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 modern 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.

Unfortunately, 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. But, 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 are from Punjab.

Being a Keralite who has been born and brought up 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: Ahh, you are a Madrasi.

Me: No. I am a Keralite.

Person: The same thing… you are mallu.

Me: Aahhh… well I am a Malayali.

By then, I realize that there is no point stretching the conversation. According to the person’s GK south-India = Madrasi/Mallu. 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. Since Madras ceases to exist, the word Madrasi is no longer relevant!

The fact is, South India consists of 5 states—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka. Each state has its 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 problem. 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 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? 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, I used to pronounce kangaroo as kan-ga-roo, because I was taught so by my teachers. Hear the correct pronunciation here.

Hence, teaching the correct  pronunciation is a good initiative at the 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 nor a Mallu. I am a Malayali 🙂