'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wanted: 'Roman Malayalam'

"One who does not love his language is worse than putrid fish"
- a Tagalog proverb.

Saw that Wikipedia has come up with a Malayalam edition: Although it could be called an interesting development, the 'Mallu' characters appear badly garbled, at least on my browser; rather sad, since a considerable amount of effort might well have gone into this activity of Wikifying Mallu (or Mallufying Wiki).

At least part of the problem seems to be the 'standard' Malayalam script - with its many letters and ever so many different ways of joining them. And this difficulty with the language has beens known for a long time. Governmental action(?) some decades ago led to a new simpler (and somewhat clumsier looking) script for quick printing (this new 'printing script' is NOT supposed to be the standard for writing - writing in it used to be penalized(!) in school examinations). But, even with this new script, typewriters could not really manage - typewritten Malayalam has always managed to look *terrible*.

Well over a decade ago, the late writer M.P.Narayana Pillai proposed an English (Roman) script for Malayalam. His intent probably was to make the language IT-enabled and printer-friendly and also to enable non-resident Mallus (who know the language but are uncomfortable with the script) read literary works in the language. (aside: even the majority of Mallus who *formally* learnt the language cannot write all letters in the proper script correctly!).

Pillai even proposed a simple scheme of transliteration of Malayalam into English. If I remember right,he talked about using upper case English letters for retroflexed Mallu letters - 't' in 'tala' (means 'head') and 'T' in 'paTa' (means 'army'). This would imply Malayalam would have to be written 'malayaaLam' since the second 'l' is retroflexed).

I don't think Pillai's proposal received any attention from anyone of consequence although the idea was by no means outlandish or revolutionary. Turkish, Indonesian and so many other languages had adopted or switched to Roman letters much earlier. In fact, well before Pillai's article, at least a few Mallus had started writing at least emails in Malayalam with Roman letters. And I was among them.

I remember picking up the idea from some folks who were writing mails in Marathi(!) in English letters. From idea to implementation was an easy step. And over many years, I have tried writing emails in Malayalam to many fellow-Mallus, well-known to me. I had no fixed scheme of transliteration. And there was no prior warning: "Watch out, I am gonna write in Malayalam!". I did not see the need for any warning: I was writing to people who apparently knew the language well.

Let me list from memory some of the initial responses I got from various people, who will remain unnamed. The stuff in brackets is mine.

1. "I find this style of malayalam unnatuaral(sic). and this thinking in Malaylam, then translating into english fond(sic), i find it is a long and waistful (sic) process!"

2. "I am afraid I did not really read the part of your mail where you froke out with Malayalam. Of course, I remain fully literate and comfortable with my mother tongue but I would prefer Malayalam to be read and written in Malayalam."

3. "Thante mail innale vaayichu (Translation: "saw your mail yesterday") Well, I just typed that one line in 'Engalam' and am switching to proper English. I find Mallu in English awkward and I dont believe it is mandatory for two Mallus to communicate only in Mallu. What is SO great about Malayalam anyway?"

4. "Look boss, just translate the above stuff into proper english and send again, if you really want me to read it. You and your mallu fanaticism!"

5. "njan aadyamaayanu ingine type cheyyunnathu. aadyam vicharichathra buddhimuttilla. satyam paranjaal sangathi kollaam!" (Translation: "this is the first time i am trying this. and when i tried it, it was not difficult at all; it was in fact fun!")

I need to mention another individual who had no comments but replied in detail in elegant English to whatever I had written in Malayalam. And yes, there was yet another One who too made no comment whatever but wrote to me only in Malayalam thereafter

Note: I initially thought 'Mangalam' (= Malayalam + 'Aangalam', the word for 'English' in Malayalam) would be a good name for Malayalam written in English letters. But now, I would say there is no need for a new name whatsoever. Almost every language - Malayalam included - has experimented with different scripts during its evolution; so just using the Roman script to write Malayalam would not make it any less of itself!


  • At 10:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    it could be your browser or browser configuration problems. malayalam wikipedia is shown perfectly in my browser, without any glitches.

    then, if you wish english scripts are used for malayalam, why bother abt malayalam at all? instead why dont use english?

    if concerned with keeping malayalam and the culture, one should use malayalam in malayalam scripts itself. it is better to change the media to fit the malayalam scripts than change the script. nowadays, there are many softwares, browser, etc which supports malayalam unicode scripts. and it is not so difficult to get into practising them.

    then, using roman scripts for malayalam casually should be ok! even i use that sometimes.

