|This article contains Indic text. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks or boxes, misplaced vowels or missing conjuncts instead of Indic text.|
|Time period||c. 830–present|
|Sister systems||Tulu script
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.|
|Malayalam is written in a non-Latin script. Malayalam text used in this article is transliterated into the Latin script according to the ISO 15919 standard.|
The Malayalam script (Malayalam: മലയാളലിപി, Malayāḷalipi [?], pronounced [mɐləjaːɭɐ lɪβɪ]( listen)) is a Brahmic script used commonly to write the Malayalam language—which is the principal language of the Indian state of Kerala, spoken by 36 million people in the world. Like many other Indic scripts, it is an abugida, or a writing system that is partially “alphabetic” and partially syllable-based. The modern Malayalam alphabet has 13 vowel letters, 36 consonant letters, and a few other symbols. Konkani, which actually means two individual languages (ISO 639-3: knn and gom), is also sometimes written in the Malayalam script, though relatively rarely. The script is also used to write several minority languages such as Paniya, Betta Kurumba, and Ravula. On the other hand, Malayalam was historically written in several different scripts. Even today it is sometimes written in Arabi Malayalam, a variant form of the Arabic script, mainly by Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia.
The basic characters can be classified as follows:
An independent vowel letter is used as the first letter of a word that begins with a vowel. A consonant letter, despite its name, does not represent a pure consonant, but represents a consonant + a short vowel /a/ by default. For example, ക is the first consonant letter of the Malayalam alphabet, which represents /ka/, not a simple /k/. A vowel sign is a diacritic attached to a consonant letter to indicate that the consonant is followed by a vowel other than /a/. If the following vowel is /a/, no vowel sign is needed. The phoneme /a/ that follows a consonant by default is called an inherent vowel. In Malayalam, its phonetic value is unrounded [ɐ], or [ə] as an allophone. To denote a pure consonant sound not followed by a vowel, a special diacritic virama is used to cancel the inherent vowel. The following are examples where a consonant letter is used with or without a diacritic.
Malayalam alphabet is unicase, or does not have a case distinction. It is written from left to right, but certain vowel signs are attached to the left (the opposite direction) of a consonant letter that it logically follows. In the word Kēraḷa, the vowel sign ē visually appears in the leftmost position, though the vowel ē logically follows the consonant k.
The Malayalam language was first written in Vatteluttu, an ancient script for Tamil. However, modern Malayalam script evolved from Grantha, a script originally used to write Sanskrit. Both Vatteluttu and Grantha evolved from Brahmi, but independently.
Vatteluttu (Malayalam: വട്ടെഴുത്ത്, Vaṭṭeḻuttŭ [?], “round writing”) is a script that had evolved from Tamil-Brahmi, and was once used extensively in the southern part of present-day Tamil Nadu and in Kerala.
Malayalam was first written in Vatteluttu. The Vazhappalli inscription issued by Rajasekhara Varman is the earliest example, dating from about 830 CE. In the Tamil country, the modern Tamil script had supplanted Vatteluttu by the 15th century, but in the Malabar region, Vatteluttu remained in general use up to the 17th century, or the 18th century. A variant form of this script, Kolezhuthu, was used until about the 19th century mainly in the Kochi area and in the Malabar area. Another variant form, Malayanma, was used in the south of Thiruvananthapuram.
Accoding to Arthur Coke Burnell, one form of the Grantha script, originally used in the Chola kingdom, was imported into the southwest coast of India in the 8th or 9th century, which was then modified in course of time in this secluded area, where communication with the east coast was very limited. This script was used by both the Malayali and Tuluva people, but was originally only applied to write Sanskrit. The Tulu form and Malayalam form of this alphabet were identical up to about 1600, and are sometimes collectively called the Tulu-Malayalam alphabet. In Malabar, this writing system was termed Arya-eluttu (ആര്യ എഴുത്ത്, Ārya eḻuttŭ), meaning “Arya writing” (Sanskrit is Aryan while Malayalam is Dravidian).
Vatteluttu was in general use, but was not suitable for literature where many Sanskrit words were used. Like Tamil-Brahmi, it was originally used to write Tamil, and as such, did not have letters for voiced or aspirated consonants used in Sanskrit but not used in Tamil. For this reason, Vatteluttu and the Grantha script were sometimes mixed, as in Manipravalam. One of the oldest examples of the Manipravalam literature, Vaishikatantram (വൈശികതന്ത്രം, Vaiśikatantram), dates back to the 12th century, where the earliest form of the Malayalam script was used, which seems to have been systematized to some extent by the first half of the 13th century.
Thunchath Ezhuthachan, a poet from around the 17th century, used Arya-eluttu to write his Malayalam poems based on Classical Sanskrit literature. For a few letters missing in Arya-eluttu (ḷa, ḻa, ṟa), he used Vatteluttu. His works became unprecedentedly popular to the point that the Malayali people eventually started to call him the father of the Malayalam language, which also popularized Arya-eluttu as a script to write Malayalam. However, Grantha was imperfect as it was as an alphabet to write a Dravidian language, not having distinctions between e and ē, and between o and ō. The Malayalam script as it is today was perfected in the middle of the 19th century when Hermann Gundert invented the new vowel signs to distinguish them.
By the 19th century, old scripts like Kolezhuthu had been supplanted by Arya-eluttu—that is, the current Malayalam script. Nowadays, it is widely used in the press of the Malayali population in Kerala.
The resemblance between the Malayalam script and the Tulu script is obvious.
Some authors believe that the Tulu script is older and the
Malayalam script evolved from it or was influenced by it,
though the oldest written Tulu document available, Tulu
Mahabharato, is from around 1500,
relatively new compared to the history of the Malayalam writing
In 1969–1971 and in 1981, the Government of Kerala reformed the orthography of Malayalam. In the traditional orthography, certain consonants followed by u, ū, or r̥ are represented by special glyphs (consonant-vowel ligatures), where the corresponding basic consonant letter is transformed irregularly. For example:
This kind of irregular glyph was simplified in the new orthography, where a vowel sign is always a separate symbol, never fused with the preceding letter:
Also, most of traditional consonant-consonant ligatures, especially less common ones only used to write words of Sanskrit origin, were split into non-ligated forms. For example:
The following tables show the independent vowel letters and the corresponding dependent vowel signs (diacritics) of the Malayalam script, with romanizations in ISO 15919, pronunciations in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and Unicode CHARACTER NAMES, abbreviated for simplicity (VS = VOWEL SIGN, VOC = VOCALIC).
|Vowel sign||Example||Vowel sign||Example|
PA + VS AA
PA + VS I
PA + VS II
PA + VS U
PA + VS UU
VS VOC R
PA + VS VOC R
VS VOC RR
PA + VS VOC RR
VS VOC L
PA + VS VOC L
VS VOC LL
PA + VS VOC LL
PA + VS E
PA + VS EE
PA + VS O
PA + VS OO
r̥, r̥̄, l̥, l̥̄ , used to write Sanskrit words, are treated as vowels. They are phonetically not vowels in Malayalam or in Classical Sanskrit, but originally they were (see Proto-Indo-European language and Vedic Sanskrit). The letters and signs for r̥̄, l̥, l̥̄ are very rare, and are not considered as part of the modern orthography.
The vowel signs ā, i, ī are placed to the right of a consonant letter to which it is attached. The vowel signs e, ē, ai are placed to the left of a consonant letter. The vowel signs o and ō consist of two parts: the first part goes to the left of a consonant letter and the second part goes to the right of it. In the reformed orthography, the vowel signs u, ū, r̥ are simply placed to the right of the consonant letter, while they often make consonant-vowel ligatures in the traditional orthography.
VOWEL SIGN AI
PA + VOWEL SIGN AI
VOWEL SIGN AU
PA + VOWEL SIGN AU
AU LENGTH MARK
PA + AU LENGTH MARK
It is important to note the vowel duration as it can be used to differentiate words that would otherwise be the same. For example, /kalam/ means "earthenware pot" while /kaalam/ means "time" or "season".
A + ANUSVARA
| ം ṁ
PA + ANUSVARA
An anusvaram (അനുസ്വാരം, anusvāram), or an anusvara, originally denoted the nasalization where the preceding vowel was changed into a nasalized vowel, and hence is traditionally treated as a kind of vowel sign. In Malayalam, however, it simply represents a consonant /m/ after a vowel, though this /m/ may be assimilated to another nasal consonant. It is a special consonant, different from a consonant represented by a “normal” consonant letter in that it is never followed by an inherent vowel or another vowel. In general, an anusvara at the end of a word is transliterated as ṁ in ISO 15919, but a Malayalam anusvara at the end of a word is transliterated as m without a dot.
