I am a (semi)-native Malayalam speaker from Kerala who has learned English and German. In Malayalam, an interesting phenomenon is that there is no definite article. It seems to me that indefinite articles and possessive articles are used in its place. For instance, here is a comparison of same semantics in three languages

The man walks on the street

Der Mann geht auf der Straße

Oru mayushan roade-kude nadu-kunnu
[A man road-through walking-is]

I would like to ask, how in the abstract picture, does having no definite article cause Malayalam to be different from Germanic languages ?

Note: there are many dialects of Malayalam. So, maybe different people would translate it differently.

Analysis on Hindi

  • 2
    I don’t speak any Malayalam at all, but “a man roadwalking a” doesn’t seem to match the actual words in the Malayalam sentence you gave. Why are there two indefinite articles in the translation, but seemingly only one element corresponding to the article in the original? Can you reformat the translation as a more standard interlinear gloss to make it clearer what’s going on? Commented May 19, 2023 at 13:13
  • Tried my best @JanusBahsJacquet
    – Babu
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 13:18
  • All right, that makes more sense. I’ve simplified it a bit for you. Can you confirm that this is a variant that would be used when talking about a man who has already been introduced into the scope of the current conversation? For example, take the following example: “I saw a man wearing a yellow bowler hat yesterday. The man was walking down the street, and a woman was walking next to him.” Would oru ‘a’ be used with all three italicised nouns, both the indefinite ones and the definite one? Commented May 19, 2023 at 13:28
  • Yep, that sounds right to me @JanusBahsJacquet
    – Babu
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 13:58
  • I don't have a good answer, but it may help others find one to note that oru is ഒരു in the native script
    – Tristan
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 14:03

1 Answer 1


Not a Malayalam speaker but attempting this as a fellow Dravidian Kannada speaker.

It makes no difference, unless one is hellbent on importing English idioms. The context always helps. We add the word for 'one' before the noun instead of an indefinite article. In Kannada there are three versions, one for male, female and neuter, so your language might differ. After that just using the noun by itself implies "definitenes". We can also use the near and far versions of the word 'this' ee or aa for definiteness. And we do this naturally with no thought. Eg.

A dog came 
 Ondu naayi ...

The dog was black
 Naayi ....
 Aa naayi ...
 Ee naayi ...

I often wonder something similar but opposite. Dravidian languages have reflexive verbs, that is action done upon oneself, and its usage is quite nifty - just add the suffix ko to the verb. Eg, maadu is do, maadiko is do it for/upon/to oneself. In Kannada it can get more elaborate and descriptive with additional affixes. I wonder how other languages work when lacking such a fundamental aspect. As it turns out, they are doing just fine.

  • 1
    This coincides with how I would expect a language with no definite article to behave: just use the noun with no article for inherent, context-based definiteness. The example in the question, however, seems to indicate (though the asker didn’t respond to my request for clarification) that the equivalent of ondu ‘one/a’ would be used in both sentences in Malayalam, which would be highly unusual. Commented Mar 31 at 9:15

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