Malayali, Mallu, or Madrasi?

First all of let’s get the very basic fact right. Malayali (also spelled Malayalee) is the term used to refer to the native speakers of Malayalam, originating from the Indian state of Kerala. It is another equivalent of the term Keralite.  

From what I have read and understood, Malayalam has its origin from the words mala meaning mountain and alam meaning land/locality which lies alongside the mountain. Hence, Malayalam is the language that spoken by the Malayalis (i.e., people from the mountains) who lived beyond the Western Ghats.

From what I have seen, about 80% of non-south Indians think that all south Indians are from Tamil Nadu. To most of the non south Indians, all south Indians are Madrasi. According to them, all south Indians speak Madrasi as well. Now, I don’t feel offended at being called a south Indian—after all I am one. I am put off by the usual assumption that south Indians are from Tamil Nadu or from Madras. It is as silly as saying that all North Indians to be from Punjab.

Being a Keralite who has been born and brought out outside of Kerala, I don’t speak with the typical South Indian accent. Nor do I have the usual Malayali specific characteristics. Most people usually mistake me to be a Maharashtrian. The usual conversation is:

Person: So, are you a Maharashtrian?

Me: No. I am a Keralite.

Person: So, you are a Madrasi?

Me: No. I am a Keralite.

Person: The same thing… you are mallu.

Me: Aahhh… yes I am a Malayali.

The fact is that Malayalis are not Madrasis. Not all Tamilians are Madrasis either. Madrasis are Tamilians from Madras. We also need to acknowledge the fact that now, there is no Madras—its Chennai. So, the word Madrasi is not longer relevant!

The fact is, South India consists of 4 states—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Each of the state has their own language, culture, traditions, and rituals.


Similarly, most of the South Indians also have a misconception that all the people outside of South India are North Indians—including Maharashtrians, Gujarathis, Bengalis, etc. Here is a map showing the North Indian state. There are 6 North Indian States (Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand) and one Union Territory namely (Delhi).


So now that the region specific problem is dealt with, let’s move on to the next. Now comes the mallu part. As far as I have understood, mallu is a slang that refers to a person who is born in Kerala and speaks Malayalam. So, it is a short form for Malayalee. Many of my friends use the word mallu as an acronym for malayalee not as a derogatory term. I don’t know about the others, but the Mallu thing annoys me no end.

The next area of concern is the language. We all know, or rather I know that Malayalis speak Malayalam. But a large percentage of the non-south Indians feel that the Malayalis speak Malayali. Many people have asked me, “So you speak Malayali?” Earlier, I used to just nod yes. Now-a-days, I take time and the pleasure to explain that Malayalis do not speak Malayali—it is not a language. We speak Malayalam.

Unfortunately Malayalis are the butt of some jokes, most of them focused on pronunciation. Here are some common “Mallu” jokes:

  1. Why did the Malayali buy an air-ticket?
    To go to Thuubai, zimbly to meet his ungle in the Gelff.
  2. Why do Malayali’s go to the Gelff?
    To yearn meney.
  3. What did the Malayali do when the plane caught fire?
    He zimbly jembd out of the vindow.
  4. Why did the Malayali go to the concert in Rome?
    Because he wanted to hear pope music.
  5. What is Malayali management graduate called?
    Yem Bee Yae.
  6. What does a Malayali use to commute to office(oaffice) everyday?
    An Oto.
  7. How does a malayalee spell Malayalam?

I have heard some of my cousins and Malayali friends (basically from Kerala) pronounce:

  • Queen kyuun instead of kween
  • Volume vaalyam instead of volyum
  • Kangaroo kanGAROO instead of KANgroo
  • Divorce DAIverse instead of DIvorce
  • Garage garej instead of gaRAZH/gaRAJ
  • Career Carrier instead of Karier

Is it their mistake that they pronounce in a specific manner? Is it not so because they are taught these things at school level? I remember my daughter been taught phonetics at school (from class 1 and 4). She was then taught the right and wrong pronunciation of words. Later, in class 9 and 10, their English teacher used to make them read their lessons aloud and correct their pronunciation. As a student even I used to say kanGAROO, because I as taught so by my parents.

Hence, teaching the correct  pronunciation is a good initiative at school level. Students from all backgrounds speaking diffrent accents associated with their language (mother tongue) will be corrected and taught the correct pronunciation. But for this, we need good, knowledgeable, and dedicated teachers at school.

