Sunday, 11 September 2016

Comparative Linguistics and the Dravidian Connect!

As part of an adventurous project on Comparative Linguistics, a few of us, - linguaphiles, have been doing some original and quite adventurous research on the ‘interconnectedness’ that exists between the major Dravidian languages in various aspects, especially as regards their Grammar, Phonological features, Syntax, Etymological Derivations, etc. Four of us – from our respective places, - we set out on an exploratory journey towards the same. In this interesting journey, of over fifteen months now, we have so far compiled a good working bibliography of some rare and precious books… and counting! Among them, some books are as old as 70 years, some 40 years, - some neatly bound, while some with covers in tatters, yet content intact! 

too close a call, ain't it?
We also came across a host of foreign scholars who have done extensive work in Comparative Linguistics – like R. E. Asher from Edinburgh, Scotland, who specializes in Dravidian linguistics (with particular focus on Tamil and Malayalam), and the history of prose fiction in Malayalam and Tamil.

Suggestions and ideas from language enthusiasts are most welcome. You may also consider joining our team of linguaphiles, and thereby join us in our extensive tours across the country as part of our Comparative Linguistics project! Write rightaway to

Asher & Kumari’s book titled, Malayalam [as part of the 'Descriptive Grammar' series], is a scholarly 500 page treatise on the nuances and intricacies of Malayalam grammar with descriptive chapters on Morphology, Syntax, Phonology, Ideophones, Lexicon, etc.

And this...!
Interestingly, Asher acknowledges the origins of this book to the early 1960s, when Joseph Minatturt in London had introduced him to written Malayalam by working through primary school readers with him. Asher’s first of many visits to Kerala followed in 1964, when K. M. Prabhakara Variar made arrangements for his stay in Ernakulam and V. I. Subramoniam for a subsequent stay in Trivandrum. Under the tutelage of C. K. Nalina Babu and N. Unnikrishnan who also acted as fieldwork assistants in Ernakulam, he learnt spoken Malayalam and P. Somasekharan Nair provided similar help in Trivandrum. His education was further advanced at summer schools in the United States in 1967 and 1968, when Achamma Coilparampil acted as his teaching assistant. With this foregrounding in the language, he has proceeded to come out with a thoroughly descriptive rendering of the various aspects of Malayalam grammar. More from his Prefatorial acknowledgements.

It was during the 1960s, too, that I had the good fortune to get to know many of Kerala's great contemporary writers, prominent among whom have been Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Sukumar Azhicode gave me an appreciation of Malayalam as a vehicle for critical studies and for oratory. In the course of my efforts to deepen my understanding of the language and of twentieth-century literature, I have received constant and unstinting advice and encouragement from such distinguished scholars as Suranad Kunjan Pillai, K. M. George and K. Ayyappa Paniker, and from one of India's great publishers, D. C. Kizhakemuri. I have learnt much from former doctoral students, whether as supervisor, as in the case of Elias Valentine, or as examiner, as in the case of V. R. Prabodhachandran Nayar. My debt to all these and to many other Malayali friends, including those who welcomed me in Kottayam when I was at the Mahatma Gandhi University in 1995 as first occupant of the Vaikom Muhammed Basheer Chair, is incalculable.

Well, the first person whom he acknowledges in the Preface to his book is, K. M. Prabhakara Variar, who was a Professor of Malayalam with the University of Madras. Ke Em as he is known, has contributed immensely to the study of Malayalam Grammar with a Malayalam Series to his credit.

One such book that attracted our attention was a 1977 book, written by Ke. Em [K. M. Prabhakar Variar] on Studies in Malayalam Grammar. Through eleven chapters, Ke. Em has come out with a ‘re-examining’ of certain grammatical notions pertaining to Malayalam language, that have already been codified in the vernacular grammars, in the light of recent advancements in the study of language.

This series is for those of you who love studying languages and its nuances…
Excerpts from Prabhakara Variar [given here because they aren’t available anywhere on the Web!!!]


In this chapter we propose to examine the phonological observations presented in some of the important Malayalam grammar treatises and to evaluate them in the light of the advancement that has taken place in the field of phonology in general, and phonology of Malayalam in particular.

