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Malayalam (മലയാളം), should not to be confused with Malay, a language spoken in Malaysia. It belongs to the Southern branch of the Dravidian language family. Although closely related to Tamil, Malayalam is more influenced by Sanskrit than Tamil. Scholars believe that the common ancestor of Tamil and Malayalam split in the 9th century AD, giving rise to Malayalam as a language distinct from Tamil. Tamil subsequently influenced the early development of Malayalam because it was the language of scholarship and administration. Although closely related to Tamil, Malayalam is more influenced by Sanskrit than Tamil.


Malayalam is one of the 22 official languages and 14 regional languages of India. It is spoken by 38 million people primarily in the state of Kerala and in the Laccadive Islands in southern India. It is also spoken in Bahrain, Fiji, Israel, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, and United Kingdom.

Malayalam has official language status in the Indian state of Kerala and in the Laccadive Islands. In these regions, Malayalam is used in government, commerce, and in mass communication. Throughout the period of the British rule of India, English was the language of most education above the elementary level. It was required in all administration above the district level, and was the dominant language of the print media. After Independence in 1947, the state governments of India started using regional languages more and more in administration andt he media. Greater use of Malayalam has contributed to the growth of the language in terms of vocabulary and the number of styles and registers.


  • Formal vs. informal
    Malayalam has two basic styles: a formal and an informal one. The formal style is used in most writing, in radio and TV programs, and in public speaking.
  • Regional
    Ethnologue identifies a number of regional dialects of Malayalam. Among them are Central Kerala, Kasargod, Kayavar, Malabar, Malayalam, Moplah (Mapilla), Nagari-Malayalam, Namboodiri, Nasrani, Nayar, North Kerala, Pulaya, South Kerala (Ethnologue). These regional dialects are characterized by differences in pronunciation and vocabulary.
  • Social
    There are also a number of social varieties depending on caste and religion. There are differences in the speech of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims within a single geographic area. For instance, among the Hindus, the speech of Brahmins (the highest caste) differs from that of Nairs (a medium-high caste), and these, in turn, are distinct from the speech of Ezhava (low caste). The language of the high castes is more influenced by Sanskrit than the language of the lower castes; dialects spoken by Christians have more loan words from PortugueseLatin, and English than other dialects. Dialects spoken by the Muslim population have many borrowings from Arabic and Urdu. At the same time, spoken Malayalam is rapidly becoming standardized due to the influence of mass education and the growing influence of mass media.


Sound system

Malayalam has 12 vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. All vowels, except /i/ and /ə/ can be short or long. Vowel length distinguishes between meaning of otherwise identical words.

i, ī
u, ū
e, ē
o, ō
a, ā
  • /i/ = similar to e in roses
  • /ə/ = a in about


The consonant system of Malayalam is similar to that of other Dravidian languages. It is characterized by the following features:

  • There is a contrast between plain and aspirated stops, both voiceless and voiced, e.g., /p – pʰ, b – bʰ/. Aspirated stops are produced with a strong puff of air accompanying their release.
  • There is a contrast between apical and retroflex consonants, e.g., /t/ – /ʈ/. Apical consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, whereas retroflex consonants are pronounced with the tongue curled, so that its underside comes in contact with the roof of the mouth;
  • Consonant clusters are permitted mostly in medial and final positions. Initial clusters are infrequent.


The table below shows the consonant inventory of Malayalam. Consonants in parentheses occur exclusively in loan words.

Labiodental Glottal
Stops plain voiceless
aspirated voiceless
  • /ʈ, ɖ, ʂ, ɳ, ɭ/ are retroflex consonants with no equivalents in English
  • /c, ɟ/ have no equivalents in English
  • /ʂ, ç/ have no equivalents in English
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /ʋ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /j/ = y in yet


Primary stress in Malayalam words is fixed on the first syllable of a word, unless it contains a short vowel followed by a long vowel in the second syllable.


Like other Dravidian languages, Malayalam is agglutinative, i.e., it adds suffixes, one after another, to stems to form words and to express grammatical functions. There is no absolute limit on the length and extent of agglutination in Malayalam, sometimes resulting in very long words.

This class of words includes common nouns, proper names, numerals, pronouns and some adjectives. They are inflected for the following categories:

  • There are two numbers: singular and plural. Plural is formed by adding a suffix to the singular e.g., patti ‘dog’, pattikal ‘dogs’. Nouns denoting human beings form plural with a special suffix, e.g., amma ‘mother’, ammamárr ‘mothers.’
  • There are five cases: nominativeaccusativegenitivedativelocativeablative. Inanimate accusative has the same form as the nominative case.
  • Personal pronouns are marked for person, case and number. Gender is marked only in the third person singular.
  • There is an inclusive and exclusive form of ‘we’.
  • There is an informal and a formal 2nd person singular.The most common form of address is to use the name of the listener instead of a pronoun.
  • Adjectives are not marked for gender or number.


Malayalam verbs are inflected by using suffixes and postpositions. A typical Malayalam verb consists of a verb base plus a grammatical suffix. Verbs are not marked for number of gender.

  • There are simple and continuous tenses.
  • There is an informal imperative and a more indirect form of request.
  • Malayalam mood indicates whether the action of the verb is unreal, possible, potential, or real.
  • Attitude is expressed by auxiliary verbs to show the speaker’s feelings towards an event expressed by the verb. For instance, the attitude can be a negative opinion, antipathy, or relief.


