Mapping Malayalam

From transgender and autism to mobile phones, Malayalam doesn’t have a usage for ever-evolving language requirements. TNIE speaks to experts to find out more
Representative image
Representative imagePhoto | Express illustrations

KOCHI: There is a running joke among Keralites — the Malayalam translation for the word ‘switch’. We giggle while mouthing the word — ‘vidyucchakthi-gamanaagamana-niyanthrana-yanthram’. Though it makes us laugh, the word is completely useless in everyday conversations. The Malayalam language is spangled by a host of such words of foreign origin with no easy translation.

As discourses and discussions of the future of Malayalam grow, TNIE explores the ever-present need for the evolution of Malayalam language.


Recently, in a much-anticipated move, the UG Board of Studies (Malayalam) of MG University coined several Malayalam words for subjects and topics under its syllabus for the four-year UG programmes.

Words like dehumanisation, narrative, spatiality, etc, were given ‘appropriate’ Malayalam translations — vimanusheekaranam, aakhyaanatha (narrative), sthaleekatha, respectively. However, this, soon sparked debates on social media, with several people calling the new words ‘long-winded’ and ‘not for the masses’.

Also, MP and former minister K Radhakrishnan announced a landmark decision to abolish the term ‘colony’ usually used to indirectly distinguish the places occupied by people belonging to marginalised castes. He suggested alternative terms such as ‘nagar’, ‘unnathi’ and ‘prakrithi’.

Ciby Kurian, the chairman of the board and associate professor at Deva Matha College, says there is a simple reason behind the move — a language can grow only when new words are added to it regularly. 

“The new words may feel alien to a commoner as they are first used by academicians and critics who engage with niche topics daily. But only with such inclusion can we accept the changes happening worldwide. The education sector can introduce such changes, which will slowly reflect in society.”

He adds that Malayalam is not a flexible language like English or Tamil. “It was born when Tamil was Sanskritised. Even now, it is a challenge to coin simple terms as we have to rely on Sanskrit, a language made of difficult and long-winded words,” he adds.   

Manglish era

The rise of words mixed with both Malayalam and English, colloquially termed Manglish, has been organic and inevitable. Today, we use several English words as part of Malayalam due to the lack of our own words.

Ammu Ghosh, a student and lover of Malayalam literature, says language has become more personalised with Manglish and social media lingos. “I can write a sentence in Manglish, invent my own words and still convey my thoughts efficiently,” she says. She illustrates this with an analysis of two of her favourite authors. 

“As a person who loves both Basheer and Padmarajan novels alike, more than well-thumbed books by authors like M T, I feel people choose what is relatable and familiar to them,” Ammu says.

Basheer was famous for using words rooted from everyday lives and conversations. But such a task is not that easy in a fast-developing world dependent on technology. New words are formed daily, especially in English, and used in conversations regularly by people around the world. However, none or most of them don’t have a Malayalam counterpart. For example, words like mobile phone or smiley.

One may wonder who coins the new words in Malayalam. The Kerala Bhasha Institute is one of the biggest organisations responsible for maintaining the Malayalam language. Dr Sathian M, director of the institute, agrees that the main purpose of language is to communicate clearly. “And if that demands the use of words that are not inherently ours, I see no wrong in it.”  

“Our efforts to coin words that are easy to use continue. For instance, the translation for ‘boiling point’ used to be ‘kwathanangam’, which isn’t an easy word for daily use. Considering this, we recently coined the word ‘thilanila’,” he explains.  

Evolving need

However, beyond the idea of conversations and daily use, words also have the power to enhance inclusivity and Malayalam is decades behind in this aspect.

Malayalis tend to still use many politically incorrect and dehumanising words. For instance, ‘third gender’ for ‘transgender’, ‘bhinnasheshikkaran’ or ‘angavaikalyam’ for ‘persons with disabilities’ etc. 

