Malayalam Pronunciation: Beyond the Basics

Spoken and Written Malayalam

You may hear that Malayalam is pronounced the way it is written. It’s not. This document provides some strategies for pronouncing Malayalam that may be hard for those with no prior exposure to the language. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to focus on common challenges for beginners. Familiarity with the Malayalam script and the basic sounds of each letter is assumed throughout.

Malayalam derives historically from Tamil and carries over a lot of pronunciation from Tamil, but it also borrows a lot from Sanskrit. Some Sanskritic sounds come out more clearly in Malayalam than they do in Tamil, but not much. You should be familiar with the following grid showing most (but not all) consonants in Malayalam according to where/how they are spoken in the mouth (point of articulation).

Table 1. Stop Consonants (Plosives) in Malayalam.

As part of the Dravidian language family, Malayalam leans heavily toward a South Indian, especially Tamil, way of speaking. The most important consequence of this fact is softening or voicing the single (not doubled) letters ക, ച, ട, ത, and പ in the middle of words. When these single consonants begin a word, they take their normal, unvoiced pronunciation. In the middle of a word, however, they soften by becoming voiced. To say these letters in the middle of a word, you have to use the corresponding sound from two columns over in Table 1.

Table 2. Pronunciation of Major Consonants in the Middle of a Word.

Another consequence of Tamil’s influence is that the aspirated letters ഖ, ഛ, ഠ, ഥ, and ഫ and their voiced counterparts ഘ, ഝ, ഢ, ധ, and ഭ all lose the extra air that should be expelled when pronouncing these letters in Sanskrit. Graphically, it looks like Table 2. All the letters in red will be pronounced (roughly) like the corresponding letter in black from the same row, e.g. ക ഖ ഘ → ഗ.

Why does this happen? Tamil does not differentiate voiced and aspirated consonants from others, since these sounds come from Sanskrit. In modern Tamil script, there is no written form for any of the last three columns in Table 2 (middle three in Table 1). Even though Malayalam does distinguish these sounds in writing, there is still a strong tendency to pronounce words in the Tamil way. This tendency is not absolute, but a student must get used to this difference between writing and speaking from the beginning. 

So, “അത്” will sound a lot like “അദ്” and “പഠിക്കുന്നു” like “പഡിക്കുന്നു.” What trips up new learners is thinking too much about the distinctions made in writing and imposing those onto speech. Linguists will say that there are in fact subtle differences in spoken Malayalam. For a beginner, however, the point is to improve one’s pronunciation with the help of some predictable rules and to worry about the finer points later. For what it’s worth, though it may throw you at first, using the Malayalam script exclusively and avoiding transliteration into Roman letters will over time help you learn to associate these softer sounds with the natural pronunciation of Malayalam. 

Listen to the following examples of the common letters you will encounter (ഛ, ഠ, and ഫ and ഝ, and ഢ are quite rare, especially as single letters). Notice how the same written letter will sound different at the beginning and in the middle of a word.

  1. പോകാം let’s go
  2. രുചി taste, flavor
  3. വട name of savory ‘donut’ snack
  4. കടൽ sea
  5. അത് this
  6. മതി enough
  7. കഥ story
  8. കോപം anger
  9. രൂപ rupee
  10. സുഖം happiness, health
  11. പഠിക്കും will study
  12. രാഘവൻ name of Rama, common personal name
  13. വിധി fate
  14. പദ്മനാഭൻ name of Vishnu, especially the deity in Thiruvananthapuram

The same softening happens when you combine one of these letters with the corresponding nasal (one of the “n-s” from the last column in Table 1).

  1. അങ്കം mark
  2. അഞ്ച് five
  3. എന്ത് what?
  4. ഉണ്ട് there is
  5. വേണ്ട don’t want; not needed
  6. വണ്ടി vehicle
  7. മുമ്പ് before, in front

One of the most malleable sounds in Malayalam is ക. Especially in the middle of a word, ക is liable to be spoken in several ways, all of which change and reduce it. It may shift to a വ sound, less often to a soft ഹ sound, or be eliminated altogether. Similar elisions happen for വ and ള, sometimes with changes to the nearby vowels, too. The more common the word, the more likely it is to be contracted in speech. Several of these changes are part of regional dialects in Kerala, but they are common enough to be important for beginners.

  1. പോകാം -> “പോഗാം” -> “പോവാം” -> “പോ-ആം” Let’s go.
  2. പുസ്‌തകം -> “പുസ്‌തഗം” -> “പുസ്‌തഹം” book
  3. വന്നുകൊള്ളൂ -> “വന്നൊള്ളൂ” Please come [in].
  4. അകം -> “അഗം” -> “അഹം” inside, interior
  5. മകൻ -> “മോൻ” son
  6. മകൾ -> “മോൾ” daughter
  7. കച്ചവടം -> “കച്ചോടം” business; commerce
  8. പറഞ്ഞവൻ -> “പറഞ്ഞോൻ” the one who spoke
  9. നമ്മളുടെ -> “നമ്മുടെ” our
  10. നമ്മൾക്ക് -> “നമുക്ക്” for/to us

When consonants are doubled or in a conjunct, they sound as they would at the beginning of a word. Doubled consonants should be hit hard or emphasized. Note the differences between doubled/conjunct consonants and single letters in the beginning and middle of words.

  1. അടുക്കള kitchen
  2. കൊല്ലുക to kill
  3. അമ്മ mother
  4. അയ്യപ്പൻ Ayyappan, name of a deity
  5. വന്നു came
  6. ഇരുട്ട് darkness
  7. പാത്രം vessel, container
  8. മാത്രം only
  9. എത്ര how much/many
  10. പക്ഷെ but, however

Vowel pronunciation also deviates from the strict written form to some extent. The major hurdle is distinguishing long and short vowels. In general, the distinction is simply how long you hold the vowel sound, but a few key vowels shift the quality of the sound:

  • Short അ sounds like “uh” as in English “cut.” Long ആ sounds like “ah” as in English “father.” 
  • Short ഇ sound like the “i” in English “kit.” Long ഈ sounds like “ee” in English “feet.” 
  • The long dipthongs ഐ and ഔ tend to sound like their counterparts, ഏ and ഓ.  
  1. അനുജൻ younger brother
  2. കൽപന order, command
  3. ആൾ person, people
  4. തമാശ joke
  5. രാജാവ് king
  6. മലയാളം Malayalam
  7. ദൈവം god, deity
  8. സൗന്ദര്യം beauty
  9. വൈഷ്ണവ Vaishnava, devotee of Vishnu
  10. പൈസ paisa, small unit of currency
  11. കൗമാരം youth
  12. പത്രം  vs. പാത്രം newspaper vs. vessel

Now listen to the differences of length in other vowels and the sound of the unique Indic vowel ഋ:

  1. നിറം color
  2. നീതി policy, justice
  3. കിട്ടി got, received, was available
  4. കീർത്തി fame
  5. ഉമ്മ kiss
  6. ഊണ് lunch, meal
  7. മുറി room
  8. മൂന്ന് three
  9. പെട്ടി box, suitcase
  10. പേടി fear
  11. ചൊല്ലി told, said
  12. ചോർ rice, meal
  13. കൃതി work, deed
  14. ഋഷി sage

When a single letter (not a conjunct) begins a word with the vowels ഇ or ഉ, those vowel sounds will shift toward their corresponding short diphthong.

When a single letter (not a conjunct) begins a word with the vowels ഇ or ഉ, those vowel sounds will shift toward their corresponding short diphthong.

  1. കുറച്ച് -> “കൊറച്ച്” a little, small amount
  2. പിറന്നു -> “പെറുന്നു” was born
  3. കുഴപ്പം -> “കൊഴപ്പം” problem, obstacle

Similarly, അയ് often shifts to ഏ.

  1. കയറി -> “കേറി” climbed, entered into
  2. കളയും -> “കളേം” will discard, throw away

When a single letter (not a conjunct) begins a word with the vowels ഇ or ഉ, those vowel sounds will shift toward their corresponding short diphthong.

  1. അതുണ്ട്. 
  2. നിങ്ങളുടെ വീട്  എവിടെയാണ്?
  3. ഞങ്ങളുടെ മകൾ ഐ.ഐ.ടിയിൽ പഠിക്കുകയാണ്.
  4. ഞാൻ വരണ്ടെന്നു അവർ സൂചിപ്പിച്ചു.
  5. വന്നവരോട് ഒരു കാര്യം പറഞ്ഞുകൊള്ളട്ടെ?
  6. ആകെ ഒൻപത് പേർക്ക് അസുഖമുണ്ടായി.

Contrasting Pairs

  1. ആണ്; ആന is; elephant
  2. ഇല; ഇല്ല leaf; no, not
  3. പനി; പണി; പന്നി fever; work, chore; pig (If you have a fever, don’t say, as I once did, എനിക്ക് ഒരു പന്നി പിടിച്ചു.)