Home | Centre | Activities | Resources | Products | Bharana Malayalam | Search & Sitemap | Contact Us

Study Report

Resources -> Articles

Globalization and Language: A Case Study of Malayalam
(Department of Linguistics University of Kerala )

By Dr. A.P. Andrewskutty

 The following statement is a tentative attempt to project the problems and possibilities of Malayalam in the backdrop of globalization and information explosion superhighway. It proposes to evaluate, on the one hand, its development during the course of the twentieth century, which is typically declared as over by 1989, especially in the context of the collapse of communism and the strengthening of the forces of capitalism, exciting the much publicized ‘end of history’ thesis. It also tries to speculate, on the other hand, on its possible position in the so-called ‘post-historical’ society of the twenty first century, in which, a possible ‘recolonization’ effectuating forms of ‘imperial expansion’ including ‘information imperialism’ or ‘information colonization’ and a consequential cultural erosion partly due to flow of migration, are predicted.

In contrast to the nineteenth century, the twentieth century does not diagnostically belong to Malayalam. Almost all significant contributions on Malayalam language and its grammatical description by great traditionalists from Gundert (1951) to Keeralapaanini RajaRaja Varma (1895) had been made in the nineteenth century: Grammatical works of Spring (1839). Peet (1854), Mathen (1863), Arbuthnot (1864), Collins (1864), Muthathu (1876), Garthweite (1877), Nedungadi (1878), Frohnmeyer (1889), Raman (1890). The revised versions of the works of Varma (1917) and Prabhu (1919) are conspicuous contributions in the beginning of the twentieth century. In fact the period from 1850 to 1950 can legitimately be considered as a self-contained unit, specifically from the angle of proposing and consolidating traditional grammatical statements in Malayalam. To be more explicit, the period between 1850-1920 was one of proposals. After 1920, in general, was a faithful or even dogmatic acceptance and practice of the Malayalam language by teachers, students and scholars. Therefore, the nineteenth century for Malayalam can be reasonably marked as the period between 1850-1950.

If the ‘end of history’ thesis is adhered to, for purposes of projections on twenty first century, the period of forty years after 1950 would constitute the twentieth century for Malayalam. Although there are doubts and apprehensions about its real impact, positive contribution and even its relevance in different circles of scholars. Malayalam linguists would like to refer to it as an era of modern linguistics. Vicissitudes and vicious circle weakened the initiatives offered by modern linguistics in India. Therefore, the terminal decade of the present century can be considered as the beginning of the twenty first century, in tune with the political, economic and international compulsions. It also provides an opportunity for common thinking as to its impact on different aspects of human life in various parts of the world. Language is quite basic an aspect of human behavior. It is an effective tool for social interaction. The impact of the ‘New World Order’ or the so-termed ‘New Disorder’ on our regional languages in general and the Malalyalam language in particular is worthy of careful investigation and speculation.

The possible impact of globalization and the commercial consumer culture initiated and reared carefully by international societal networks like the IMF, World Bank, GATT and G-7 on our country requires detailed scrutiny.

The attitude of the Malayalee people towards their language and culture has been constant even after independence. Although English was an instrument of colonization, it was the choice for, at least a large section of people. They imbibed it as a pragmatic instrument of economic competions. Attitudinally, Malayalees keep a well thought out balance in properly assessing the pros and cons of learning English and Malayalam. In this respect they have been practicing a happy but typical mixture of localisation and globalisation with reference to their mothertongue and the other tongue, English. They have been resorting to the same game even with Hindi and with other languages as well. This factor is quite crucial, in fact, for a possible projection on their aspirations for the twentyfirst century.

The Malayalam language has made significant advancement in different dimensions during the last several decades. Especially in the realms of literature, mass communication, cinema and education. It has mad significant strides when compared to several other languages in the Indian Union. Painstakingly by built up in the post-independent years, it has naturally evolved in a congenial set up of a general cultural, social, political and educational milieu of Kerala. One would be aware of the utility of a language, native or foreign, when one is in a specific situation in which one is under pressure to use it as a tool. Industry, tourism, commerce, technology etc., are areas where one will feel such a pressure which exerts an indirect impact on one’s attitude towards a language as an instrument of survival in a fast changing world.

