by “Beary” and “language”. With enough cultural awareness among the Byaris, she revised the conclusions of her findings to show that Byari was no mere dialect of Malayalam. She was approached by the community leaders (and Byari scholars) BM Ichlangod and Wahab Doddamane who convinced her that her study was linguistic evidence of Byari’s distinct identity.
With the spread of literacy, Byaris now use Kannada as their written language and use the Kannada script to write Byari, moving away from their traditional adherence to Arabi-Malayalam (which has died out even in Kerala) and closer to the Kannada-literate traditions of the rest of Tulu Nadu’s communities. Many madrassas are also moving away from Malayalam towards Kannada. The Beary Sahitya Akademi mostly publishes books in Kannada, but publishes Byari books written in the Kannada script as well. Many Byaris have become literatteurs of note in Kannada, like Bolwar Mahammed Kunhi and Abussalam Puthige. There is even a Byari newspaper, Beary Varthe.
Given all this, the next logical step seems to be acknowledgement of Byari as a distinct language by the government itself, something that will help it be documented better and grow more. The speaker community is clearly doing its part, and linguistic opinions can evolve and indeed have, corresponding to stronger identification with a Byari 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.