  • At 4:01 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks rocksea for visiting.

    even if it is possible to read wikipedia in 'standard' malayalam in some other browser(i still doubt if it really can be better than typewritten mallu, with lots of clumsy joint-letters), i still believe developing the roman script as a valid option to write malayalam (the wider issue in the post) is not a bad idea at all.

    the present 'standard' script is not as old as the language itself - there were other scripts which were tried earlier - and so is not really fundamental. my feeling is that not much that is really part of the core 'mallutwa' (if such a thing exists) is going to be lost even if two scripts are used. yes, if that happens, plenty of effort which went into developing all those fonts will become largely irrelevant.

  • At 9:46 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    i need to add one more bit. malayalam seems to have had a long history of being written in a variant of arabic script. this 'arabi malayalam' script is still in use in some pockets.

  • At 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    hey anamika, it could be displayed as perfectly as you write, with all the koottaksharangal and all, the same way we use in written malayalam (including pazhaya lipi). i am using IE7 in windows vista, and i didnt have to do anything to display it all properly.

    for other versions of IE, may be you could use the solutions provided here: . there is a large community of malayalm bloggers who read and write in malayalam very well.


  • At 12:39 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks again rocksea.

    i admit i am not uptodate with online malayalam; at least to a non-expert like self, it is quite a feat that all the joint letters in the complex 'pazhaya lipi' have been 'onlined' successfully.

    but i continue to feel that it is time an alternative 'roman malayalam' was developed and deployed.

  • At 5:34 AM, Blogger കൈപ്പള്ളി said…

    Dear Nandakumar.
    I respect your view that we should forsake our age old script and follow a Latin "standard".

    Have you given thought to the fact that several classical languages have managed to preserve their scripts and propogate it on the internet. According to your argument Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese all should follow the latin script. Well they don't. They employed smart policies and smart developers with vision to develop software and systems to sustain their script way back in the 90's.

    Mallus didn't.

    So Just because of a few premitive mallus who did't have the vision beyond the next meal, why should our entire society suffer in shame?

    When other cultures brought technology to its knees and ensured that the computer understood and processed their language. We decided to bend backwards to mutilate our script and language to suite technology. We cut our feet to fit the shoes. And the solution the idiots in Kerala thought up was to use the ASCII encoding system. Rub out the latin characters and stick-in the Malayalam character. Perhaps the worst idea in the long history of bad ideas.

    But there is hope
    Unicode is slowly becoming popular. The print media, (Who waspartialy responsible for propogating and fnding this mess-up) is listening now.

    I know for a fact that there are at least 10000 installation of the Unicode Typing mechanism. Today there is large number of Malayalam Unicode users on the web. And this number keeps growing.

    There are close to 1000 active malayalam bloggers on the internet today.

    The reasons for using our own script goes beyond writing emails and communicating with friends. Its a question of preserving our literature culture and traditions. Something many expatriates have slowly begun to ignore.

  • At 5:45 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks kaipally for your comments.

    i did not quite say we should forsake the mallu script (yes, i am not a great admirer of the 'standard' script) - the idea was only to have a roman malayalam as a valid alternative. i strongly feel that a language does not become any less of itself just by having multiple scripts. experts say hindi and urdu are the same language and they have two scripts, devanagari and the arab/persian based one. and having mallu written in roman script will make it accessible to those mallus who are illiterate in their mother tongue but know english very well - millions such exist all over the world and tens of thousands in kerala itself. and better still, the language will suddenly become 'readable' to the majority of the world population, like for instance i can read italian without really knowing it.

    i am not sure about this: the east asian languages you list are probably very difficult to write in roman script due to their ideographic scripts with thousands of picture/characters and stuff; they are probably fundamentally different. about arabic i dunno.

    i did not project the roman script as any 'standard' - to me it is just a convenient and pragmatic *alternative*.

    i am sure 'mallutwa' will flourish in kerala whether or not expatriates cherish and try to preserve it or not; as long as they pump in their remittances, large scale cultural activities will continue at home. the show will go on.

    and finally, yes, i wish mallu unicode well and hope to learn it sometime.

  • At 3:52 PM, Blogger കൈപ്പള്ളി said…

    I know none of these things will be of interest to the wannabe cool "Expatriate" mallus, romping around in their with their fake call-centre-accents and Suzuki Altos.