However, Sathian says that it is always better to retain the English words for such terms in a Malayalam sentence. He recollects an attempt by the Bhasha Institute to coin a Malayalam substitute for the word ‘transgender’ around two years back.

“For the time being, we have decided to retain the word ‘transgender’ in Malayalam as we could not come up with an appropriate word that resonates with the queer community. An appropriate Malayalam translation of the word has to be sensitive and humanise the community. So, our efforts to find the right translation for such words continue.” 

Adarsh E, popularly known as Aadhi, a writer and researcher, however, observes that such attempts, wherein competitions are held to find an alternate word for ‘transgender’, ‘LGBTQIA+’ and the like, are futile and regressive. “I remember some of the words coined by the participants, mostly consisting of cis-het people, were downright insensitive. Some people even came up with cuss words. How is this progressive?” Aadhi asks. 

Speaking on the symbiotic nature of Malayalam, Vijayarajamallika, the first transgender poet in Kerala, says, “Every language is a social phenomenon. Language cannot empower itself unless there are social communities. Malayalam especially has seen a series of vocabulary exchanges. Our mother tongue has been enhanced with a myriad of words contributed by colonial régimes that existed in our country. Language should focus more on the inclusivity of culture, travelling through the past, present and future, which would eventually pave the way for the right words. After all right and wrong depend on how people take them.” 

Vehicle of expression

Language is also a powerful tool that helps humans express and oppress, making it unavoidable to constantly monitor its growth and shortcomings. Any changes made to it must be done with utmost care and sensitivity, say experts.

“Language is political and can only grow depending on the socio-political fabric of our times,” explains Aadhi.

Radicalisation of Malayalam often tends to directly mirror the trends and new coinages in English. Aadhi points to words such as ‘queer’ and ‘gay’. “These words were inherently disrespectful but were reclaimed in the 1960s. So, when we imbibe such words into Malayalam without understanding the violent history behind them, can we call it a progressive move?” asks Aadhi. However, he adds that political correctness is a myth as every other word may have a violent history.  

Vijayarajamallika observes that the authorities concerned have been trying to uphold the legacy of Malayalam. “However, their modus operandi is not as inclusive as we think. There should be more social and community consultations to achieve the mission for an inclusive language rather than competitions.”

The search for a Malayalam equivalent for various English words continues notwithstanding such arguments. Anandhapadmanabhan Vijayakumar, a policy analyst and consultant, says those responsible for developing language work from within a not-so-flexible institutional framework.

For example, he points to the Oxford Dictionary and how it benefits from consultation with a wide network of academia across versatile disciplines for new knowledge about how language is evolving in various spaces of society.

“While in Kerala, many such conferences are becoming just name-sake events or a photo-op session. Malayalam suffers from a chronic lack of institutional consultations with the university-level research ecosystems and public debate,” he adds.

A sea change is possible only with an expansion of the language. For example, the English language adds new words every year to the dictionary, signalling the constant growth of language. As Vijayarajamallika says, “Not just language, but everything is changing daily. This change should be incorporated while considering an essential shift in the status quo.”

Malayalam: A brief history

Though disputed, many belive Malayalam originated in the late 9th century after having evolved from a western dialect of Tamil or from a branch of proto-Dravidian. Malayalam is a member of the South Dravidian subgroup. One of the 22 scheduled languages, it was designated as a ‘classical language of India’ in 2013. Classical languages are those that are more than 1,500 years old. And Malayalam was considered as it has its roots in Tamil, one of the oldest languages. Also, archaeological excavations unearthed relics with transcription similar to Malayalam letters from Usilampatti near Madurai, asserting that the language is much older. Evidence from multiple excavations cemented the claim that Malayalam was in use much before 830 CE.

Obsolete words in our daily vocabulary 

  • Angavaikalyam

  • Bhinnasheshi

  • Ira (for someone who faced sexual harassment)

  • Moonnaam lingam

Correct usage

  • Persons with disabilities

  • Athijeevitha (survivor)

  • Transgender

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