Rubies and Coral: The Lapidary Crafting of Language in Kerala


Journal Article

This paper addresses the problematic birth of the Malayalam language of Kerala in medieval South India. I say “problematic” because, of course, languages are never really born. Indeed, the dominant tradition of language genesis in India long asserted that all languages there only gradually arose by degenerate mutation out of the primordially beginningless Sanskrit. If there is a general truth to be found here, it is that since there are no human communities without speech, novel forms of language must always be emergent from earlier forms. Language genesis is thus always a matter of linguistic differentiation, away from some standard and towards another. But the sustained contrivance of these particular claims for Sanskrit also reflects another linguistic truth: that languages and their constituent elements are routinely shaped, conditioned, and ideologically figured by being themselves made into objects of discourse. In terms of language differentiation, this means the continuum of transformations that may at some point coalesce into a claim for linguistic separateness is always modeled and monitored in and through language itself. The reflexive or metalinguistic nature of this process, however, is always contextually oriented to the social fields in which it operates, so that the ideological positions and interests in those fields tend to carry over into the discursive products of a language and its literature. This study will attempt to highlight the web of relations among language varieties, ideologies, social contexts, and identities, as documented in a treatise on the language of medieval Kerala when that region first raised its claims for a distinctive linguistic identity.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Freeman, R

Published Date

  • February 1998

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 57 / 1

Start / End Page

  • 38 - 65

Published By

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1752-0401

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0021-9118

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.2307/2659023


  • en