    But It does make a big difference to those who are seriously concerend about our Languge.

    For the record I never had any accademic education in Malayalam. I learned it out of shear love. Because Its my language. Very few Europeans can lay claim to their own script. Not even the English Language has its own script. We Malayalees can. And I feel we should protect it because its our heritage.

    Although I am sure you agree with some (not all) of what I preached !! I still felt the need to correct a few misundersdtandings in your reply to my comment.

    Urdu and Hindi are not the same lamguage. The language spoken in the streets of Delhi and Mumbaia is a mixture of the two. The Urdu spoken in Lucknow, Lahore and Hyderabad may be closer to the real thing. Although much of the grammar of Urdu has been borrowed from Hindi, the vocabulary is still very much farsi (Persian), Arabic and Turkish.

    Several Languages in the North western part of colonial India are slowly disappearing for want of a script. Seraiki, Kutchi, Sindhi. These will be consequently assimilated into neighbouring larger languages.

    Since you politely admited your honest ignorance abou the Arabic and Eastern scripts I should Ignore those comments, but again for the record: Yes Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean can be written in Roman scripts.

    But they don't do it as a habit.They do it only in times of emergencies. Like while SMSing.

    Your acertion that a script and language are intertwined and that the scipt will survive along with the language is also not accurate. The classic example is the demise of the Tagalogue script and Somali Script. The languages survive but the scripts have died. They adopted modified roman scripts.

    As you may or may not be aware, Malayalam can be typed in Manglish. It will appear on screen in Unicode Malayalam. It will aslo be stored as Unicode malayalam.

    Many advocates of using ASCII (Romanised) Malayalam, do not fully appreciate the reasons behind using Unicode. Its not just representation of the language for the purpose of reading, its mostly for transmission, storage and retrieval. But I feel thats, not in any way, part of the "Expatriate" Mallus agenda. Their objective is to use it today and forget about it tomorrow.

  • At 5:48 PM, Blogger വിശ്വം said…

    Dear Nandakumar,

    Can u pls send me a mail at

    Even better to add me to your googiL-Talk if you do use!

    It is important, please!

  • At 2:21 AM, Blogger Jose Alleppey said…

    Dear Nandakumar,
    I appreciate your thoughts.
    I have done much research on this issue. I strongly recommend that Malayalam should be written in Roman script. The use of Roman script signifies something more than a script. The Turkey was a Islamic fundamentalist nation before Kamal Pasha who made it a Secular Democratic Republic. The first thing he did when creating a democratic society, was to abandon the old religious Arabic script and start using Roman characters. Turkish community is now one of world's most cosmopolitanised community. Things are similar in Indonesia.

  • At 2:24 AM, Blogger Jose Alleppey said…

    I shall post more on this topic very soon.

  • At 3:54 AM, Blogger Jose Alleppey said…

    Now when we write malayalam in Roman script there are some issues that arise. Let us examin them.

    You said that you have written to your friends in Roman Malayalam. Yes, we all do this. But to use Roman in official purpose, we must have some more standardisation.

    For this purpose, I have visited a number of webpages in Languages like Turkish, Indonesian, Swedish, Finnish,Roman Konkani and even Mizo.

    The following are my reviews:

    1. When we write Roman Malayalam, we need not follow exact transliteration. ie, the schemes like:

    't' for 'tala' (means 'head') and 'T' for 'paTa' (means 'army').

    need not to be followed.

    Eg: The Roman Konkani is not mere a transliteration of Devanagari Konkani.

    Instead, we can spell each word according to its origin and related words. We can even apply different spellings for words with different meanings and same spelling in Aryan script(Malayalam script).
    That is we can write 'kala' for 'Art' and 'cala' for 'Cresent'.
    2. The idea of using Capital and small letters to denote different sounds is really impracticable. It makes the language ugly. What I wish is, to be frank, that our language should look like a European language.

