Useless Skills Part 4: Ability to Write or Read Malayalam


In my last post I ranted about the futility of trying to spell English words. I said that English is a bad language created by morons. Before any one accuses me of being a lingual bigot, let me reassure you – I don’t have any discrimination toward any particular language. I hate all languages equally. To illustrate my point, let us take the case of my native language – Malayalam. I truly despise Malayalam.


In its defense, English has just 26 alphabets. Its relatively simpler than say, Malayalam – the subject at hand. Malayalam, for all you non-malayalies in the audience, has 56 letters. That’s not too bad – that’s what I thought initially. But then I found out about letter-fractions. These are not complete letters – but a fraction of a letter that can be combined with other ‘full’ alphabets to make even more new alphabets. I understand if all you mono-lingual, English-speaking people are confused. I was too – when I was five years old and the teachers started teaching me this stuff. Now I understand why they taught me all that – just to make sure that I would be as bitter and hateful as they were.

So, Malayalam has full letters, letter fragments, and letters+letter fragments. Stay with me here – this is where it gets really weird. With all the permutations and combinations, Malayalam grew to be a 500+ alphabet monster. If you think that’s bad, this is the simplified new script(puthia libi). The old script is a 1000+ alphabet monstrosity that haunts the nightmare of little children(who where taught Malayalam).

The old script was removed because it was practically impossible to make typewriters to include all the letters. So we switched to the new script and lived happly ever since – or as happily as possible with a 500+ glyph language(ie. not so happily – as a matter of fact, down right angrily). Now, with the coming of computers and Unicode, this limitation of glyph in no longer there. Consequently, there is an effort to bring back the old script(or as they call it, the ‘true script’). Apparently, torturing school kids with a 500 character Malayalam was too tame for their tastes – they wanted to bring in the big guns.

As a result of this wonderful system, I cannot read or write Malayalam well even after spending 10 years trying to learn it. But I don’t care. Me and Malayalam has parted ways a long time ago – we are no longer on speaking terms. Malayalam can do what ever it wants to do – and I’ll do what I have to do. I have learned to live with English. Its not a bad language. As long as I don’t have to spell anything.

End of Part 4

I am stopping this rant here – many of you non-Malayalam would be terrified at what we are doing to our kids – and many of you malayalies would be horrified that I was assault their precious language. Don’t worry you Malayalam fanatics – my assault is aimed at many Indic languages. Hindi also has this wired letter+letter fragment method of writing. I think Tamil has it too – considering the fact that Malayalam came from Tamil(Disclamer: I do not know Tamil – so I could be wrong).

17 thoughts on “Useless Skills Part 4: Ability to Write or Read Malayalam

  1. Malayalam has always been touted as a rich and expressive language next to tamil in the line of Dravidian languages. And what is more, Malayalam has almost all of the sounds that one can make.

    That seems to be the reason why it is a big language. Moreover, if you move to literature, Malayalam poems follow “vruthams” (atleast old ones did!) which depends on letter count. In order to express the same word, our literature generators may have made a large set of synonyms of different sounds 🙂

    1. More letters + “half-letters” = more squiggly and complex sound-patterns. => More scope for abuse of the spoken language. And who said it’s a useless skill? Ask unsuspecting Northies who go on tours without guides in Kerala. 🙂

  2. I recommend reading some history about language development because that will help provide a background for understand why the languages have developed as such.

    To take English, the spelling doesn’t match the spoken word not because someone invented the word and decided to speak it differently. Remember that long ago, there was no writing. Everybody was illiterate. Then someone decided to invent writing scripts. It would crazy to imagine that they decided to invent a letter that was different from the spoken letter.

    What happened is that initially the written and spoken words were exactly the same. But over time, people started pronouncing the words differently. This is how accents come into play. Over a long period of time, the spoken word diverges significantly from the written word. There is some method to this madness. For example, the letters ‘h’ and ‘r’ are more likely to disappear when spoken. That is why “hour” came to be spoken as “our”.

    So there is no one inventor of English. It is just many people in different places started changing language slowly over decades and centuries.

    As for Malayalam, it is a phonetic language that allows you to use many different sounds. There are languages that are even more complex than Malayalam. For example, some African languages use “clicks” in their speech. So the idea is that Malayalam is able to represent those different sounds.

    The concept of using a combined character is actually a simplification. In the past, there were not many literate people in Kerala (those were not the days of 100% literacy). So the written language was there among only a few scholars. And they would spend years learning the scriptures.

    Secondly, there were no typewriters in those days. So they would prefer to use one character to represent a combined sound instead of using 2 characters (like in simplified script). That would save a lot of writing.

    Yeah, I know the history may not interest you, but it will help you understand that there is no conspiracy out there to get you!

  3. i personally prefer the old lipi as it is much more easier to understand. even my junior was tweeting about too many chandrakalas which make reading malayalam irritating.
    and both of us had studied malayalam in late 90s early 2000s only.
    for a malayali, tamil is one of the worst languages to read. they have about 1/3 the number of our alphabets. so its pretty hard to read what they are trying to write.