Word order
The standard word order in Malayalam is Subject-Object-Verb. The verb must always be at the end of the sentence, even though variation in the order of other sentence constituents is sometimes possible.


Malayalam has borrowed many words from other languages such as SanskritHindiUrdu, Arabic, PersianPortugueseDutchFrench, and English. The majority of lexical borrowings come from Sanskrit, Tamil, and Urdu.

Malayalam uses compounding and reduplication to form new words. As a result, compound nouns are extremely common. In addition, there are numerous onomatopoeic words many of which are reduplicated.

Below are a few basic words and phrases in Malayalam.

Hello Namaskaaram
Goodbye poyivaratte


Thank you nanni
Sorry! kshamikkanam
Yes athe
No illa


Listen to a few basic words and phrases in Malayalam.


Below are Malayalam numerals 1-10.



The first inscription in Malayalam goes back to the 9th-10th centuries AD. Literature, consisting mostly of translated Hindu epics and lyric poetry, dates from the 13th century. Malayalam prose of different periods shows varying degrees of influence of other languages such as TamilSanskrit,HindiUrduArabicPersianPortugueseDutchFrench, and English. Modern Malayalam literature is rich in poetry, fiction, drama, and biography. The state of Kerala boasts of a high literacy (up to 80%), the latter assuring the spread of literature. In Kerala alone, approximately 150 daily newspapers, over 200 weekly periodicals, and over 500 monthly journals are published in Malayalam.

The modern Malayalam alphabet was originally used to write Sanskrit only, but is now used to write spoken Malayalam. The script was developed in the 13th century from a descendant of the Brahmi script. The alphabet consists of 54 letters, 18 of which are vowels. It is a syllabic alphabet in which all consonants have an inherent vowel. Diacritics, which can appear above, below, before or after the consonant, indicate change to another vowel or suppression of the inherent vowel. The shapes of Malayalam letters closely resemble those of Tamil, i.e., they have rounded shapes, so the script is sometimes referred to as the “round alphabet”. The roundedness has to do with the fact that in ancient times writing was done by carving letters on palm leaves with a sharp point. Using this technique, it was apparently easier to produce curved lines rather than straight ones. A simplified version of the script was introduced in the 1970-1980 to facilitate printing. The main change involved writing consonants and diacritics linearly rather than as complex characters. These changes are not applied consistently, so the modern script is often mixture of traditional and simplified characters.

In Singapore and Malaysia, Malayalam is written with the Arabic script. The Arabic script is also used occasionally by Muslims in Kerala.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the simplified Malayalam script.

വകുപ്പ്‌ 1.
മനുഷ്യരെല്ലാവരും തുല്യാവകാശങ്ങളോടും അന്തസ്സോടും സ്വാതന്ത്ര്യത്തോടുംകൂടി ജനിച്ചിട്ടുള്ളവരാണ്‌. അന്യോന്യം ഭ്രാതൃഭാവത്തോടെ പെരുമാറുവാനാണ്‌ മനുഷ്യന്നു വിവേകബുദ്ധിയും മനസ്സാക്ഷിയും സിദ്ധമായിരിക്കുന്നത്‌.
Manuṣyarellāvarum tulyāvakāśan̄n̄aḷōṭum antassōṭum svātantryattōtumkūṭi janiccavarāṇ. Anyōnyam bhrātrubāvattoṭe perumāṛuvānāṇa manuṣyannu vivēkabuddhiyum manaṣṣākṣiyum siddhamāyirikkunnat
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did You Know?

These English words came from Malayalam.

from atolu ‘reef’
from vettila, veru ila ‘simple leaf ‘
from tekka, name of the tree



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Malayalam?
There is no data on the difficulty level of Malayalam for speakers of English.

8 Responses to Malayalam

  1. Isa Ibn Atman

    I read that the word “atoll” comes from “Dhivehi”, the language of the maldivians… Never new that it was from Malayalam…

    • Irene Thompson

      Our information is based on the Etymological Dictionary as follows: 1620s, atollon, from Malayam atolu “reef,” probably from adal “closing, uniting.” Popularized in present form by Darwin’s writings.” But you might be right. Can you research it further and let us know if you find a good source.

      • Isa Ibn Atman

        The Oxford Dictionary that i have, gives the root language as “Maldive”… Wikipedia also refers from Oxford English Dictionry:
        The word atoll comes from the Dhivehi (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on the Maldive Islands) word atholhu (Dhivehi: އަތޮޅު, [ˈət̪ɔɭu])OED

        • Abhimanyu S

          There is a malayalam word “atol/atolu അടോല്‍/അടോല്” having the exact meaning as atol. It may have originated from malayalam “atayal” meaning “closure, dam etc”.

  2. K Narayanan Unni

    There are some transliteration issues in the article. The malayalam word for “four” is “നാലു് ” which is better written in English as “naalu” instead of “nallu”. Similarly, Malayala word for teak is തേക്കു് better written as tekku (e is pronounced as e in person)

  3. Roger Raj

    The author is wrong in saying that Sanskrit is predominant in Malayalam…it is Tamil that is predominant. Most of Malayalam is Tamil – about 90% – in terms of the words at least…

    • Irene Thompson

      Thanks for the comment. We will look into fixing it.

  4. Bijoy

    Sanskrit is predominant in Malayalam.In words also. It has words from Tamil.If we check the Malayalam dictionary we can see a lot m Tamil words , with or without much differences.But Malayalam is more influenced by Sanskrit.The growth of this language was also influenced by languages like Syrian,Hebrew etc.


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