The socio-political changes to which the speech communities have been continuously subjected to in Kerala have enabled the common man and even the scholarly to rediscover, Malayalam as a language useful for education, technology, mass media and political dialogue. At the same time, an average Malayalee is aware of its limitations in a number of practical situations in life. This awareness continues to help him, generally, in not becoming unnecessarily biased in its use. Probably this would be the reason why an average Malayalee is not highly disturbed at the exciting calls of language loyalists for glorification of the native tongue and for the crusades against English medium schools and education. The genuine willingness to consider language as a tool for progress and stability makes a Malayalee a typical representative competitor for survival in the twenty first century which is seemingly heading towards a ‘greed is good’ commercial consumerism. The examples of Japan and Korea are very often quoted as examples, of booming powers with a commendable national growth rate, made possible through the development of indigenous languages. The very fact that we belong to a developing Third World ‘peripheral’ country such a desirable position seems not attainable at present. Of course, it would become nearly impossible a task to be equal to the ‘core’ countries in the imminent international scenario of recolonisation. Is the new order good or bad for us? What shall we do to counter the disadvantages of the system ? These are different types of questions which requires quite a bit of argument in future. In all probability, regional defence could wither away in global invasion and languages are no exception to this. They are liable to be reshaped to the changing cultures and tendencies. ‘There has been a progressive globalization of the world economy since the beginning of this century but it was in the 1970s and 1980s that a phenomenal acceleration took place’. The gap between the developed and the developing world continues to widen. International labour migrations are a growing phenomenon within the third world as well.

The trials and tribulations of linguistic studies in India reviewed from this situation can excite a few interesting observations. The growth of linguistics as a discipline in this part of our country, per se, has been in the form of a sort of sympathetic vibration to the tunes of advancements made in the west. It was not a logical consolidation effected on the basis of any ongoing activity on indigenous data. Once introduced and acquired it grew in certain dimensions and in due course it started showing the diagnostic symptoms of malnutrition and maladjustment. Its efforts to enter fresh fields and pastures was not very successful and as a result, many of the Universities are struggling had to maintain their appeal. There spreads an impression that institutes and organizations or higher research have been characteristically nose-diving into discontent, discomfiture, incompetence and impotence in reaching academic standards. One is trying to seek refuge in the explanation that the changing world order has been seriously affecting the scope of our discipline. At least to that extent we are now aware of the change in situations and its impacts. Of course, we cannot say that the decline of the linguistics in India is to be directly related to the ongoing process of progressive globalization. Nevertheless, the fact that linguists in India did not care much for self-defense by innovations, rediscovery and imagination would loom large in our minds.

With a view to contemplate indirectly at least on the possible resurrection of linguistics in the coming decade we have to seek ways of overcoming handicaps and imbalances both by making our presence felt in various exercises on language and by meaningfully entering the inform sphere to satisfy the requirements of the twenty-first century like surfing the Internet, acquiring data on the information superhighway, transmission through cyberspace etc. The question that looms large before us is, how do we keep pace with the changing requirements of our languages both in terms of our attitude towards them and in their real utility vis-à-vis English, the lingua franca of international politics and business.

It is beyond doubt that English being a near global tongue can function as a bridge between language barriers. It is used by approximately 700 million speakers, by the bulk of the world mailing system and electronic information services. Will it be possible, to take a technological and economic leap, without this language in future ? If the answer is in the negative, what type of balance will one have to envisage between, say, English and Malayalam on the one hand, English, Hindi and Malayalam on the other ? Their co existential patterns would definitely beg redefinition and reformulation. Furthermore, we will have to reassess our aspirations for regional, national and international languages now in the novel contexts of national and international linkage. The fact that a number of developing countries are rediscovering English in the context of globalizations and their active role in international relations must be an eye opener for us too. It need not be a choice between English and Malayalam, of course, but the question is, how do the people use both ? Rediscovery of a language would help considerably the prevention of cultural pollution by a process of localization effectuating an assertion of the right to use a language, although foreign, in accordance with the local culture, local variations and local formations. Such an exercise would prove to be important in realizing the relevance of localization in an era of globalization.

