Tamil & Malayalam: same to same???

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India MapFor the uninitiated, look at the two states in the southern most part of the map of India (above) – The state on the right (rose) is Tamil Nadu, where Tamil language is spoken; the state on the left (blue) is Kerala, where Malayalam language is spoken. 

There are a few common words between most of the Indian languages which might suggest, i. these languages might have had a common ancestor and/or, ii. they might have borrowed some words from each other.

Tamil & Malayalam, being spoken people living in neighboring states obviously have some commonalities. But, Tamil and Malayalam are two different languages, with their own scripts and words. PERIOD.

Sometime back, I went to the wedding reception of one of my friends. He told me that his marriage was arranged marriage. But, when I was talking to his wife, she told me that her mother-tongue is Tamil. I was surprised – my friend was born and brought up in Chennai, but his mother-tongue is Malayalam.

I turned towards him and asked, ‘Your mother-tongue is Malayalam, no?’.


‘Then how come her mother tongue is Tamil?’

He saw me like I was asking the most silliest question on earth, and then said something that startled me – ‘Tamil and Malayalam are same only, Macchi‘.

I was open mouthed and aghast. Tamil and Malayalam are same to same???


A few years back, I was roaming on the streets of Calicut asking for some address in Tamil, while they coolly replied in Malayalam – and both of us didn’t understand a word of what each other spoke. Finally, I had to speak to someone in Hindi to get the right directions!!

In one of the companies I worked, my boss was a Malayalee and two of my colleagues were also Malayalees. Whenever they spoke to each other, I didn’t understand a single word of what they were talking. This, in spite of my conscious efforts to ‘deeply’ listen to their conversations.

Have you watched any Malayalam movie? If you do, just notice the speed of the dialogue rendition. Some (most) actors talk so fast that by the time you think you recognize a couple of words, they would have completed three full sentences 🙂

I don’t even want to talk about the script – Try to read even one word, even if you know Tamil very well.

People who don’t know either of these languages might think that they sound and look similar. I don’t blame them – there are striking similarities. But this guy, who knows both – I wonder how he was convinced (internally) to say that!! Probably, he never had to decipher the ever rounding script and the ever speeding speech of Malayalam!!

When I was traveling from Coimbatore to Calicut, I was talking to the passenger sitting next to me, and he told me – “You know what, the English didn’t come here for the trade and riches, alone. They also wanted to learn many things from Indians. They successfully learned many things, however, they were not able to learn a few things.

Chief of them being, Indian classical music & Malayalam.”

I can empathize with the British. Can’t even imagine them trying to learn these two 😛

Destination Infinity

Image credit: PlaneMad. Published under this creative commons license.


  • SG

    Don’t want to start another controversy.

    I understand there are 5 root languages in the world. Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Tamil and one other I don’t know. Other languages derived from these 5 root languages. From Sanskrit came all the Indo-European languages including English. From Tamil came Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, and Thulu.

    Some people claim Tamil is a better language than Sanskrit because Sanskrit is not a spoken language. Used mainly in religious functions. Millions of people speak Tamil in the streets today.

    • Rajesh K

      English came from Sanskrit? Difficult to figure out, but who knows? 🙂

      I wonder how sanskrit, the most popular language of India (once upon a time) could just stop being spoken? Anyway, all its tributaries are living – so far, so good.

      Destination Infinity

      • Vishnu

        Well technically speaking sanskrit was NEVER a mother tongue of anyone in India so that’s why it stopped being spoken..

  • Praveen

    I can identify one language from other only if they are spoken slowly. 😛
    I love the fact how distinct script & language are in these close regions. And with the recent acknowledgement of Malayalam as one of the root languages by the govt., people should understand how rich & different two neighbors can be. 😀

  • Ashwini C N

    I’ve been in Kerala for 4 years and I know for sure that the languages sound similar. People can understand Tamil to a considerable extent and respond. Same goes true with Tamilians. We would be able to understand Malayalam if it is spoken a bit slowly. There are some instances in history which point out that there are a lot of similarities between the two states.

