Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Vowel & Consonants Sounds

One of the problems in learning to write/read Malayalam is the large number of letters in the alphabet. The problem is further aggravated by the changes in scripts introduced from time to time. To start with there were 56 letters, one of the largest number for any language.
These letters may belong to these broad categories: | - equivalent to the vowels
| - equivalent to the consonants
| - conjugated alphabets
There are 15 vowels and 36 consonants in addition to the many conjugated and miscellaneous letters. The conjugated letters are combinations of two consonants, but they are written distinctly.
Unlike in English, the 'vowels' are NOT used as such to give the vowel sound to consonants. Instead, certain signs, called 'mAtras' substitute them in a word. For instance, if the same rule is applied in English, you would write 'cat' as 'c' followed by a sign representing the sound 'a' and then 't'. The long and short of this is that in addition to the letters, one should also know these signs (mAtras) which are to be added to the consonants to get the required sound.

Let us now look at the vowel letters in Malayalam; there are 15 of them!
Don't feel overawed by the large number. If you look at them carefully, you will realize that there are only about 8 basic letters in this list of 15. In other words, half of them are just modifications of these eight. That sounds relieving, doesn't it?

.................................. Click on the letters to see each in detail ................................... Run the Mouse over to see how it sounds ........

Recall that, in Malayalam,
letters may belong to these broad categories: | - equivalent to the vowels
| - equivalent to the consonants
| - conjugated letters
There are 36 consonants, 25 of which are clubbed into groups of 5 letters with closely related sounds. Each of these consonants have, in turn, about 14 other variants when you add each of the vowel 'sound' (not letter) to it. For instance, the first consonant, 'ka' has variants like 'kaah', 'ki', 'kee', 'ku', 'koo', 'kai', 'kow' etc. As mentioned earlier, these variants are obtained by writing the consonant along with a symbol/sign that represents the corresponding vowel equivalents

The following are the 36 consonants,



We have now come across 15 vowels and 36 consonants. In this session, we would look at how words are formed by combining the sounds of these vowels and consonants.
First, let us see how this is done in English: to produce two different sounds using the same consonant, the corresponding vowel letter is added. For instance, consider the words, sip and seep, both starting with the same consonant, 's'. Changing the vowel from 'i' to 'ee' , has changed the sound to produce an entirely new word. This is what makes 'a', 'e', 'i', 'o' and 'u' so powerful and indispensible. (Recall your frustration while playing scrabble games with no vowels in hand).
In Malayalam, as already mentioned in the earlier lessons, vowel letters are substituted with certrain symbols, when they are used to change the sound of a consonant. These symbols are called as 'maatras', and can be used with any of the 36 consonants. This means, that for all practical purposes, the vowel letters you learnred in Lesson 2 are written as such, only when a word begins with a vowel. Within or at the end of a word, these symbols replace the vowel letter.
How many symbols? There are 15 vowels and therefore, there are 14 symbols. The first vowel sound, 'ah', need not be added to a consonant since the default sound of each consonant includes 'ah'. ( 'ka' = 'ka' + 'ah')
Here are the different symbols which replace the vowel sounds in Malayalam:
This is a dummy consonant to
show the positioning
of the vowel symbols.
You can place any of the 36
consonants here
.....Click on these to see how they are written.....
It helps to remember the following points while learning vowel symbols:
  • '-aah' is also used for obtaining '-oh' and '-ohoh'
  • '-yi' and '-yee' are somewhat similar
  • '-uh', '-ooh' and '-er' have some common features
  • '-eh', '-eheh' and '-aih' are placed on the left of the consonant
  • '-eh' when used twice gives '-aih'
  • '-oh' is derived by putting '-eh' on the left and '-aah' on the right
  • '-ohoh' is derived by putting '-eheh' on the left and '-aah' on the right
  • '-oh' and '-ohoh' need symbols on both sides
  • '-ow' is unique and has no similarity with the rest
  • '-um' and '-aha' can be said to have some similarities

| -ah | -aah | -yi | -yee | -uh | -ooh | -er | -eh | -aeh | -aih | -oh | ohhoh | -ow | -um | -aha |
Run the mouse over the above vowel sounds to see their symbols appear with the consonant

Monday, March 19, 2007

Origin & Introduction

Malayalam alphabet Malayalam


Malayalam first appeared in writing in the vazhappalli inscription which dates from about 830 AD. In the early thirteenth century the Malayalam script began to develop from a script known as vattezhuthu (round writing), a descendant of the Brahmi script.

As a result of the difficulties of printing Malayalam, a simplified or reformed version of the script was introduced during the 1970s and 1980s. The main change involved writing consonants and diacritics separately rather than as complex characters. These changes are not applied consistently applied so the modern script is often mixture of traditional and simplified characteres

Malayalam is also regularly written with a version of the Arabic script by Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia, and occasionally by Muslims in Kerala.

Notable features

  • This is a syllabic alphabet in which all consonants have an inherent vowel. Diacritics, which can appear above, below, before or after the consonant they belong to, are used to change the inherent vowel.
  • When they appear the the beginning of a syllable, vowels are written as independent letters.
  • When certain consonants occur together, special conjunct symbols are used which combine the essential parts of each letter.

Used to write:

Malayalam, a Dravidian language with about 35 million speakers. It is spoken mainly in the south west of India, particularly in Kerala, the Laccadive Islands and neighboring states, and also in Bahrain, Fiji, Israel, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore, UAE and the UK.

Malayalam alphabet

Vowels (svaram)

Malayalam vowels

Vowel diacritics with ka

Malayalam vowel diacritics ka


When combined with vowel diacritics some consonants change shape. This doesn't happen in the simplified version of the script (in blue)

Consonants (vyanjanam)

Malayalam consonants

A selection of conjunct consonants

Malayalam conjunct consonants


Malayalam numerals

The simplified versions are shown in blue.

Sample text

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Malayalam


Manuṣyarellāvarum tulyāvakāśan̄n̄aḷōṭum antassōṭum svātantryattōtumkūṭi janiccavarāṇ. Anyōnyam bhrātrubāvattoṭe perumāṛuvānāṇa manuṣyannu vivēkabuddhiyum manaṣṣākṣiyum siddhamāyirikkunnat.


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)