    I have created blog also in Roman Malayalam. I have not started posting on it. But if you wish to visit, the URL is:

    3. The main problem that arise when you write something in Roman Malayalam, is the length of words. We Malayalis have a bad habit of joining two or more adjacent words and write it as a single word. In German language also this habit is noticed. That is why some German words are very long than any words in English. To develope a mature writing system, first of all we must learn to read distinct words together and understand the meaning. That is, The sentence "Avan um aval um avide und ai irunnu." should be understood as "He and she was there" and not like "He and she originated there and sat there". This can be achieved only through practise. I am giving below a sample of text in Roman script.
    I have placed this text as sample in orkut for a poll about writing in Roman script. Please go through it:

    New Delhi: Sélam Division preŝnat il lóksabaq ullil speaker’de anuádam illáte presamgiqán ŝramićhat inu P.C. Thómas M.P’ye pörat áqi. ére néram nînd ninna vágvádat inu oduil áñu chattam 373 pregáram P.C Thómas in ód saba il ninn purahtu pógán speaker ávaŝya pettatu.

    ŝúnia véla il Kéralat il ninn orále mátram samsáriqán speaker anuadićh atine tudarnn Krishñadás M. P praŝnam saba’de ŝredha il peduti. ennál atinu ŝésham ezhunnéta P. C. Thómas tanne samsáriqán anuadiq'eñam enn ávaŝia pettu. speaker at anuadićh illa. Prakópitan áya P. C. Thómas behalam većhat ine tudarnn áñ pörat áqal nadapadi undáyat.

    Kéralat il ninn ulla M. P. már’de behalam cárañam lók saba rávile tanne stambićh irunnu. Saba-nadapadigal tadasa peduti cond bahalam tudarnnat in ál speaker saba ara mañiqúr néram nirti većhu. Palakkad Division’te vibajenam ozhiv áqañam, Kéralat inód ulla avageñana nirt'eñam ennî ávaŝyamgal áñ M. P. már unnaićh at.

    nérate M. P. már Parliament inu munpil dharña nadati. Gándhi pretimaq munpil áñ party vietiásam illáte K. S. Sujátha M. P. ’de nétrutvat il samyucta dharña arang ériyat. Ara mañiqúr nérahte dharñaq ŝésham áñ sabha cúdia pól parliament in ullil pratishédha pregadanam nadati at.

    Ité preŝnat il railway mantri Lálu Prasád Yádav inu etire P. C. Thómas um N. N. Krishñadás um innale (tingal ázhcha) avacáŝa lamghanat inu notice um nalki irunnu. Atinte preméyam tingal ázhcha tanne parigañiq'eñam ennu ávaŝia pet irunnu enkilum atundái illa. Áñava carár, Góa preŝnat il Parliament il behalam undáyál innum preméyam parigañiq um enn urap illa.

    I dont say this is 100% standardised. As I learn more on languages a no. of changes were made on this text. There are a lot of changes remains to be made, I know.

    Please tell what do you think on these matters.

  • At 3:58 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    hi jose,

    saw your comments very late.
    happy to know you have strong sympathies with my own views. thanks.

    of course, you have thought much more and far more intensely on this matter than self so,i really am not qualified to comment on your efforts.

    yes, i am not quite comfortable with "'kala' for 'Art' and 'cala' for 'Cresent'. moreover you also use 'e' for the short 'a'. and 'q' for the double 'kk' is also somewhat new. cutting words like 'presnat il' also will take some getting used to. of course, your passage is very much readable.

    such details apart, i have a more general question: there is already an almost comprehensive transliteration scheme of malayalam to english where one uses all those dots, dashes, tildes and slashes above and below the basic roman letters to break ambiguities. eg: krishna is written krsna where the r and s have dots below and shiva is siva with a small slash on top of the s. this scheme seems to be the academic standard today, followed in britannica for instance and in academic publications and research papers.

    i do agree using upper and lower case english letters mixed up can look bad. but with the above 'britannica scheme' such problems are at least mostly solved.

    while typing emails etc. we do not have these slashes and dots so one has to tolerate some arbitrariness. but with these extra features available, one can easily make things unambiguous. so, i do not fully grasp the need for a new scheme.

    certainly, it is quite possible i missed something basic in your arguments and scheme. hope you can say more.

    thanks again for your interest.

  • At 9:27 AM, Blogger Shristi said…

    Hey R,
    can u plz translate me the below sentence :( .. Ma bf is frm kerala N I dnt undstand mallu at all.. Can u plz help me.. Plz I wod b really grtfull to u :(.
    Sambhavichathellam mairu aanu sambhavichu kondirikunnathellam mairu aanu, ini samahavikkan pokunnathum mairu aanu

  • At 9:46 AM, Blogger Shristi said…

    I hope that aint anything stupid m askin :| ..


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