Malayalam Grammars – by Natives vs Foreigners

Broadly speaking, Malayalam grammars can be classified into two groups, those written by native scholars and those written by foreigners. Differences are bound to exist in the approaches of native people who write grammars of the language they use every day and those of foreigners, who attempt to analyse an alien language. We can see more theoretical discussions in the first than the latter. Native scholars show more competence in dealing with the historical aspects of their language. On the other hand, grammars written by foreigners are rich in copious citations.

Earliest work on Malayalam Language

The earliest work on Malayalam Language, viz. li:la:tilakam (14th century) does not purport to be a comprehensive grammar of the Malayalam language. Its professed goal is to codify the characteristic of maniprava:la style. Its professed goal is to codify the characteristics of maniprava:la style. Besides the rudiments of the grammar of maniprava:la language, the work also deals with literary stylistics, figures of speech, and other essentials of rhetoric.

The Next Important Grammar Treatise by A Native Scholar

The next important grammar treatise written by a native scholar is Rev. George Matthan’s Malayazhmayude Vyakaranam (first published in 1863). Matthan had not seen Gundert’s grammar while he was working on his own. The main difference in these two grammars, as Matthan himself has noted in the preface to his grammar, is that Gundert’s grammar, although rich in the copiousness of its quotations from earlier works, in support of the rules formulated therein, is dogmatical in its approach while Matthan’s grammar is relatively more explanatory in nature.

Most popular and Widely Used Grammar Treatise

Rajaraja Varma’s Kerala Panineeyam is undoubtedly the most popular and widely used Malayalam grammar. It first made its appearance in 1896 followed by a completely revised version in 1917.  Kerala Panineeyam by its clarity of expressions, the logicality of its arguments in support of the rules presented therein, and, above all, the pleasant style of its language, has eclipsed all other Malayalam grammars making it the most sought after text for using in educational institutions.

Rajaraja Varma: ‘Diachronic Approach better than Synchronic Descriptions’

Rajaraja Varma, in the preface to his grammar, makes it very clear that his grammar was written taking into consideration the historical developments of the Malayalam language. In fact, he claims that diachronic approach is more useful than synchronic descriptions.

Seshagiri Prabhu’s Grammar Treatise - Vyakarana mithram

M. Seshagiri Prabhu’s grammar, Vyakarana mithram, which first appeared in 1904, is another work that has succeeded in gaining some popularity among the traditional linguistic works, primarily due to its having been prescribed as a text-book. Prabhu’s Vyakarana mithram excels both Matthan’s and Rajaraja Varma’s grammars in size only. He has incorporated several unnecessary discussions into his treatise vainly creating an illusion of grandeur to his grammar.

T. M. Kovunni Nedungadi’s Kerala kaumudi

Another native grammar that has created some stir among linguistic scholars is T. M. Kovunni Nedungadi’s Kerala kaumudi. Although the manuscript copy of this work was completed in 1875, it got published in 1878. It is to be noted that this grammar is never referred to by any one in discussions of pure grammar. However, the work is often quoted in connection with its disputable view on the origin of Malayalam language.

Terminology: the Sanskrit Connect

Technical terms in Malayalam grammars, with few exceptions, are borrowings from Sanskrit. In modern Malayalam it would be extremely difficult to coin a scientific term purely based on native roots. As L. V. Ramaswami Aiyyar once remarked, Malayalam language, which did not at any time put up resistance against the infiltrations of Sanskrit, “suffered an irreparable loss in that it lost its power of forming fresh compounds to express new ideas and consequently had in later times to draw freely upon Sanskrit vocabulary to make up their deficiency” (1925: 5). Although there were sporadic attempts, now and then, for nativising the scientific terminologies, they did not bring any results. The editor of Gundert’s grammar states: “… by far the greatest part of the Malayalam terms (are taken) from the Sanskrit grammarian Panini and his school. Some expressions have been borrowed from the Tamil nannu:l, and a few terms were coined under the force of circumstances” (Gundert 1962: 12).


The inventory of basic sounds of Malayalam given in various grammars lack uniformity. According to Gundert, there are 12 vowels and 37 consonants in Malayalam. He excludes the Sanskrit vocalic sounds r and l, the visarga and anusva:ra which usually find their places in the complete list of Malayalam alphabet. The 37 consonants include the 25 varga letters, 7 medials, 4 sibilants, the alveolar n, and the trill r.

To be contd…

Prabhakara Variar, K. M. Studies in Malayalam Grammar. Chennai: University of Madras, 1979. Print.

Asher, R. E & T.C. Kumari. Malayalam. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

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