So, I conclude with, I am neither a Madrasi or a Mallu. I am a Malayali 🙂


9 Responses

  1. Heya! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the superb work!

  2. I came up with this list of English words murdered by Keralites :

    kangaroo (the worst offended word, Malayalees/Indians pronounce as “kanGAROO” instead of “KANgroo”)

    all words that end is “-ers”(pronounced as “-ezhs” instead of “-es”)

    mixed, fixed (pronounced as ‘miksed’, ‘fiksed’ instead of ‘miksd’, ‘fiksd’)

    bear, pear, wear (pronounced as ‘biyar’, ‘piyar’, ‘wiyer’ instead of ‘beye’, ‘peye’, ‘weye’)

    Queen (prounounced as “kyuun” instead of “kween”)

    form (pronounced as ‘farum’ instead of “fom”)

    volume (books) (pronounced as “vaalyam’ instead of “volyum”)

    biennale (pronounced as “binale” instead of “bienale”)

    place names – Ohio, Seattle, Utah (pronounced as “ohiyo, seetl, ootha” instead of “ohayo, siyatl, yuta”)

    turtle (pronounced as ‘turrrtil’ instead of “tutl” )

    Mascot Hotel (pronounced as “muskut HOtel” instead of “MAScot hoTEL”)

    heart (pronounced as ‘hurrt’ instead of “haat”)

    auto (pronounced as “aaatto” instead of “otto”)

    bass (pronounced as ‘baas’ instead of “beis”)

    twitter (speaker) (pronounced as “tyooter” instead of “twiter”)

    birthday (pronounced as “birthaday” instead of “buthdei”)

    garage (pronounced as “garej” instead of “gaRAZH/gaRAJ”)

    chassis (pronounced as “chasis” instead of “shasi”)

    pizza (pronounced as “pisa” instead of “pitza”)

    our (pronounced as “avar” instead of “aue”)

    flour (pronounced as “flower” instead of “flaue”)

    alarm (pronounced as “alarum” instead of “alaam”)

    film (pronounced as “filim” instead of ‘film’)

    little (pronounced as “littil” instead of ‘litl’)

    Sultan’s Battery (place name) (pronounced as “Soolthan Batheri” instead of “Sultan’s Batri”)

    divorce (pronounced as “daiverse” instead of “divors”)

    Tortoise (pronounced as ‘tortois’ instead of “totis” )

    November (pronuonced as “NOVember” instead of “noVEMber”)

    one (pronounced as “onn” instead of “wun”)

    beer (pronounced as “biiir” instead of “biye”)

    February (pronounced as “fibruari” instead of “februari”)

  3. very well written. Can relate to this very much.

    Here is an interesting link

  4. ever lived outside India… ever watched Russell Peters show?????? the north indian accent isn’t any better (or beTTTTer)… by speaking the northie english (or shall i say “the roti-dal english”) again and again, those guys seem to have come up with a new english dialect all together… how else can you explain the use of term like “tried my level best” or “today evening” or “yesterday night”??????? these terms don’t even exist in standard english.

    Infact some of my british mates said it’s easier for them to communicate with keralites because they speak slower than the express paced northies. So let’s say Indian accent is funny to Western ear irrespective of north, south, east, west and we all sail in the same boat!!!

    AND… the phonetics teaching mentioned in the article is only specific to city schools and not generic to all of north india. I went to an ICSE school in Trivandrum and we had phonetics from grade 1 to 5. But we need to understand majority of the keralites you see in the north are from the rural areas of Kerala and may not have had a convent education. To comprehend the difference, please go to a rural area in Maharashtra or Delhi and try speaking to them in English!!!

    The major difference here is Kerala being a highly literate state, even the most backward people are confident enough to leave their comfort zones and move to other areas in search of work. On the flip-side their Northern counterparts just stay where they are eating roti and doing nothing else!!!!

    So fellas, please understand you have a lot more serious things to worry about like poverty, rape, crime, etc that’s dragging the brand India to muds in front of others. You will only understand that if you ever live outside the country!!!

    Hemant NAIR

    • Hi Hemant, I really don’t undersatnd what annoyed you about the post. Yes, as you rightly mentioned, there are serious things to worry about, but I definitely have the right to express my thoughts about any topic and that’s exactly what I have done.

      Also, I did not criticize malayalis. I was talking about having good teachers in Kerala or anywhere in the country who CAN TEACH PROPER PRONOUNCIATION to the kids. If you read the blog again, you will realize that I mentioned about teaching the correct pronunciation at school level. So, students from all backgrounds (rural or otherwise), speaking with different accents associated with their language (mother tongue) will be corrected and taught the correct pronunciation. But for this, we need good, knowledgeable, and dedicated teachers at school.

      I am not trying to make fun of any place, people, religion, or community. What I mentioned here is generic observation. I am a keralite myself (and a Nair for that matter) and I take pride in that….

  5. i am a malayali (not mallu) living in mumbai. And i hate pepole making fun of my pronunciation…because these idiots think their accent is perfect..i am waiting for the day when these people come to kerala for their livelihood…
    we will teach you the correct pronunciation…
    anyway nice article except the pronunciation part…( i simply hate that)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: