Historical background

Malayalam, a South Dravidian language (see Krishnamurti 2005), is the mother tongue of 96 percent of the population of the Indian state of Kerala. It is also the principal language of Lakshadweep, the Laccadive Islands, a chain of islands in the Arabian Sea running parallel to the coastal strip in the southwest of India that makes up Kerala. The total number of inhabitants recorded for Kerala in the 2001 census was 31,841,374, and for Lakshadweep 60,650. The history of Malayalam as a separate language goes back approximately twelve hundred years; for a comprehensive description of the Malayalam of today, see Asher and Kumari (1997).

The modern, linguistically homogeneous state of Kerala was formed in 1956, at the time of the major reorganization of states in India, by the merging of Malabar in the north, Cochin in the central part, and Travancore in the south. A year later, in 1957, the people of Kerala produced the world's first democratically elected communist government (that of E.M.S. Namboodiripad). Kerala, with an area of 38,863 km2, is the most densely populated region of India, a fact that can be attributed to its fertile soil and abundant rainfall. The main occupation of its people is agriculture. There is also a developing tourist industry, resulting in part from its exceptional scenic beauty. The state's economy is now dependent to a considerable extent on money remitted by expatriates, numbering some millions, working in the United States of America, Germany, and the United Kingdom and in the Arabian/Persian Gulf countries.

External contacts with Kerala go back two millennia or more, with the spices that abound there being one of the attractions. The earliest contacts from distant lands were Greek and Roman. Next came Arab traders. The most widely held view of scholars is that this was before the time of the Prophet Muḥammad, although clear historical evidence that would allow anything like precise dating is not available. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa visited the region between 1342 and 1347; in his account of his voyages, he grouped Quilon and Calicut among the five greatest ports in the world (Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Riḥla 46, 234) and gave the title zamorin to the rulers of the Malabar region during those days. The Chinese explorer Zheng He (a Muslim) sailed to places on the southwest coast of India – Quilon, Cochin, and Calicut – in 1409–1411. It was toward the end of the same century, in 1498, that Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut. Dutch influence in the region, which began when the Dutch East India Company sent Admiral van der Hagen there in 1603, ended a century and a half later with the defeat of the Dutch forces by Marthanda Varma of Travancore. British interest began with the arrival of Captain Keeling in Calicut in 1615, but firm control over the region as a whole was established only toward the end of the 18th century. Calicut, which is the port most frequently visited, was known to the Arabs as the capital of what they called Malabar ‘the land of mountains’. Kozhikode (kōẓikkōṭǝ), as the town was called by the inhabitants, was Arabized to Kālikūt, which was further modified into Calicut by the Europeans.

Many of these contacts from overseas had an impact on the structure of the lexicon of Malayalam, with that of English being the most widespread and lasting. Equally important in this respect was the development of the religious scene over the centuries. The census of 2001 records 17,883,449 Hindus (56.2% of the total population of the state), 7,863,842 Muslims (24.7%), 6,057,427 Christians (19.0%), 4,528 Jains, 2,762 Sikhs, 2,027 Buddhists, and 2,256 others (including Jews, who many centuries ago settled in and around Cochin). Statistics from the same census show that, as has been the case since records were first kept more than a century ago, the level of literacy, for males and females alike, in Kerala is significantly higher than for any other part of India, at 94.20 percent and 87.86 percent respectively. There are some variations among the different religious communities, but the differences have become progressively less with each decennial census. For the three dominant groups, the percentage figures in 2001 were Hindus 90.2 and 86.7, Muslims 89.4 and 85.5, and Christians 94.8 and 93.5. These literacy figures are clearly relevant in discussing the spread of lexical items from one community to another, since much of the expansion of the understanding and use of new terms is through the written word.

