The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jul 23, 2013

Jewish Malayalam

In the middle of all the Malayalam dialects, both extant and extinct, was that spoken by the thousand-year old community of Jews. Jewish Malayalam is an admixture of Hebrew and Malayalam, written in the Malayalam script, spoken extensively until the middle of the 1950s when Keralite Jews began their big emigration to Israel. These days few Jews remain in Kerala, and the language is on the verge of extinction even in Israel.

As with Mappila Malayalam (that spoken by Malayali Muslims), this Jewish dialect was a popular tongue, generally used in the secular sphere. For religious purposes, the Jews continued to use Hebrew. But they wrote songs for weddings in Malayalam, the oldest of which appear to be from the 15th century and are close in style to contemporary Hindu compositions (such as the Payyannūrpāṭṭə, which actually mentions Jews as members of merchant guilds). The Arabs who settled and intermarried in Kerala created their own equivalent dialect, but they wrote it in  the Arabic script, and it is suspected that they did so because they felt part of an Arabian ocean that stretched from East Africa through Arabia to South Asia.  But the Jews were a minority cut off from the rest of their coreligionists, and so felt no need to distinguish themselves in Hebrew script.

For a roundup of the Jewish presence in India you should read Maddy's various essays [2, 3], or Edna Fernandes' excellent book [4].

Jewish Malayalam literature consists mainly of compendia of wedding songs, as mentioned above, and written in 'castolects' different from the standardized version of Malayalam. These songs are called nāṭaṉpāṭṭə, or regional songs. After emigration to Israel, in order to transmit these songs to younger generations unfamiliar with Malayalam script, these were transcribed into Hebrew. Some of these books were curious admixtures - Hebrew songs written in Malayalam, Malayalam songs written in Hebrew - to cater to illiteracy in one or the other tongue.

There were two types of songs in the Jewish Malayalam liturgy, a male variety descending from the Arabic tafsir (translation of the Bible into Arabic) which incorporated archaic modes in Malayalam, and a female variety called arttham, descending from Sanskrit performance art, which remained closer to the spoken Malayalam. Both included Hebrew components including excerpts from the Torah.

Interestingly, in Jewish Malayalam, kinship words were more akin to the Muslims (e.g. umma for mother, kaakka for elder brother) while social terms were shared with the Hindu (e.g. taṟavaːɖə ‘ancestral home’; kaːrɳɳoːrə ‘the eldest male in the clan’). Other words are also shared in usage and origin with the Muslims, such as moːlyaːrǝ, ‘rabbi’ (which comes from muðaliyār, ‘leader’) with moylyārə, ‘religious guide.’

Jewish Malayalam has undergone more changes since the migration to Israel. Meanings have drifted a bit: guɳam, ‘good quality,’ and doːȿam, ‘fault, bad quality,’ now denote ‘luck’ and ‘character’. Hebrew words have entered the vocabulary, even if they have undergone semantic shifts. An elderly aunt would tease one woman with suːṟaː ellaːm poːyi (Your beauty is gone), where suːṟaː means 'form' in Hebrew, but is used to mean 'beauty' in Jewish Malayalam.

Nicknames applying to individuals (oːmaṉa-ppeːr) and families have a strange and compelling beauty. A rabbi who preferred veɭɭappam (rice flat bread) over tuition fees was called veɭɭappamoːlyaːrǝ 'rice-bread rabbi.' A very tall man called Ephraim was called kaːlan efraːyim, ‘legged Ephraim.’ A Jewish family excommunicated in the mid-19th century are still referred to as 'paːmbǝ' (snake in Malayalam). The nickname comes from the Hebrew initials of the words describing the most severe excommunication: niduy (banishment), ħerem (excommunication) and ʃamataɂ (curse), that is n-ħ-ʃ (נח“ש), which reads ‘snake’ in Hebrew!

The general greeting in Malayalam is sugam taṉṉe alle? (all's well, isn't it?) but a jocose version exists in Jewish Malayalam, poking fun at the ostensibly miserly Cochin Jews, which goes: tiṉṉ’ oːɳɖ’ all-eː vann-e? (you've eaten and come, right?) so that the visitor needn't be fed.

There are some proverbs unique to the Jews that other Malayalis do not recognise. One such, kaːlaṉ.ḏe peːṟe poːy-aːlumjuːðaṉ.ḏe peːṟe poːv-alleː, translates as 'better follow a demon than a Jew', and is used when a Jew has deceived or cheated someone. 

More good stuff: Jewish Malayalam jokes, stories, nursery rhymes and riddles. Check out the Gamliel paper [1] and references therein.

Also, Bala Menon's blog post from 2011 is pretty neat: The 'Song of Evarayi' & Other Cochin Jewish Songs.


  1. O. Gamliel (2013). 'Voices Yet to be Heard: On Listening to the Last Speakers of Jewish Malayalam', Journal of Jewish Languages, (1), pp 135-137. Brill.
  2. Maddy's Ramblings: Abraham, Asha and the Geniza.
  3. Maddy's Ramblings: Sara's Story.
  4. Edna Fernandes (2008). The Last Jews of Kerala: The Two Thousand Year History of India's Forgotten Jewish Community. Skyhorse.


Post a Comment