    • Rajesh K

      I think they have more exposure to Tamil in Kerala, than we have for Malayalam. Of course, since we speak considerably slower, I guess that helps too 🙂

      Destination Infinity

  • Anu

    I’ve found Malayalam simple to understand – as long as they speak it a bit slow. A lot of words are common in both these languages. Even Bollywood is confused and could not differentiate Tamil and Malayalam 😉 They represent a tamil girl or a guy with a malayalam costume and chandan on forehead! Confused!!

  • Ashwathy

    Hahah 😀 I can totally understand. Most of my non-mallu friends have told me what a tough language it is to learn. And no, Tamil and Malayalam are as different as it can get – you simply cannot substitute one with the other. There are some similarities though. And as per my understanding, many Malayalis understand basic Tamil and vice versa… basically enough to follow conversations or get the point across.

    People who are not from south India probably think all four South Indian languages are the same 😛

    • Rajesh K

      It is difficult to learn, in spite of knowing Tamil (in my case). The syllable ‘zha’ is common to only Tamil & Malayalam as far as I know. Malayalam uses it more often, I guess. Here, the exposure to Malayalam movies/songs is somewhat limited.

      Destination Infinity

  • kathir

    If people have a literary background in one of the languages and if they have studied ancient works , have good vocabulary in medieval Tamil, the grammar and flow, it is easier to understand and appreciate how beautiful Malayalam is…

  • nice mallu

    It is a German doctor who compiled the first dictionary in malayalam. His name is Herman gundert who is the great grand father of nobel laurate Herman hesse. Same might be the case with classical music. Don’t think that rest of the world is idiots. We owe them more .

  • Zenin Easa

    I’m a Malayali and I’ve found that we Malayalies can understand Tamil pretty easily while the Tamilians can’t understand Malayalam. I didn’t know this before I joined my college.

  • ramesh krishnan

    I think it is like this. Firstly, the fact is tamil has limited sanskrit words than malayalam. Otherwise all old tamil words are common. In this sense tamil becomes a subset of malayalam. So malayalies can pick up tamil faster than tamils picking up malayalam. Also scrpt wise tamil script is simpler with the pulli system and vastly reduced consonants while malayalam script is complex to accommodate sanskrit sounds. As others have said if malayalam is spoken a bit slowly it is same as tamol. If i live in kerala i may be speaking malayalam in 10 dayd. They are the same machchi.

    • Vishnu

      LOL more like Malayalam is a sub-set of Tamil XD
      “Firstly, the fact is tamil has limited sanskrit words than malayalam”
      Not true for Brahmin Tamil though,they had a LOAD of sanskrit&tamil fused words.


      Tamil script is the only non-Sanskritised script in India. North Indian languages, Telugu & Kannada (besides Malayalam) have Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha, etc. as in Sanskrit. Zha is there ONLY in Tamil & Malayalam. LA (as in KaLLam, uLLam) is there in Maratti also.


    I am a Tamil Brahmin from North Tamil Nadu. I am very fair with curly hair. Every Malayali who meets me INVARIABLY mistakes me 4 a Mallu. A Mallu Syrian Christian doctor could not believe that I was NOT a Mallu. Subsequently he discovered my identity.


    I learnt Telugu, Kannada & Malayalam SCRIPTS
    when I was a school boy but I know only a few words & sentences in these languages. I’ve studied Hindi & so I can speak, read & write Hindi. I think those who live in areas adjoining Kerala know Malayalaw.


    In Tamil the trend has been to go on DESANSKRITISING Tamil & replacing Sanskrit with pure Tamil words. On the contrary the trend in Malayalam has been to go on SANSKRITISING Malayalam.


    Can anybody please tell me the meaning of the following ? : “Ksheeramullorakidin chuvattilum chorathanne kothukinnu kowthukam”

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