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Malayalam: Language of poets and presidents

Malayalees are the second-largest Indian sub-group in Singapore, but many younger Malayalees do not read or write Malayalam and a growing number are unable to speak it.
Mr Unnithan, the Malayalam Language Education Society chairman, at a children's language class organised by his not-for-profit group. Dr Vidhya Pillay, with her parents. Mr Nirmalan Pillay, a Tamil, had readily agreed to one of his wife Jalaja's requ
Dr Vidhya Pillay, with her parents. Mr Nirmalan Pillay, a Tamil, had readily agreed to one of his wife Jalaja's requests before their marriage - to raise their children in her Malayalee culture. He and his daughter are now fluent speakers of Malayalam, and Dr Pillay says that her mother tongue's similarity to the Tamil language has made picking up the latter relatively easily as well. PHOTOS: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mr Unnithan, the Malayalam Language Education Society chairman, at a children's language class organised by his not-for-profit group. Dr Vidhya Pillay, with her parents. Mr Nirmalan Pillay, a Tamil, had readily agreed to one of his wife Jalaja's requ
Mr Unnithan, the Malayalam Language Education Society chairman, at a children's language class organised by his not-for-profit group.PHOTOS: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its own unique syntax and history. Some are endangered and others are thriving. In the eighth instalment of a weekly series, we look at Malayalam. Malayalees here say speaking their mother tongue fosters community and cultural ties

In the Indian language of Malayalam, "love" comes in many shades.

There is sneham, which encompasses all forms of love, including love for your family. Then there is premam for young love between people who are dating, priyam to describe romantic love and a still more intense love known as pranayam.

Retired vice-principal Jalaja Pillay, 64, said, as she tried to explain the nuances to me: "It's very difficult to translate into English because that intensity is lost."

Her mother tongue is all the more closely entwined with love because her husband - a proud Ceylon Tamil who knew only a bit of Malayalam - promised that he would use it when they started a family.

Mr Nirmalan Pillay, 64, a lawyer who now speaks fluent Malayalam, said: "One of the things she asked me (before agreeing to marry me) was - she wanted the children to be brought up as Malayalees. Malayalam should be spoken. I had no objection."

  • ORIGINS

    • Malayalam, which means "hill region" in Tamil, is the official language of Kerala, India.

    • It belongs to the Dravidian family of languages and is thought to have originated from Middle Tamil in the 7th century. Malayalam contains many elements from Sanskrit.

    • Unlike Tamil, it has borrowed many words from other languages, such as Portuguese and English.

    NUMBER OF SPEAKERS

    • Malayalam is spoken by some 38 million people around the world.

    • There are more than 26,000 Malayalees in Singapore.

    • Many of the younger generation speak it, but most do not know how to read or write it.

    WHERE TO LEARN

    • Not-for-profit organisation Malayalam Language Education Society (MLES) runs weekend Malayalam classes for pre-primary and primary school pupils. MLES also offers conversational, basic and intermediate Malayalam classes for adults. Visit www.malayalam.org. sg/courses/ for more information.

    SOME MALAYALAM DISHES

    • Theeyal (vegetable curry made from a mix of spices)

    • Mango curry

    • Cabbage thoran (stir-fried cabbage)

    • Meen varuthu (fish curry)

    • Paruppu payasam (sweet, semi-solid dessert with moong dal, coconut and jaggery )

    Toh Wen Li

He added: "There's a saying in Tamil that the mother tongue is given to the child through the breast milk. You get your language from your mother. Why would you want to take that away?"

Malayalees are the second-largest Indian sub-group in Singapore, after Tamils. The 2010 census recorded 26,348 Malayalees in Singapore - alomost 7.6 per cent of the Indian community here.

Historically, Malayalees come from India's south-western coastal state of Kerala, which means "land of coconuts" in Malayalam.

Immigration to Singapore began in the early 1800s, and by 1911 there were more than 1,200 Malayalees here. Many settled in Sembawang, Changi, Seletar and Tengah.