Yet another factor which requires active consideration is the impending ‘withdrawal of the State’ from welfare responsibilities. Encouragement of privatization and a mere concern for preservation of law and order would in effect initiate forces of elitism. As the individual freedom envisaged for private sector can make the educational sphere more self-financing without much of State control, it will, consequentially cater more to the needs and aspirations of the elite in society who can easily afford the technical and managerial higher education extravaganza. In this context a proposal for higher education through the medium of mother tongue would definitely lack plausibility. As a result the relevance of Malayalam in higher education or technical education, for an average Malayalee, would only be marginal. At the same time, in the context of privatization and globalization the importance of English is destined to grow still more significantly. Of course, one can dream that the present day trend of globalization in a unipolar set up need not last for long. Change is an ever racing horse and at times it gallops too. That is how it can result, often, in rebuffs, rebukes, rebellion or even upheavals. But, now many of us do have time and patience to wait for history to repeat itself. There is every reason to assume that the first half of the twenty-first century will find a typically diminishing patronage of regional languages by the State. Instead, its renewed and positive enthusiasm, in a convenient camouflage, in the global tongues to keep pace with the changing requirements. Other challenges before the State in the cut-throat race for global competitiveness will be so demanding that it will find it difficult provide any significant support financial or administrative to the development of regional languages. To over-exaggerate, languages like Malayalam will be left alone with its speakers to meet with its destiny.

Its use in literary creations will also be subjected to a ‘qualitative change which is to be predicted and discussed by scholars in the concerned exercises. The ongoing changes in the aims and means of education will affect the preservation and maintenance of our regional languages. This is especially so in Kerala for Malayalam because a Malayalee by predicament aims to hit inevitably beyond his boundaries for survival and success and therefore it is less likely that he holds on to his mother tongue too long and far if it would not help him in his strides.

If these highlight the problems for a language like Malayalam, what are its prospects of enhancing its ability to handle problems of technology and information management ? Malayalam is capable of exhibiting an unusual rate of vehicular load which is quite essential for it to get planned for future purposes. It is a sad state of affairs that there are no accepted attempts so far projected to provide a comprehensive grammar of Malayalam which can replace the traditional statements on the grammar of the language Who is responsible for this ? the torch bearers of tradition ? the advocates of modern linguistics ? Only a resurgence in Malayalam grammatical thinking and its possible consolidation could make the language usable to the maximum effect in the context of modern technology liberalization, globalization and consumerism. The language will have to be reshaped and prepared for new functions identification of the differing functions of the language and the rediscovery of its real potentialities are quite crucial. It will have to be carried out with a diagnostic evaluation of the relevance of localization in the context of globalization and their possible mutual interferences. Malayalam has been adopting the policy of borrow and grow even from very early times well before the IMF and World Bank compulsions were not even heard of. It and its people have an inherent ability for adaptation. Didn’t you notice the word MALAYALAM written in English ? You can read it from left to right or right to left as MALAYALAM itself Do you require any other proof for its inherent flexibility ?


Ezhuthachan. 1975. The History of The Grammatical Theories in Malayalam. Trivandrum : DLA

ISDA Journal. Quarterly Journal of the Institute for the Study of Developing Areas. Vol.4 No.4.1994. Special Issue Papers of the Conference on VISIONS OF THE FUTURE Trivandrum

Seminar 429.1995. Globalization and The Union - A Symposium on Globalisation and Trade Union Options. New Delhi


Designed & Maintained by: C-DIT, Thiruvananthapuram-27,