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Number of Speakers: 36 million

Key Dialects: Malabar, Nagari, South Kerala, Central Kerala, North Kerala, Kayavar, Namboodiri, Moplah, Pulaya, Nasrani, Nayar.

Geographical Center: Kerala state, India

Malayalam is spoken primarily in southern coastal India by over 35 million speakers. Outside India, it is also spoken in the Laccadive islands off the western coast of India, in Bahrain, Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore, Israel, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom by a total of approximately 400,000 speakers. Malayalam is known by a variety of alternate names/pronunciations including the following: Alealum, Malayalani, Malayali, Malean, Maliyad, Mallealle, and Mopla. Malayalam is most closely related to Tamil. Other related languages include Aranadan, Kadar, and Ravula.

Malayalam is a Southern Dravidian language.

Dialectal variation is primarily phonological, intonational, and lexical. Variation is rooted both in geography and in the socio-religious caste system of Indian society. Thus, members of different castes and their subdivisions speak slightly different varieties of Malayalam. As in most Indian languages, the influence of Sanskrit is most prominent in the high caste dialects and less so in the Harijan dialects. In Christian dialects, loan words from English, Latin, and Portuguese are prevalent. Muslim dialects, on the other hand, have borrowed mostly from Arabic and Urdu.

Malayalam has its own distinct script, a syllabic alphabet consisting of independent consonant and vowel graphemes plus diacritics. Developed in the eighth century, it is one of the most graphically complex writing systems. For instance, it makes use of contextually conditioned alternating letter shapes and complex ligatures. The Malayalam script is written from left to right on horizontal lines.

Malayalam is considered the Dravidian language most influenced by Sanskrit. One consequence of this influence is the relatively large set of distinctive phonemes in its inventory when compared to other Dravidian languages. The consonant inventory consists of thirty-eight phonemes, while the vowel inventory is made up of seven phonemes, depending on the analysis. Within the set of consonants, geminates or double consonants are tolerated and aspiration is contrastive (phonemic). This later property is distinctly non-Dravidian, and hence represents the influence of Sanskrit of the language. A wide range of retroflex and nasal articulations characterize the Malayalam consonant system. Trills are also attested. Concerning the vowel system, length is contrastive and four diphthongs or vowel clusters occur. The syllable structure of Malayalam is given by the following (items in parentheses are optional): (C)(C)(C)V(C). Primary stress is assigned to the first syllable of the word, unless the vowel in the first syllable is short and is followed by a long vowel in the second. Stress is lexically non-contrastive. The majority of lexical borrowings come from Sanskrit, Tamil, and Urdu, although loans from English, Latin, Portuguese, and Arabic exist as well.

Morphologically, Malayalam is richly inflected. The syntactic and semantic roles played by nominal expressions in the language are expressed mainly by case suffixes and postpositions, rather than by word order. Prefixes and prepositions are unattested in the language. The Malayalam case system is comprised of the following cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, locative, instrumental, vocative, and sociative. Double case-marking does not exist in the language. Nouns additionally inflect in certain cases for number and noun class, though not for gender. Verbal morphology is quite complex. Verbs inflect for tense (past, present, future), aspect (perfective, imperfective, progressive), mood (indicative, interrogative, imperative, conditional, optative, debitive [obligation], potential), voice (active, passive), and valency change (causative, passive). The tense-aspect system of Malayalam is rich and complex. A wide range of temporal descriptions are expressible via various combinations of verbs, auxiliary verbs, and tense/aspect markers. Morphological agreement is unattested in Malayalam.

Syntactically, Malayalam is a head-final language with a basic clausal word order of SOV in typical or unmarked cases. Nonetheless, the word order of a clause is to a certain degree flexible or free in the language.

Malayalam has official language status in the Indian state of Kerala, the Lakshaweep territory, and in the Laccadive Islands. In these regions, Malayalam is used in government, commerce, and in mass communication. The language is particularly rich in literature. In Kerala alone, approximately 150 daily newspapers, over 200 weekly periodicals, and over 500 monthly journals are published. The most widely circulated newspaper in India is written in Malayalam.

Four or five centuries prior to the ninth century, proto-Tamil Malayalam, the common stock of the Tamil and Malayalam languages, began to disintegrate. The result was the emergence of Malayalam as a language and culture distinct from Tamil. The earliest written record of Malayalam is the VazhappaLLi inscription (ca. 830 AD). The earliest work of Malayalam prose is a commentary on Chanakya's Arthasastra. This work dates back to the twelfth century.

Asher, R.E. and T.C. Kumari. 1997. Malayalam. London and New York: Routledge.

Frohnmeyer, L.J. 1979. A Progressive Grammar of the Malayalam Language. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Ladefoged, Peter, and Ian Maddieson. 1996. The Sounds of the World’s Languages. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Peet, Joseph. 1972. A Grammar of the Malayalim Language. Osnabruck: Biblio Verlag.

Variar, K.M. Prabhakara. 1979. Studies in Malayalam Grammar. Madras: Rathnam Press.

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