Jewish Language Research Website

Jewish Malayalam


Description by Scaria Zacharia

Jews in Kerala, India

According to tradition and available records, Jews have been in Kerala, one of the southern states in the Republic of India, since at least the beginning of the common era. The Kerala community is distinct from the Bene Israel Jews, centered in Bombay, Calcutta, and other cities in central and northern India. In the 1940s there were about 2500 Malayalam-speaking Jews in India, and after 1948 most of them migrated to Israel. Today there are only a handful of Jews left in Kerala, but the Jewish Malayalam language is maintained by many of the immigrants to Israel, most of them elderly.

Kerala Jews are known as Cochin Jews in the popular discourses of Israel and other parts of the world. They have also been labeled Malabar Jews, White Jews, and Black Jews. In intimate communication, members of this Kerala Jewish community prefer not to use these terms to refer to themselves. They introduce themselves using names of places and synagogues, such as Paradesi Jews (Foreign Jews of Cochin), Kadavumbagam Jews (Ernakulam/Cochin), Thekkumbhagam Jews (Ernakulam/Cochin), Parur Jews, Chendamangalam Jews, or Mala Jews. The terms Black Jews and White Jews, referring to the centuries-old community and the more recent immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, respectively, were popularized by foreign visitors and colonialists and are considered derogatory. In most western and academic writings, the focus has been on Pardesi White Jews, living in Cochin, so less is known about other Kerala Jewish communities. The Pardesi community was always numerically small, but it played an important role in the socioeconomic life of Cochin. Most of the visitors and researchers who came in search of the Jews of Kerala never cared to go beyond Cochin and meet other Jews. This type of partial reporting has distorted treatises on Kerala Jews. Today Kerala Jews, who trace their origin to different local communities of Kerala, are reasserting their identities in their new settlements in Israel.

Malayalam and Jewish Malayalam

Malayalam is the official language of Kerala. About 30 million people use this language in everyday life, and it has a vibrant literature. About three million copies of Malayalam newspapers are printed every day, and Malayalam programs are aired on six radio stations and five television channels. While the majority of Malayalam speakers are Hindu, several religious minority groups speak distinct varieties. Malayalam, a member of the Dravidian family, developed as a distinct dialect of Tamil in the 8th to 10th centuries CE. It diverged by the increased use of Sanskrit derivatives and the disuse of person, number, and gender markers in finite verbs.

Since the development of Malayalam as distinct from Tamil, Jews have used some variety of Malayalam as their everyday spoken language. The Jewish variety has differed by the use of Hebrew loanwords and Dravidian archaisms in lexicon, phonology, and syntax. And like most Jews around the world, Kerala Jews use Hebrew for liturgical purposes.

There has been very little research on Jewish varieties of Malayalam. The information in this description is based mostly on a corpus of about 200 songs written and sung by Jewish Malayalam-speaking women. These Jewish Malayalam folk songs (JMFS) were sung at life-cycle events and holiday celebrations, and they include many Jewish religious signifiers in the forms of biblical allusions and formulaic blessings and prayers. JMFS are currently under analysis by scholars of Indology, Jewish studies, and Malayalam studies as part of a project of the Ben-Zvi Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A pioneering volume of about 50 songs is due to be published in 2004 along with translations into Hebrew. A German translation of these songs (Frenz & Zacharia 2002) was already published, and a larger volume of English translations is under preparation. In addition, the Jewish Music Research Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is producing a CD of JMFS.

Linguistic Structure

There are three main components of JMFS: Dravidian (Malayalam and Tamil), Sanskrit, and Hebrew. In addition, there is a sprinkling of influence from other Jewish languages, such as Ladino. The core of the linguistic substance is Dravidian, similar to contemporary Malayalam.


One of the most notable features of Jewish Malayalam is the presence of fossilized elements from the pre-Malayalam layer. These archaisms exist at several levels, including lexicon, morphology, phonology, and semantics. A semantic example can be found in one of the wedding songs: the bride is described as covering her head with three types of flowers that have NaRRam. The word NaRRam exists in contemporary Tamil, Malayalam, and other local languages with the meaning 'bad smell'. However, in this case the word is used with its old Tamil sense: 'good smell'. This is just one example of the many elements of Jewish Malayalam that may seem like contemporary Tamil borrowings but are actually archaic remnants from before Malayalam split off from Tamil.