The long history of Hinduism in southwest India, the beginnings of which have been traced back as far as 1000 B.C.E. (Sreedhara Menon 1967:94), had an impact on the structure of society and on language. The aspect of the caste system, which determined people's occupation on the basis of their place within society, was extended to the followers of other religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, The borrowing into Malayalam of words from the language of Hinduism, namely Sanskrit, had the effect in due course of changing the phonological structure of the language by the introduction of sounds that were not present in the Dravidian base. This development was reflected in the writing system by the addition of a score of new symbols to make possible the representation of an increased number of phonological distinctions (see Asher and Kumari 1997:406–422). This greater range made it easier to accommodate later borrowings from Arabic and English without too great a departure from the sound patterns of the source language. It remains the case, of course, that some changes are necessary to make these loans fit into the phonology and orthography of Malayalam.

There is a belief among Syrian Christians, the oldest Christian group in Kerala, that Christianity was brought there by St. Thomas in 52 C.E., and among the Jews of Cochin that their ancestors took refuge there after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. (Spear 1961:73). Similarly, there is a belief among Muslims that Islam reached Kerala during the lifetime of the Prophet himself. There are reasons to believe that Arabs traveled to southwest India before the 7th century with a view both to conquest and trade, but Islam was introduced to Kerala not by the conquerors or the traders but by Mālik ibn Dīnār and his companions, who came with a specific interest in preaching the religion. Cheraman Perumal, a king of Kerala, is believed to have gone to Mecca to convert to Islam. Cheraman Masjid, located at Kodungallur, one of the port cities of Kerala, is the first mosque of India.

The oldest document available about the Muslim community of Kerala is the reference to a Muslim in the 849–850 C.E. record, the so-called Syrian Plates of Kottayam (Tarisāppaḷḷi śāsanam). A Muslim royal family by the name of Arakkal, which happens to be the only Muslim dynasty of Kerala, ruled a small portion of land at Kannur and in the Laccadive Islands (Lakshadweep) for some considerable time. As regards the beginning of the dynasty, which lost its power in the early 20th century, there are two very divergent opinions: it was in the 9th century or in the 17th.

The social life of the Mappilas, as Muslims of Malabar are better known, indicates the presence of Arabic in the various spheres of the cultural life of Kerala. The medium of religious education of religious scholars and people who aspire to be priests (generally known as mulla/maulavi/musliar) is still Arabic. Most of their prayers are in Arabic. Mappilas respect Arabic as the language of heaven. Just as in the religious educational centers known as madrassa, dars, ‘Islamiya college’, or ‘Arabic college’, facilities are available for the study of Arabic in the secular educational centers as well. There are many Muslim students studying Arabic in Kerala, and the universities there offer postgraduate and doctoral courses in the subject. C.H. Mohammed Koya (1927–1983), who was the chief minister of Kerala for a few months in 1979 and minister of education from 1967 to 1973, took a special interest in the matter.

There are many books, including historical writings as well as creative literature in prose and verse, written in Arabic by Malayali writers. Tuḥfat al-mujāhidīn, an Arabic text written by Sheikh Zainuddin Maqdoom from the cultural center of Ponnani in the 16th century, is one of the seminal texts on the early history of Kerala. The Muslims of Kerala developed a system of writing Malayalam in modified Arabic script called Arabic-Malayalam, which is very similar to the Persian and Urdu scripts.

This is a system of writing Malayalam in modified Arabic script. It imitates the alphabets of Persian and Urdu and has a history of at least 500 years. The first three lines of the table show the vowels and the other lines the consonants.
the language of their religion. By and large, Muslims of India think of Urdu as their mother tongue, not the languages used in the region where they live. Muslims of Kerala are an exception to this phenomenon observed across India, in that they have accepted Malayalam as their mother tongue.

With a history of not less than five hundred years and numerous works of literature both in verse and prose, a category of literature called Arabic Malayalam literature has come into existence. Mappilappattu (māppiḷappāṭṭu), the verse branch of this Arabic Malayalam, is immensely popular with Malayalis at large. The most prominent among the writers of Mappilappattu is the poet Moyinkutty Waidyar (1852–1892). Prose writers such as Muhammad Abdurahiman (1898–1945) and the famous fighter for the national freedom of India, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer (1908–1994), are very much part of the mainstream of modern Malayalam literature. It is perhaps because of the success of Basheer as a novelist and short story writer, whose tales are often, though by no means exclusively, set in his own community, that Arabic words, particularly those relating to aspects of Islam, have increasingly become part of the everyday vocabulary of Malayalam (see, for example, the glossary at the end of Basheer 1980).

