I have read that Malayalam originates from Middle Tamil. This leads me to ask whether Tamil and Malayalam are mutually intelligible. Or perhaps just partly, or asymmetrically?

I prefer either answers with a source, or from people who can speak and understand either language and thus speak from their own experience.

  • 1
    My understanding is that Tamil and Malayalam are not mutually intelligible, but this is due mainly to the very large number of Sanskrit borrowings in Malayalam. – fdb Apr 22 '16 at 11:46
  • @fdb I see. Tamil also has a fair amount of Sanskrit loan words. But they are mostly connected to religion and stuff like that. Probably nothing compared to Malayalam. – Revetahw Apr 22 '16 at 11:49
  • Is Malayalam still a Tamil dialect? – Ebis Jul 15 at 6:26
up vote 1 down vote accepted

As a native speaker of Malayalam, I don't understand Tamil aside from few words. I have been to Tamil Nadu regions especially Chennai. Tamil is very different from Malayalam although they do share some vocabularies since they belong to Dravidian Family.

Grammatically speaking, Tamil is much more closer to Kannada and Telugu than Malayalam. Malayalam is far more alienated.

Unlike other Dravidian languages including Tamil, Malayalam lacks subject-verb agreement. Here is an example below from Malayalam.

Jhan pokunnu (I am going), Nee pokunnu [You (informal) are going], Avan pokunnu (He is going), etc.

"pokunnu" is applied for all of the forms in the present tense. So verb conjugations in Malayalam is easy and also very different from other dravidian languages.

In Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu, subject verb agreement is absolutely necessary. Here is an example in the below link from Tamil.

http://www.verbix.com/webverbix/go.php?&D1=50&T1=t%C4%93r

Another difference between Malayalam and Tamil has to do with definite article.

Let me use the word for bird which is found in both Malayalam and Tamil.

Malayalam - Parava (Singular), Paravakal (Plural) Tamil - Paravai (Singular), Paravaikal (Plural).

It must be noted that Malayalam spoken by Muslims has Arabic influences while Malayalam spoken by Christians has Aramaic (or Syriac) influences. Malayalam spoken by Hindus has more Sanskrit and Tamil influences.

I had both Malayalam and Tamil speaking colleagues and we often discussed languages. As a non speaker of either, they sounded exactly the same but with different accents, so I often asked a lot of questions. My answer is from what I have observed, not from a research paper of an Indologist (neither am I a linguist).

They are to a large extent, having more mutual intelligibility than other (major) South Indian languages. They even have quite similar phonology that sounds odd to other South Indians(mainly usage of voiced and unvoiced consonants). Linguists believe that Malayalam evolved from Tamil fairly late, between 800 AD and 1300 AD, though not all Malayalam speakers agree with that - some claim it is much more ancient than that and some even go to the extent of claiming that Tamil Sangam literature was written in Old Malayalam, not Old Tamil. It isn't uncommon for Malayalam speakers and Tamil speakers to speak in their respective languages and have a conversation if one of them doesn't know English. However, a few factors hinder such a conversation from being smooth and flawless.

Malayalam speakers are notorious for their accent - they are perceived to speak faster than others - so it is hard to decipher them. Some words are unique to each language, and a few common words have quite different meanings (e.g. 'patti' (t - retroflex, a,i -short, p - unaspirated) means dog in Malayalam but village in Tamil). Malayalam has more Sanskrit loanwords than Tamil, and has borrowed with little morphological change compared to Tamil (other language speakers who have no clue of Malayalam can easily get gist of what is being said by their knowledge of Sanskrit owing to their own borrowings, if they can decipher the accent that is). This might cause a problem in picking up words. Further, although Sanakrit loanwords are found in all Indian languages (except probably north eastern ones which aren't Indo-European or Dravidian, except Assamese and Bengali), not all borrowed words have same meanings. The change ranges from subtle variation in meaning to downright opposite or contradictory(e.g. 'garva' in Hindi means pride in a positive sense but in Kannada means pride with severe negative connotations - its one of the trigger words in Kannada). So a Sanskrit origin word needn't always mean the same, and it is often best to ask when a word seems out of place in the sentence.

I think Malayalam is like an intermediate language between Tamil and tulu but still more similar to Tamil than its to tulu considering overall aspects of the language. I'm not a linguist but this is my personal. And u know the nambudiris of Malayalees are usually called tulu Brahmins. So tulu or old or Porto tulu may have influenced the Tamil dialect spoken in Kerala. I may be wrong anyway.

  • 2
    This answer has at least two problems: 1. It is not an answer to the question (as it says nothing about mutual intelligibility) and 2. It is based on opinion without further backing (e.g, by a scientific study) – jknappen Jul 16 at 9:36
  • What Tamil dialect of Kerala? Are you talking about Palakkad? – Aryaman Jul 16 at 14:11

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