‘Malayalam is a Dying Language’

Last Sunday, I ran into my friend, Denson, at a concert hosted by a local Malayali association featuring award-winning singer M.G. Sreekumar, actress Remya Nambeesan and comedian Ramesh Pisharodi. As we sat together in one of the back rows, awaiting the next segment of the program, we got into a conversation about his upbringing in Kerala. Unlike most ‘millennials’, Denson was educated in Malayalam-medium schools prior to arriving in America at the age of 14. He claimed lamentingly that due to the widespread of English-medium educational institutions throughout Kerala, Malayalam is currently withering a slow death.

The assertion that Malayalam is a dying language is hyperbolic, though not entirely inaccurate. This statement has been echoed by MT Vasudevan Nair, a Malayalam literary giant famed for writing a plethora of novels, poems, plays and cinematic screenplays. Many Malayalis would concede to such an alarming conclusion.

Kerala is probably the only state in India where schoolchildren could go through their entire academic careers without taking a course in their mother tongue. My cousin Juhi attests to this fact. Although government schools in Kerala are mandated to conduct all their courses in Malayalam, the majority of middle-class families opt to send their children to Catholic-run management schools to ensure a well-rounded education. These institutions conduct their courses solely in English.

During her primary and secondary education, Juhi says that her school offered Malayalam as an elective rather than a core course, which she shrewdly took to reserve an easy A for herself. But a student was free to select Hindi or French. Therefore, it’s possible to be raised in Kerala and be completely well-versed in English, French and Hindi, but only be conversational in Malayalam.

It would a gross exaggeration to refer to Malayalam as a dead language, as opposed to numerous tribal dialects in Kerala which have already underwent a slow death. However, Malayalam has definitely been reduced to a downgraded status. I can’t imagine anyone my age reading a Malayalam novel. English-medium education would naturally instill a taste for the Western classics and the unique breed of Indo-Anglian literature. An average Malayali teenager would more likely to be found reading  Two States or The Hunt for Red October than M.T Vasudevan Nair’s Naalakettu. 

Within my age bracket, Malayalam has morphed into a Anglicized hybrid language, which would be termed as Aviyal Bhasha, a masala recipe involving a swirl of English and Malayalam sprinkled with tidbits of Hindi loanwords, Tamil phrases and a plethora of creatively-invented expressions incomprehensible to anyone over the age of forty.

If you need a example of how this unique dialect is spoken, watch a video clip of Ranjini Haridas.

Denson mentioned a competition held in Kerala where participants were required to give a speech in pure Malayalam, devoid of foreign loanwords or phrases. However, for its many formidable contenders, the competition has proven to be an impossible challenge.

Unlike my friend, I don’t lament the decline of Malayalam’s status as a language. Considering how sinfully laughable my conversation skills are in Malayalam, it would be hypocritical of me to do so. I just find the evolution of languages very amusing.

As a sidenote: The worst part about being solely receptive in a language is understanding when you’re being ruthlessly teased but being incapable of responding with a witty comeback. FML.

As our discussion slowly concluded, Ramesh Pisharodi came on stage and performed a hilarious stand-up routine (which I wish would have lasted longer than ten minutes). Despite being a young guy, Pisharodi’s stand-up performances contradict the widespread narrative of ‘pure’ Malayalam being replaced with Aviyal Bhasha. In fact, one could call him the anti-Ranjini Haridas (no offence to Ranjini).

It’s natural for languages to evolve, morph and sometimes be replaced with other languages. There’s no need to express sorrow over any current linguistic trend. I mean, god forbid, we turn into Quebecers and start implementing draconian linguistic measures in efforts to ‘save a language’!





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