Words used in religious life

Arabic words used within Malayalam utterances can be seen as being of two types. The first are those connected with Islamic religion and used by Muslims in a religious context. These words are generally adapted into Malayalam without phonological or morphological modifications. For example, Allāhu is pronounced in the correct manner, in accordance with the phonological structure of Arabic. On the other hand, since Malayalam does not have the phone corresponding to the Arabic emphatic /ḷḷ/ in Allāhu, a Malayali non-Muslim would substitute what he felt to be the nearest Malayalam sound, i.e. retroflex [ɭɭ], and so, as far as a Muslim is concerned, mispronounce the word. Such words when used in a religious context are to be regarded at best as unassimilated loans, e.g. ibādattǝ ‘prayer, rituals’ (< Arabic ʿibāda), jamāʾattǝ ‘mass’ (< Arabic jamāʿa), dīn ‘religion’ (< Arabic dīn), mad-hab ‘school of thought’ (< Arabic maḏhab), wahābi ‘a disciple of Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’, -īmān ‘the [real] faith’ (< Arabic ʾīmān), hajj ‘pilgrimage’ (< Arabic ḥajj), iśā ‘night prayer’ (< Arabic ʿašāʾ ‘evening, night’), ḷuhar ‘noontime prayer’ (< Arabic ḍuhr ‘afternoon’), phikh ‘jurisprudence’ (< Arabic fiqh).

Secular domain

The second type of Arabic words to be heard within Malayalam utterances comprise those that are used in the secular domain and are fully assimilated into the phonology of Malayalam. In different domains there may be more than one thousand such Arabic words current in Malayalam. These words fall into two main classes: words relating to Islam used in a secular context, and words belonging to other domains. These words, and especially those in the latter class, have been adopted into the vocabulary of Malayalam so well that their Arabic origin is often not recognized. Most of them do not have parallel Malayalam words. A number of them have come through Persian, which was the official language of India during the Mughal period in the domains of law and administration, e.g. sulttān ‘king’ (< Persian, Arabic sulṭān), kasaba ‘main town’ (< Arabic qaṣaba), jilla ‘district’ (< ḏilʿ?), tālukkā ‘a subdivision of a district’ (Persian taʾalloġ or Arabic taʿalluq ‘dependency’), tāsīldār ‘head of a taluk’ (< Persian tahsīl-dār ‘tax collector’ < Arabic taḥṣīl ‘levying [of tax]’), adālattǝ ‘court’ (< Persian adālat < Arabic ʿadāla ‘justice’), amānattǝ ‘an amount deposited with the court for bail’ (< Persian amānat < Arabic ʾamāna ‘deposition in trust’), harji ‘petition’ (< ʿarḍ?), osyattǝ ‘will’ (< Persian wasiyat < Arabic waṣiyya), japti ‘confiscation’ (< Persian zabt < Arabic ḍabṭ), vakkīl ‘advocate’ (< Persian, Arabic wakīl), hājar ‘state of being present’ (< Persian hāzir ‘present’ < Arabic ḥāḍir). Some other important loanwords widely used in everyday language, both spoken and written, are given in Table 1.

Salām and iṅkvilāb need to be elaborated upon. Salām is abstracted from as-salāmu ʿalaykum ‘peace be upon you!’, and is used to convey one's regard. Salām has thus become a form of salutation. Lālsalām is used for ‘red salute’ among Communists (lāl being Hindi for ‘red’). Iṇkvilāb, from the Arabic word for a continuous change, is now a word commonly found in the rhetoric of politicians, especially of Communists, for ‘revolution’. Both of these loans have thus taken on new connotations in the Malayalam context.