Another significant feature is the abundance of archaic Dravidian derivatives to denote Jewish concepts. The best examples are names for God, many of which are loan translations from Hebrew. Jews, Muslims, and Christians share the most popular form Thampuran 'Lord'. Jews and Muslims share Padachavan 'creator'. But Mulamudayon 'the one at the beginning', Oruvanayavan 'the only one', Sadakan 'the doer', Adimulamvayavan 'the one who is the root cause', and Adiperiyon 'the great beginner' are words for God used only by Jews. The typical Jewish concept of redemption is expressed by a special word coined from a Dravidian root "mil," according to well-accepted morphological rules: Milcha 'redemption' and Mirchakaran 'redeemer' are frequently found in JMFS but are non-existent in general Malayalam. JMFS are full of variants of these two Malayalam words, sometimes altered beyond recognition.

Because of the frequency of archaisms, an ordinary Malayalam speaker would be bewildered by the opaqueness of JMFS. Even the women who still sing these songs today may not understand some of the words they use. But the linguistic archaisms – as well as biblical allusions – contribute to the speakers' sense of ethno-religious distinctiveness.

Hebrew Borrowings

Like Jewish languages around the world, Jewish Malayalam includes a number of Hebrew words and idioms, such as tora ('Torah'), shalom ('peace'), shir ('song'), and aliya ('ascension') . In a few instances Hebrew words appear as part of Malayalam compounds, such as alam padacavanthe 'world-created-he' and shalom ayi 'died' (lit. 'entered the state of peace').


Using only the JMFS corpus as data, it is difficult to determine how Jewish Malayalam differs phonologically from its non-Jewish correlate. It is written in Malayalam script, and the notebooks vary significantly in the graphemic representations of phonemes and allophonic distributions. This is especially true in the case of borrowed words from Sanskrit and Hebrew. In certain cases, the same Hebrew word is written in JMFS in three of four forms.

Even so, it is possible to determine one distinct phonological feature: the realization of hiatus between vowels. In general Malayalam, as well as other Dravidian languages, vowel continuum is prevented. In JMFS, however, it is allowed.

Spoken Jewish Malayalam

The spoken Malayalam of Kerala Jews, as I understand from my short but intimate contact with them in Israel, is not syntactically different from that of Malayalam speakers in and around Cochin. But many of them hesitate to speak with me in Malayalam, apologizing for their 'Jewish Malayalam'. This may be explained in the context of traditional schooling in Kerala, which insisted on the heavily Sanskritized 'standard Malayalam'.

Since the majority of Jewish Malayalam speakers are elderly, the days of the language are numbered. In order to document the spoken language, scholars must act soon.

Other Religious Minorities of Kerala

While the majority religion in Kerala is Hinduism, there are several religious minorities. Parallel to Jewish linguistic practice, traditional Thomas Christians and Mappila Muslims of Kerala have used Syriac and Arabic, respectively, as their religious languages. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been able to take full part in Malayalam-speaking society while maintaining their religious distinctiveness, expressed partly through linguistic means. Of these three groups, Muslims have had the greatest impact on general Malayalam, contributing many Arabic loanwords. This may be explained by the historical fact that Arabic was the language of commerce on the Kerala coast. Even the Portuguese made use of Arabic-speaking interpreters for their trade in Kerala. Today Arabic borrowings endure in various spheres of Kerala life, including literature. Mappila Malayalam, a mixed language of Arabic and Malayalam, has the status of a literary dialect. Some of the most celebrated writers of modern Malayalam, such as Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, write in modern Malayalam incorporating elements of the Muslim dialect.

Selected Bibliography

For more on the Jewish communities of India, see Jews of India and the Virtual Jewish History Tour: India. Also, see a useful website on the History of Malayalam.