How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam

How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam
From the 16th to 18th centuries, Portuguese language heavily influenced Malayalam and there are at least a hundred loanwords from Portuguese to Malayalam. Photo: Getty Images
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It goes without saying that Malayalam is a rich language, with a storied history of literary gems and a beautiful evolution of words of Tamil and Sanskrit origin. While some fret the almost predatory creeping in of English that is diluting the quality of Malayalam spoken in upwardly mobile households, it’s important to understand that the language has been greatly enriched with foreign origin words.

How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam
Sanskrit script. Photo: Getty Images

Not many Malayalis are aware of the fact that there are at least a hundred loanwords from Portuguese to Malayalam! From the 16th to 18th centuries, Portuguese heavily influenced Malayalam language. In the pre-computer age, a writer who puts his or her kadalas (paper) on a mesha (table) may not have been aware that those words were modified versions of cartaz and mesa! It is very likely that a word existed for paper before Portuguese colonisation of parts of Kerala, but it is no longer in use. The same cannot be said of pena (pen), another Portuguese origin word.

How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam
St. Francis Church, in Fort Kochi, Kochi, originally built in 1503. Photo: Getty Images

Malayalis love the pineapple so much that it is hard for us to fathom that not only is the word ananas of Portuguese origin, but the fruit itself was brought to India from Brazil in the 16th century. We also have the Portuguese to thank for bringing caju (cashew nuts) all the way to Kerala from Brazil.

Other words that may surprise a Malayalam speaker are toppi (cap) and janal (window)! The Malayalam word for window came from the Portuguese janela. Who would have believed that even the word paathram (dish or plate) came from prato?

How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam
The Malayalam word for window came from the Portuguese janela. Who would have believed that even the word paathram (dish or plate) came from prato? Photo: Getty Images

Of course, there are some Portuguese-origin Malayalam words that are not used everywhere in Kerala. Palakkad Malayalis used the word thakole for keys, instead of chavi, which is used in other parts of Kerala and it is taken from the Portuguese word chave.

The word kakuus (toilet) came from the Dutch kakuis! There is a dispute among linguists over whether the word kapi (coffee) came from the Dutch koffie. On a side note, a few of the cultural and linguistic similarities between Kerala and Sri Lanka have been attributed to the influence of the Portuguese and Dutch on these two places at a similar period.

How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam
Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. Photo: Getty Images

Some sources indicate that godhambe (wheat) has a Persian origin, while maapu (apology) comes from maaf (Arabic). Given the fact that Arabic traders had been coming to the Kerala coast for centuries, there must be hundreds of words that have an Arabic connection. The most obvious words that are used across India are vakeel (lawyer) and jilla (district), but even the Malayalam word for letter (kathth) is of Arabic origin.

How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam
Godhambe (wheat) has a Persian origin and the Malayalam word for letter (kathth) is of Arabic origin. Photo: Getty Images

In 2003, K A Azeez published a thesis on Arabic loanwords in Malayalam. No doubt, the thesis would make for fascinating reading.

So connected are Malayalam and Arabic that an Arabi-Malayalam writing system was created centuries ago. This script did have its teething troubles, given the fact that it is difficult to transliterate between Semitic and Dravidian writing systems. There’s no pa, kha or gha in Arabic, which is why many Arabs call India’s neighbour Al-Bakistan.

Imagine transliterating the complicated zha in any other language! Malayalis enjoy a good laugh when an outsider tries to pronounce words such as Malampuzha.

But Arabi-Malayalam evolved and produced a rich body of literature and ballads, most of which weren’t even translated into the Malayalam script. There’s also Suriyani Malayalam and Judeo-Malayalam, dialects that are slowly vanishing. Linguists see the former surviving for a longer time than the Malayalam that uses Hebrew loanwords, given the fact that Jewish Malayalis in Israel are slowly losing touch with Kerala. While at their peak, these dialects contributed to the Malayalam that is in broader use.

How interactions with foreign cultures enriched Malayalam
Photo: Getty Images

The exchange of words between Malayalam and foreign languages was always a two-way street. Being seafarers, Malayalis ventured west to Arab lands, Persia and Africa as well as northeast to China and spread some Malayalam words to these places. A book or research paper on Malayalam loanwords to the non-English speaking world would be a great work of academic scholarship.

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