Personal names

Generally, Muslims in Kerala, both men and women, use Arabic personal names just as Muslims elsewhere do. Most of them recall the Prophet Muḥammad, his family members, his companions, and Sufi saints. A large number of male names begin with the element abd (Arabic ʿabd) ‘servant [of God]’. God is referred to here by one of His one hundred holy names (al-ʾasmāʾ al-ḥusnā), such as Rahman (ṟahman), Raheem (ṟahīm), etc. Examples (given here first in the form in which they are usually romanized by Malayalis) of male names are Muhammad (muhammad), Abdullah (abduḷḷa), Abubakar (abubakkar), Umar (umar), Usman (usmān), Ali (āli), Abdul Khader (abdulkhādar), Abdurahiman (abdurahimān), Fakruddin (phakṟuddīn), Jamaluddin (jamāluddīn), Abdul Gafoor (abdulgapūr), Abdul Jabbar (abduljabbār); and of female names: Aysha (āyiṣa), Khadeeja (khadīja), Zainaba (sainaba), Jameela (jamīla), Safiya (saphiya), Maimoona (maimūna), Za-keena (sakkīna), Amina (āmina), Zuhara (suhaṟa), Laila (lailā).

These names are used in two different forms, either the original form as used in Arabic, or a changed form to suit the local phonological system. Examples of nativization include Muḥammad > Mammad (mammad), ʾAḥmad > Ammad (ammad), Muḥyī d-Dīn > Moideen (moytīn) ~ Maideen (maytīn). Syllabic reduction occurs in many ways, e.g. ʿAbd ar-Raḥmān > Rahman (ṟahman), Abdul (abdul), Abdu (abdu), Abdura (abduṟa), Adraman (adṟamān), Andraman (antṟamān). Sometimes Arabic names are used with the Malayalam prefix or suffix Kunhi (kuññi), Kuṭṭy (kuṭṭi), Unni (uṇṇi), or Kochu (koccu), all meaning ‘child’, e.g. Kunhi Muhammad (kuññi muhammad), Kunhi Amina (kuññi āmina); Muhammad Kunhi (muhammad kuññi), Ali Kunhi (āli kuññi); Kutty Ali (kuṭṭi āli), Kutty Ahammad (kuṭṭi ahammad); Muhammad Kutty (muhammad kuṭṭi), Ahammad Kutty (ahammad kuṭṭi); Unni Muhammad (uṇṇi muhammad), Unni Ali (uṇṇi āli); Muhammad Unni (muhammad uṇṇi), Ahammad Unni (ahammad uṇṇi); Kunhi Ali Kutty (kuññi āli kuṭṭi); Kutty Ahammad Kutty (kuṭṭi ahammad kuṭṭi); Kochu Muhammad (koccu muhammad), Kochu Zuhara (koccu suhaṟa). In rare cases, the Muslims of Kerala may use Malayalam (e.g. Marakkar, marakkār), Sanskrit (e.g. Sunita, sunīta), or Persian (e.g. Shajahan, ṣājahān) names as personal names.

Phonological changes

The Semitic origin of Arabic and the Dravidian roots of Malayalam posit problems of being mutually exclusive in the case of certain phonemes. All the vowels in Arabic (a, i, u) are present in Malayalam as well, although Malayalam has 15 vowel sounds in addition to these. The Arabic consonants /b/, /t/, /j/, /d/, /r/, /s/, /š/, /k/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /h/, /w/, /y/ are present in the Malayalam inventory. Malayalam does not have sounds corresponding to all those of Arabic, as found in such words as Allāhu and Muḥammad, and because of the phonological structure of their language, Keralites are not able to pronounce such words properly. Instead, Malayalam uses the sounds that are closest to the original. Allāhu, for instance, is pronounced as [a ːhu], and Muḥammad as [muhammad]. Muslims throughout Kerala make a conscious effort to pronounce words of religious importance such as Allahu properly, although other Arabic words are transformed phonologically to suit the framework of Malayalam. Non-Muslims routinely change the unfamiliar Arabic sounds to familiar Malayalam sounds. Table 2 lists the sounds used by Malayalam in place of the Arabic ones.