A + VISARGA
| ഃ ḥ
PA + VISARGA
A visargam (വിസർഗം, visargam), or a visarga, represents a consonant /h/ after a vowel, and is transliterated as ḥ. Like an anusvara, it is a special symbol, and this /h/ is never followed by an inherent vowel or another vowel.
The following tables show the basic consonant letters of the Malayalam script, with romanizations in ISO 15919, pronunciations in IPA, and Unicode CHARACTER NAMES. The character names used in the report of the Government of Kerala committee (2001) are shown in lowercase italics when different from Unicode character names. Those alternative names are based on the traditional romanization used by the Malayali people. For example, tha in “Thiruvananthapuram” is neither ISO tha nor Unicode THA, but tha in this sense (ത). The ISCII (IS 13194:1991) character names are given in parentheses when different from the above.
ta (hard ta)
tta (hard tha)
hard dda (hard dha)
tha (soft ta)
ttha (soft tha)
soft dda (soft dha)
/n̪a, na/[A] NA
soft sha (sha)
sha (hard sha)
|റ [K] ṟa, ṯa
/ra, ta/ RRA
A chillu, or a chillaksharam (ചില്ലക്ഷരം, cillakṣaram), is a special consonant letter that represents a pure consonant independently, without help of a virama. Unlike a consonant represented by an ordinary consonant letter, this consonant is never followed by an inherent vowel. Anusvara and visarga fit this definition but are not usually included. ISCII and Unicode 5.0 treat a chillu as a glyph variant of a normal (“base”) consonant letter. In Unicode 5.1 and later, however, chillu letters are treated as independent characters, encoded atomically.
There are at least six known chillu letters. Chillu-k is rare. The other five are quite common.
|ൺ||CHILLU NN||ṇa ണ|
|ൻ||CHILLU N||na ന|
|ർ||CHILLU RR||ra ര||Historically from ra, not from ṟa (RRA) റ.|
|ൽ||CHILLU L||la ല||Historically from ta ത.|
|ൾ||CHILLU LL||ḷa ള|
|ൿ||CHILLU K||ka ക|
Chandrakkala ് (ചന്ദ്രക്കല, candrakkala) is a diacritic attached to a consonant letter to show that the consonant is not followed by an inherent vowel or any other vowel (for example, ക ka → ക് k). This kind of diacritic is common in Indic scripts, generically called virama in Sanskrit, or halant in Hindi.
At the end of a word, the same symbol sometimes represents a very short vowel, known as “half-u”, or samvruthokaram (സംവൃതോകാരം, saṁvr̥tōkāram). The exact pronunciation of this vowel varies from dialect to dialect, but it is approximately [ə] or [ɨ], and transliterated as ŭ (for example, ന na → ന് nŭ). Optionally, a vowel sign u is inserted, as in നു് (= ന + ു + ്). According to one author, this alternative form is historically more correct, though the simplified form without a vowel sign u is common nowadays. This means that the same spelling ന് may represent either n or nŭ depending on the context. Generally, it is nŭ at the end of a word, and n elsewhere; നു് always represents nŭ.
Like in other Indic scripts, a virama is used in the Malayalam script to cancel—or “kill”—the inherent vowel of a consonant letter and represent a consonant without a vowel, so-called a “dead” consonant. For example,
If this n ന് is further followed by another consonant letter, for example, ma മ, the result may look like ന്മ, which represents nma as na + virama + ma. In this case, two elements n ന് and ma മ are simply placed one by one, side by side. Alternatively, nma can be also written as a ligature ന്മ.
Generally, when a dead consonant letter C1 and another consonant letter C2 are conjoined, the result may be either:
If the result is fully- or half-conjoined, the (conceptual) virama which made C1 dead becomes invisible, only logically existing in a character encoding scheme such as Unicode. If the result is non-ligated, a virama is visible, attached to C1. The glyphs for nma has a visible virama if not ligated (ന്മ), but if ligated, the virama disappears (ന്മ). Usually the difference between those forms is superficial and both are semantically identical, just like the meaning of the English word palaeography does not change even if it is spelled palæography, with the ligature æ.