Notable Malayalee Singaporeans include former president Devan Nair, dancer and Cultural Medallion recipient Santha Bhaskar, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran. Man Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy and former Indian president K. R. Narayanan are also Malayalees.

"Ayyo!" - meaning the same thing as the Chinese aiyoh - is a Malayalam expression. "Jackfruit", too, comes from the Malayalam word chakka.

Owing to similarities between Malayalam and Tamil, many Malayalees - such as Mr and Mrs Pillay's 34-year-old daughter, Vidhya, a doctor - have found it relatively easy to pick up the latter.

Regional differences in the way Malayalam is spoken in Kerala, said Dr Pillay, resulted in comic misunderstandings when she visited India. In the south, appi is used as an endearing word for "younger sister". But in central Kerala, where her maternal ancestors are from, it means "faeces".

Malayalam spoken by those born here tends to be more homogeneous, with speakers introducing English words into conversations. Many Malayalam words are also not precisely enunciated - for instance, her friends often pronounce the word for "curry" in a way that sounds like the word for "charcoal".

Dr Pillay said that she cannot write Malayalam but taught herself to read it when Malayalam-language cable television channel Asianet came to Singapore in 2010.

Many younger Malayalees do not read or write Malayalam. Acclaimed poet M. K. Bhasi, 86, whose grandchildren speak to him in English, lamented: "There are not enough children who reach O-level standard... Their exposure to the language is becoming less and less."

Mr Bhasi, who is also chief of the Singapore bureau of the Kaumudi Online newspaper, added: "Even though Kerala is a minor state, Malayalam is not a minor language." He noted that several recipients of the Njana Peedam Award, a national Indian literary prize, were Malayalam writers.

In Singapore, Malayalam is not recognised as one of the non-Tamil Indian languages. As a result, Malayalee students often take Tamil or Hindi as a second language.

A CRUCIAL LINK

Language is the most critical thing that links you back to your culture. It can transmit values, heritage.

'' MR JAYADEV UNNITHAN, on teaching Malayalee students their mother tongue.

While some take weekend Malayalam classes at the non-profit Malayalam Language Education Society (MLES), most drop out by Primary 3, finding it hard to juggle school commitments and a third language.

But MLES chairman Jayadev Unnithan notes that there has been a rise in student numbers, partly owing to increased awareness of the language's importance and a growing number of immigrants from Kerala who want their children to be proficient in it. The MLES is helping Cambridge International Examinations to find qualified examiners so students here can sit Cambridge exams in Malayalam.

Mr Unnithan, 51, added: "Language is the most critical thing that links you back to your culture. It can transmit values, heritage."

To discourage his children from procrastinating, he turns to an old Malayalam saying that his own parents used to tell him: "Madiyan mala chumakkum," which means "the lazy man will end up carrying the mountain".

Yet, for many Malayalees here, cultural identity transcends the ability to read and write in the language.

Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, a lecturer at the National Institute of Education and author of From Kerala To Singapore: Voices From The Singapore Malayalee Community, said: "I do not even know what my name looks like in Malayalam, but I speak the language with ease."

Ms Tharini Nair, 30, a senior service executive at a bank, is proud to be a Malayalee. She observes traditions such as celebrating the harvest festival Onam, and wants the language to be preserved here

For her, the language fosters a strange affinity with other Malayalees.

"Sometimes when I'm at work or travelling, I hear someone speak the language and I turn and look at them. And their reaction is, 'Are you a Malayalee as well?'"

WATCH THE VIDEO

The colours of the Indian language Malayalam http://str.sg/474C


Correction note: An earlier version of the story said that former president S R Nathan was a Malayalee instead of Mr Devan Nair. We had also referred to Onam as the Malayalee New Year when it should be harvest festival. We are sorry for the errors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Language of poets and presidents'. Print Edition | Subscribe