The symbol used for representing the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/ of Arabic loans in Malayalam is the one originally used for the voiceless aspirated bilabial plosive – /ph/ – in Sanskrit loans. In modern Malayalam, its predominant use has come to be the representation of [f], as in the case of phān [faːn] and phōn [foːn] for the English loanwords fan and phone. Earlier loans from Arabic replaced Arabic /f/ by Malayalam /p/, e.g. fāṭima > pāttummā.

Semantic changes

Most Arabic loanwords in Malayalam are confined to the domains of administration, religion, and food, and it could be that the chances of these words undergoing semantic change are comparatively remote. But the sense of humor associated with the Malayali Muslim (what has come to be called māppiḷaphalitam < māppiḷa ‘Malayali Muslim’ + phalitam ‘joke’) gives a humorous twist to meanings in the case of words that are phonologically close. Arabic xalaqa s-samawāti, for instance, is a Qurʾānic expression meaning ‘God has created the skies’; but in Malayalam, if someone says kalakkassamavāti, it means ‘everything got messed up’, ‘turmoil’, or ‘a turbulent situation’. The word mahśaṟa (< Persian mahzar < Arabic maḥḍar), meaning ‘assembly for the last trial after doomsday’, is used with the meaning ‘any place with a huge crowd’ or ‘any place that is in utter chaos’. In Malayalam, phitna (< Arabic fitna ‘trouble’) also means ‘gossip’ and ‘backbiting’. The word cakkāttǝ is a modification of zakāt, which according to Islam is the mandatory distribution of a particular portion of one's property during Ramadan. Cakkāttǝ in Malayalam has a different connotation. It means what is given freely without any binding commitment. This word undergoes phonological as well as semantic changes. Arabic /z/ first became /s/, and this was later transformed into /c/. The development of the Arabic term ṣāḥib ‘companion; comrade’ was first used as an honorific term or suffix in referring to Muslim gentlemen, e.g. Muhammad Sahib (muhammad sāhib). Alongside this usage, the word underwent a number of phonological changes over time to become sāyippǝ, the Malayalam word for ‘foreigner’, and more specifically a Westerner. Now, both sāhib and sāyippǝ are used, but in different domains.

Morphological changes

In general, there was not much correspondence between Arabic and Malayalam in the domain of scholarship and knowledge. Those who were working in Arabic language and literature had no exposure to Malayalam literature. There could be such transactions in ‘Arabic-Malayalam’, but that was off the mainstream of Malayalam. Morphological changes are very few due to the lack of such exposure, but there are a few exceptions, e.g. Arabic ʿālim ‘scholar’, pl. ʿulamāʾ. Both alīm and ulamā are used in Malayalam, but Malayalis took ulamā as singular and pluralized it as ulamākkaḷ, with the Malayalam plural suffix. This somewhat unusual instance illustrates the normal treatment of words borrowed into Malayalam, in that they are fitted into the morphological structure of the language in the sense that the inflectional endings – such as markers of case – are added to them.

Syntactic changes

Grammatical peculiarities of Arabic have not affected Malayalam syntax. This might be partly because of the lack of contact between the two languages at the spoken level – the contact was mainly literary and cultural – and partly because, despite the considerable number of Muslims in southwest India, the members of the population having contact with Arabic were always in a minority.

Kinship terms

Of the kinship terms used by Malayali Muslims, only one is from Arabic, namely umma ‘mother’ (< Arabic ʾumm). The terms for father, bāppa/vāppa/uppa/uppāva/bāppicci/vāppicci/vāyicci, are variants of bāp in Hindi/Urdu. A few of the kinship terms of Malayali Muslims were borrowed from Persian (e.g. kākka ‘elder brother’ < Persian kākā), and the remaining ones are from Malayalam (e.g. ammāvan ‘uncle’). It is nevertheless the case that there are marked differences among the kinship terms of Muslims, Christians, and Hindus (see Asher and Kumari 1997:451–454).

R.E. Asher (University of Edinburgh)

M.N. Karassery (Calicut)

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