KOZHIKODE: Consumed by time, Suriyani Malayalam, an early Malayalam dialect wrote in a variant form of Syriac script, might be taken off the shelves soon if Anshuman Pandey’s ambitious project reaches its target. Pandey, a linguistics professor at the University of California, is in the process of creating a unicode font for the dialect by 2017.
He wants to make the font available online, thus preserving it forever. Suriyani Malayalam or Garshuni Malayalam was a popular medium of written communication among Christians until the 19th century. It used Malayalam grammar, East Syriac script and vocabulary from Malayalam and East Syriac.
Transcription of Malayalam using the script of Syriac, a Semitic language, was not an easy task. “Only 22 letters were available from East Syriac orthography to render over 53 phonemes of Malayalam. Kerala Christians created eight additional letters to overcome this. The future version of the Unicode Standard includes this,” said Istvan Perczel, a Hungarian scholar of medieval Christianity and a contributor to Pandey’s project. The project is a result of Google Research Award and a grant from the US Nat’l Endowment for Humanities.
Syriac is supposed to have arrived on the Kerala shores along with St Thomas in 52 AD. Its liturgical value has added to the cultural impact of Syriac on Kerala.
“Aboon d’basmayo, netkadas smok,” which translates as “Our Father in Heaven, Holy be Your name,” was one of the most common Syriac wordings in Kerala churches until the 19th century.
Malayalam used to be written in other scripts as well such as Vattezhuthu, Kolezhuthu, Thekken-Malayanma, Arya ezhuthu and Arabi Malayalam.
Perczel said Kerala has a rich Syriac infuence from 16th to 19th centuries.
“There was this fantastic cultural exchange that took place across Arabian Sea; not just commercial goods, cultural goods too were exchanged,” Perczel added.
Several documents written in Suriyani Malayalam are found among the St Thomas Christians here.