Column | Robert Caldwell’s interesting 19th century takes on Malabar and Malayalam

Robert Caldwell's statue at Marina Beach in Chennai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Rasnaboy

In 1856, just a year before the Crown would have direct control over the subcontinent, legendary publisher Harrison and Sons released a book that provided a glimpse of the languages spoken in southern India.  A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages, a scholarly work written by Ireland-born Scottish missionary Robert Caldwell analyses Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Tulu, as well as some of the lesser spoken languages in southern Indian. 

A Tamilophile, a statue of Caldwell dons Chennai’s iconic Marina Beach, but when it comes to what comprises modern-day Kerala, Malayalam and Malayalis, the mid-19th century book had interesting as well as bizarrely humorous views. 

By Caldwell’s accounts, there slightly over 32 million speakers of Dravidian languages in southern India at that time, with 2.5 million of them being Malayalam speakers. 

Links between Tamil and Malayalam
Caldwell rightly observed that none of the Dravidian languages were mutually intelligible but wrote of how linked Malayalam and Tamil were. 

“The most nearly related are the Tamil and the Malayalam; and yet it is only the simplest and most direct sentences in the one language that are intelligible to those who speak the other,” he wrote. “Involved sentences in either language, abounding in verbal and nominal inflections, or in conditions or reasons, will be found by those who speak only the other language to be unintelligible.” 

Looking at the above statements from a Palakkad Malayali’s perspective, one would say that a lot more Malayalis understand Tamil than the other way around. Of course, there should be a disclaimer that this applies only to spoken and informal Tamil. The formal language is truly well and above the comprehension of those who have not studied it.

Caldwell believed that Malayalam was not originally a distinct language in the truest sense. “The Malayalam being, as I conceive, an ancient offshoot of the Tamil, differing from it chiefly by the disuse of the personal terminations of the verbs, it might, perhaps, be regarded rather as a very ancient dialect of the Tamil, than a distinct language,” he wrote, adding that from those origins, the language evolved separately enough to be classified as a sister language of Tamil. 

Shy Malabaris?
The way Caldwell things, the Malayalam language was in danger of being swallowed by Tamil all across the Malabar coast. “Though that coast was for many ages more frequented by foreigners than any other part of India; though Phoenicians, Greeks, Jews, Syrian Christians and Arabs traded in succession to the various ports along the coast;  and though permanent settlements were formed by the last three classes; yet the Malayala people continue to be of all Dravidians the most exclusive and superstitious, and shrink most sensitively from contact with foreigners,” Caldwell wrote. 

For someone who is in Kozhikode at this moment, it is incredibly difficult to believe that people here were so shy that they avoided contact with foreigners. A walk in the historic old part of this city is enough to understand how much people did act mix and mingle with foreigners who came here. One sees traces of features of all those ethnicities that Caldwell mentioned. There is also enough historic evidence of people coming to the Malabar coast from other parts of Europe, so the above statement feels even more hard to accept.

Of course, there is absolutely no reason to doubt that the people in these parts were overly superstitious. Several columns can be written about the various types of superstitious beliefs here. 

Caldwell added, “Hence, the ‘lines’ and ‘centres of communication’ have been seized, and the greater part of the commerce and public business of the Malabar states has been monopolised by the less scrupulous and more adroit Tamilians, who language bids fair to supersede the Malayalam, or at least confine it within the limits of the hill country and the jungles.” 

One truly wonders if there was ever a realistic chance of Tamil becoming the main language of Kerala. The idea does seem outlandish now, but before the era of migration of workers from eastern and northern India to Kerala, Tamil labourers came and settled in the state. From what one hears from locals in the Malabar region, there were initially ‘othered’ but accepted later on.   

Tulu and Malayalam
At the time Caldwell visited the southwest coast, many Tulu speakers used the Malayalam script to write their language. British linguist and civil servant Francis Whyte Ellis classified Tulu as a dialect of Malayalam, but Caldwell studied the language in a deeper manner.

“The Tulu has been represented by Mr Ellis as a dialect of the Malayalam; but although Malayala characters are ordinarily employed in writing Tulu, in consequence of the prevalence of Malayalam in the vicinity, and the literary inferiority of the Tulus, it appears to me capable of the clearest proof that the relation of the Tulu to the Canarese is nearer than its relation to the Malayalam,” Caldwell wrote. 

Tulu-language enthusiasts will probably not take kindly to the “literary inferiority” part, but it is clear that Tulu is closer to Kannada. 

Given the sheer lack of information and comparative studies at that time, Robert Caldwell’s book should be appreciated as a pioneering work that did get a lot right, even if what it got wrong seems funny to us in 2023.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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