How a clickety-clack revolution and libraries close to schools helped the Malayalam language evolve

On International Mother Language Day, South First takes a trip back to the 1920s for a closer look at the evolution of Malayalam.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published Feb 21, 2023 | 2:58 PM Updated Feb 21, 2023 | 2:58 PM

Malayalam language evolution

A “clickety-clack revolution” in the 1920s, along with a push for libraries, helped with the evolution of modern Malayalam language.

On International Mother Language Day, Tuesday, 21 February, South First takes a trip back to the 1920s for a closer look at the two factors that helped popularise the now-classical language.

The first was the efforts of a shorthand instructor in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore to develop a Malayalam typewriter.

Another was about conceptualising the idea of establishing free Malayalam Public Libraries across the state by the erstwhile princely state of Cochin.

Both events had a lasting effect on the Malayalam language as it reached more people, helping it to adapt and evolve by reflecting their changing lives, experiences, and cultures.

Related: Standardising the Malayalam script is becoming a reality

The American connection

Malayalam language evolution

First letter in Malayalam alphabet written on a wooden slate. (iStock)

In 1923, the then government of Travancore received an application from a shorthand instructor of the School of Commerce, Alleppey (Alappuzha).

The applicant was N Sankaran Pandala (NS Pandalai / NS Pandalay in official records), who later invented the Malayalam typewriter keyboard. His request was for a loan of ₹700 to perfect a Malayalam typewriting machine he had invented.

Pandala had made an experimental model of a Malayalam typewriter. Though the government had no plans to develop a Malayalam typewriter, it decided to grant him financial assistance and also provide some facilities, including a typewriter.

Pandala took five years to give a final shape to his machine. He showcased the machine in February 1928 after fitting a keyboard he had designed to a Royal Typewriter.

Also Read: World’s first Palm-leaf Manuscript Museum in Kerala

Government support

Some interesting anecdotes about Pandala’s innovation were shared at a meeting of the Travancore Legislative Council on 30 July, 1932, by K George, the then chief secretary to the government.

Answering a question from Council member AS Damodaran Asan, the chief secretary said that a provision of ₹18,750 was made in the preliminary budget for the Malayalam year 1108 (1933) under ‘stationery- contingencies’ —  cost of stationery for public departments — for the purchase of 50 machines.

“But for that to happen the machines must first come. The government has provided money in the budget. Pandala has arranged with the Royal Typewriter Manufacturing Company (in the United States of America) to manufacture and send the machines in 1108,” George informed the House.

He added that though the government also had something to do with it, the correspondence was mainly between Pandala and the company.

“The company in America had to find out by actual experiment the model suitable for working the machine. When it comes here, we (the government) can arrange for popularising it,” George added.

Also Read: How poet TP Rajeevan enriched Malayalam language

Invite from Cochin

Ten months after Pandala designed the Malayalam typewriter, the erstwhile princely state of Cochin approached him in December 1928, to popularise Malayalam shorthand. By then, Pandala was known as the inventor of the Malayalam typewriter and Malayalam shorthand in both Travancore and Cochin.

The then government of Cochin decided to open a Malayalam shorthand class on an experimental basis. It also decided to “entertain” the services of Pandala to ensure the success of the class.

“The government’s position was that, for the time being, it is thought that we (the government) should watch the experimental class and then decide to open more classes,” the Council was told.

However, it (the House) was also informed that Pandala had not formally accepted the offer.

Meanwhile, records showed that Pandala, on 30 August, 1927, and 26 October, 1927, had sent two petitions to the Cochin government “for some encouragement” to purchase his typewriters.

Revolutionising language

Babu Cheriyan, chief editor of the Benjamin Bailey Foundation Malayalam Research Journal told South First that the invention of the Malayalam typewriter simplified the process of printing the Malayalam script.

“The idea of the Malayalam typewriter led to the reduction of complexities of the Malayalam alphabet. It also led to the innovation of the crescent-shaped punctuation mark (chandrakala) to combine and double letters. Another aspect is that it paved way for the standardisation of the language,” Cheriyan added.

According to P Venkitarama Iyer, who owns a museum of typewriters, Malayalam typewriting changed the way the language is used.

“Before the introduction of the Malayalam typewriter, the Malayalam script was overabundant. Experiments were carried out to make letters fit into the space in a typewriter. This led to some modifications and additions. Thus, Malayalam typewriting revolutionised the language,” Iyer told South First.

Free Public Libraries

Another novel concept introduced was free Malayalam Public Libraries in every village in the princely state of Cochin in 1926.

At first, four taluks in the state (Cochin) were selected for the programme. The libraries thus started were close to the village schools.

“The idea of associating the rural population with the village school has been commended by the Hartog Committee (established by the Simon Commission in 1929 as an auxiliary committee, chaired by Phillip Hartog, to prepare an education report),” C Matthai, a representative of the Cochin government, told the Legislative Council on 17 December, 1929.

“The idea is gaining ground that the school is the natural meeting ground for all activities intended for the improvement of village conditions and therefore as part of the scheme we are establishing libraries,” he said.

“The experiment has proved to be quite successful,” he added.

Mathai said four such libraries were set up at Pallivirutti, Veliyanad, Pudukkad and Choorakkattukara in Cochin.

The idea achieved the twin objectives of making standardised Malayalam popular among the masses and the upliftment of villages.

International Mother Language Day

UNESCO observes 21 February every year as International Mother Language Day for promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences, and culture.

The idea to observe such a day was made by Bangladesh and the general conference of UNESCO proclaimed it in 1999.  The United Nations General Assembly welcomed it in a resolution in 2002.

The theme of International Mother Language Day, 2023, is ‘Multilingual Education – A Necessity to Transform Education’.