How a German Missionary Made the First English-Malayalam Dictionary

Hermann, Gundert, German, missionary, malayalam
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In the 1830's, German missionary Hermann Gundert introduced punctuation to Malayalam and produced its first dictionary.

Today, settling down for even a nine-hour flight requires keeping some reading material aside. Perhaps a book or two. For Hermann Gundert, a German missionary traveling to Calcutta from Bristol in the 1830s, the journey time took nine months. Instead of a couple of books, he decided to pick up a couple of languages – Bengali and Telugu (perhaps even Hindustani).

Learning the language of the country you’re visiting is normally always fruitful, but alas – Hermann’s ship disembarked at Chennai instead, where the lingua Franca was Tamil. Undeterred, he studied Tamil, developing a keen ear for local dialects. Traveling South India, he settled on Telicherry, Kerala, to spend 20 years in. Of course, he then learned Malayalam.

He soon got to writing. In 1847, he published Kerala’s first newspaper ‘Rajya Samacharam’. He would later produce the first lexicographical study of Malayalam grammar and its words. In 1859, he published Malayalabhaasha Vyakaranam, a book on the grammar of Malayalam. His defining work was to come in 1871-1872.

Says professor M.G.S. Narayanan, former chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research:

He became such an expert that he produced a dictionary. An English Malayalam dictionary which is the standard dictionary even today. It’s a different kind of a dictionary, in that he collected not only the literary words, but the common sayings in the streets, among the fishermen and places he went, and all the colloquial words in oral language.

Hermann’s dictionary was the first English-Malayalam dictionary in the world, though it is his contribution to grammar that is most remembered, according to professor P. Sreekumar of Dravidian University. “Earlier we had a grammar that was not concerned about the way Malayalam was actually spoken… about the standard [form of the] language. He wrote grammar based on the actual speech, dialects, variations, of the 19th century”

Hermann researched language in the same era that Thomas McCauley delivered his famous minute on Indian education, advocating for the substitution of indigenous cultures and languages with British ones. What made Hermann different was that he recognized that local Indian cultures had their own rich traditions of literature and tradition.

“Though he was a missionary, he was prepared to learn from India. Though he came for conversion, he was converted in essence – as he learned the language, the culture, the religious beliefs and the practices of the people. He became an admirer [of that],” says Narayanan.

Hermann left his legacy on the Malayalam language as well. At the time, Malayalam lacked a system of punctuation marks, having only a character for a full stop. It was Hermann who introduced the system to Malayalam writing. Says Narayanan:

We didn’t use full stops for example. We had a line for full stops. That was the only symbol. Otherwise, comma, semicolon, brackets, and such other symbols which we use today in Malayalam, were not used in Malayalam until he used them in the traditional chronicle of the history of Kerala.

Hermann returned to Germany in 1859, taking several Malayalam manuscripts with him. There, they languished for decades at the University of Tubingen. In 1986, scholar Scaria Zachariah, on a visit to Germany, discovered them lying in a pair of sacks left at the side of the university library. They contained not just the original Malayalam dictionaries, but also collections of stories and letters from the 19th century that were as yet unseen in Malayalam literature.

Coming as it did during a colonial regime, Gundert’s anthropological approach to preserving the purity of the local languages gave international exposure to what was a language largely confined to Kerala. It was a time when the West was only beginning to discover Indian thought and heritage when readers from Germany to the United States of America found inspiration in classical Indian texts.

There is another special legacy of Gundert’s. When the German missionaries came to Kerala, they brought many aspects of German Christian culture with them. Besides the first Bible to be translated into an Indian language, they also brought German Christmas lights for the festive season. Today, these lights have made a comeback to the Malabar coast, continuing a 200-year-old tradition.

Modern Malayalam literature stands on its own literary tradition – of centuries of only-Malayalam writing. But it owes much to the man who brought it first to the rest of the world.


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