Several consonant-consonant ligatures are used commonly even in the new orthography.
The ligature mpa മ്പ was historically derived from npa ന്പ. The ligatures cca, bba, yya, and vva are special in that a doubled consonant is denoted by a triangle sign below a consonant letter.
(1) The consonant letter ya is generally C2-conjoining after a consonant in both orthographies. For example,
In kya ക്യ, a variant form of ya () is placed after the full form of ka ക, just like ki കി is written ka ക followed by the vowel sign i ി. In other words, the variant form of ya () used after a consonant letter can be considered as a diacritic. Since it is placed after the base character, it is sometimes referred to as a post-base form. An exception is yya യ്യ (see above).
(2) Similarly, va after a consonant takes a post-base form:
An exception is vva വ്വ (see above).
(3) The consonant letter la after a consonant traditionally takes a below-base form. These forms are used also in the new orthography, though some fonts do not support them.
(4) A consonant letter ra after a consonant usually takes a pre-base form in the reformed orthography, while this combination makes a fully-conjoined ligature in the traditional orthography.
The ligature nṯa is written as n ന് + ṟa റ and pronounced /nda/. The ligature ṯṯa is written as ṟ റ് + ṟa റ.
In those two ligatures, a small ṟa റ is written below the first letter (chillu-n if it is a dead n). Alternatively, the letter ṟa is sometimes written to the right of the first letter, making a digraph (just like ωι used instead of ῳ in Greek). The spelling ൻറ is therefore read either nṟa (two separate letters) or nṯa (digraph) depending on the word. Similary, ററ is read either ṟaṟa or ṯṯa.
In the traditional orthography, a dead consonant r before a consonant sometimes takes an above-base form, known as a dot reph, which looks like a short vertical line or a dot. Generally, a chillu-r is used instead of a dot reph in the reformed orthography.
|Praslesham||ഽ||Corresponds to Devanagari avagraha, used when a Sanskrit phrase
containing an avagraha is written in Malayalam script. The
symbol indicates the elision
of the word-initial vowel a after a word that ends in
ā, ē, or ō, and is transliterated as an
apostrophe (’), or sometimes as a colon + an apostrophe (:’).
(Malayalam: പ്രശ്ലേഷം, praślēṣam [?])
|Malayalam date mark||൹||Used in an abbreviation of a date.|
|Danda||।||Archaic punctuation marks.|
Malayalam numbers and fractions are written as follows. These are archaic and no more commonly used. Note that there is a confusion about the glyph of Malayalam digit zero. The correct form is oval-shaped, but occasionally the glyph for ¼ ൳ is erroneously shown as the glyph for 0.
The Unicode range for Malayalam is U+0D00–U+0D7F. Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points.
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
For example, avan അവൻ (“he”) is written as a അ + va വ + chillu-n ൻ, where chillu-n represents the n sound without a vowel. In another Indic script, the same word would be possibly written as a + va + na + virama. However, in Malayalam script, that sequence represents a different word, avanŭ അവന് (“to him”), and is not interchangeable with avan. This is because in modern Malayalam script, the sign for a virama also works as the sign for a vowel ŭ at the end of a word, and is not able to cleanly “kill” the inherent vowel in this case.
To differentiate a pure consonant (chillu) and a consonant with ŭ, zero-width joiner (ZWJ) and zero-width non-joiner (ZWNJ) were used before Unicode 5.1. However, this system was problematic. Among other things, glyph variants specified by ZWJ or ZWNJ are supposed to be non-semantic, whereas a chillu (expressed as letter + virama + ZWJ) and the same consonant followed by a ŭ (expressed as letter + virama + ZWNJ) are often semantically different. After a long debate, six chillus now have their own code points starting from Unicode 5.1, though their representation in Unicode 5.0 is still valid.
The ligature nṯa is very common and supported by most Malayalam fonts in one way or another, but exactly how it should be encoded was not clear in Unicode 5.0 and earlier, and two incompatible implementations are currently in use. In Unicode 5.1 (2008), the sequence to represent it was explicitly redefined as chillu-n + virama + ṟa (ൻ്റ), but is not widely supported yet (as of 2009).