  4. Hi. Binny. in English alphabet there are 26 letters not 26 alphabets. The first letter of English alphabet is ‘a’.

    Since I love my mother tongue deeply I chose it as my Second Language till +2.

    മറ്റുള്ള ഭാഷകള്‍ കേവലം ധാത്രിമാര്‍
    മര്‍ത്യനു പെറ്റമ്മ തന്‍ഭാഷ താന്‍.

  5. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and laughed hard on the line about letting Malayalam do what ever it wants!!

    I am an American married to a Malayalee. On top of that lived in Chennai two years about 10 years ago. I have tried my hand at learning reading, writing and speaking Tamil and Hindi over 10 years ago and Malayalam recently as 4. Malayalam is the toughest of the bunch. But not to say that I mastered or am close to being fluent in any of the three. I wonder also what it means to be literate? Though Malayalam must have the most number of newspapers and magazines of any Indian language, could it surpass Hindi? But as the other commenter said that Malayalam as many other Indian languages is phonetic. This is why there are no spelling bees like in America (or where ever English is spoken, I guess).

    So, after reading your entire article, maybe you can change your title to saying ‘Ability to write, read and speak Malayalam’

    All languages are going to do what we want to wheter we like it or not. That is actually a good thing, means they are living languages rather than static and dead. America (USA) has the largest number of lost cultures and languages- the Native Americans have lost so much of their culture and heritage. IN that way many branches of Indian cultures can be proud that the cultures are not only living but striving and progressing on some path (not dying!).

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I think Malayalam is one of the hard and tough language in the world to learn. Malayalam pronunciation is so hard for a newbie. For we people it is ok as we learned it from our childhood.

  7. Even I don’t know how to write Malayalam properly. At times, reading produces hilarious results too. But there’s something about Malayalam…


    You never get the same satisfaction when you say “Corpse!!!”


  8. Hi Again.
    Wanted to let you know the ‘useless skill’ of reading Malayalam has turned out to be quite useful for me recently.
    Today when I was trying to rectify some Onam dates for the Indian American calendar I edit at I decided to take out the Matrubhumi calendar given to me by my father in law. Good that I knew the English transliterations and understood which holidays, the names of the holidays and stars. I was able to rectify the issue and it’s all ’cause I keep trying to learn Malayalam! 🙂

  9. Well, I am American raised but am familiar with the language..I can only write a few letters, mainly the vowels in malayalam and can speak a little bit (but speak English 99% of the time), even though I’m not extremely mallu (should be expected anyway)..I think it’s good to be familiar with the culture of your parents and keep the roots (and I don’t mean you have to be perfect and match everything that describes a typical mallu)..but yea, many people don’t use malayalam writing nowadays..even a few family friends I know who moved to US from Kerala has now forgotten because of constantly using English.

  10. Hey there…I’m an American going to visit Kerala for the first time in two months with some Malayali friends. I also happen to be an avid language learner, so I’m diving head-first into learning to read the Malayalam script. Having already learned Nagari while dating a Nepali girl, I can say that the seemingly-bewildering array of combined characters really isn’t that bad. (Although it’s harder for me to recognize them in Malayalam than in Nagari because Malayalam has so many curves and loops, they all look the same!)
    However, I think you’re better off with the Malayalam alphabet than with English spelling…sure English only has 26 letters, but even native English speakers struggle from the day they start school to the day they graduate to learn how to spell English…it’s a disaster! A very large portion of native English-speaking adults still can’t spell, and rely heavily on computer spell-checkers.
    Plus, it could be worse…Japanese has two alphabets, plus ~5000 borrowed Chinese characters, which can take on various pronunciations depending on how they’re used in a sentence. Now that’s truly a writing system to hate! (Or to take on as a challenge…your mileage may vary 🙂


  11. Man… I think this is the first time I’ve seen someone blaming his own mother language.

    I’m a native Tamil from Sri Lanka. Malayalam and Sri Lankan Tamil shares more words than Indian Tamil. I can understand your accent and language better than a Indian Tamil.

    When I was watching movies like “Vinnai thandi varuvaya” , “Vaaranam Aayiram” I happen to learn few more malayalam words.

    Afterall Tamil and Malayalam belongs to same language family unlike Hindi.

  12. being a malayali born and raised in america and attempting to learn the whole alphabet for the first time ever, i was quite overwhelmed with the familiarity you need with the letters when reading the language. sure, its phonetic, but some letters can appear very ambiguous and the words themselves are not familiar since the literature is heavily sanskritized. after spending thirty painstaking minutes trying to read just a paragraph out of a malayalam article, i discovered around 10 words that seemed totally foreign to me. as far as literacy goes, malayalam does live in a world of its own, and i’m thankful for the comprehensive flexibility of english syntax.

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