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date: 25 February 2024

Language Reform in 19th-Century Keralalocked

Language Reform in 19th-Century Keralalocked

  • Ellen AmbrosoneEllen AmbrosonePrinceton University


Refashioning of the regional languages of South India occurred from the end of the 18th century throughout the 19th century and culminated, though was not subsumed, in movements of linguistic nationalism in the middle of the 20th century. The premodern literary landscape of the Malabar coast was linguistically diverse, demonstrating influence from neighboring languages, languages associated with different religious traditions, and the languages of visitors who came for trade. India’s encounter with Europe and with colonialism reshaped ideas about caste, religion, tradition, and particularly language. As European missionaries began to arrive in Kerala, they deployed print technology to produce religious tracts, grammars, and pedagogical materials that facilitated their proselytizing and civilizing interests. The British also conducted in-depth philological studies of Indian languages as a way of learning about the population and justifying colonial rule.

As agents of change, Malayalis participated in the interconnected processes of language reform, which was devoted to restyling the language to suit modern tastes. Such reform included creating new print genres in an accessible Malayalam prose, establishing printing presses, revising curricula, and creating textbooks. The discourse on the modernization of Malayalam developed around questions about the history of the language, its literary landscape, and the role of the language as a medium of instruction in schools. Having looked to Tamil and Sanskrit in the past as models for grammatical and literary production, Malayalis who were engaged in language reform in the 19th century also began to look to English as a model for literary and pedagogical innovation. Though knowledge of English became important at this time, Malayalis also argued for the importance of learning Malayalam before any other language. Such arguments tempered the zeal for other languages, fostered the spread of education, and encouraged affective attachment to the language, thereby establishing the roots of protonationalism by the turn of the century.


  • Cultural
  • South Asia

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