What’s the good word in Malayalam?

Words make a language, and often, with the changes that the passage of time causes, certain words are lost as new words gain currency. Often, these words slip away unnoticed. “When my mother and I talk, she says a word which would be new to me, then we’d talk about it and all those discussions led to ‘Nalla Vaakku’ (a good word),” says Krishna Anujan. ‘Nalla Vaakku’, a Facebook page, crowd sources rarely-used or forgotten Malayalam words, posts a word daily with its meaning.

“There would be many lost terms, like there would be those used by certain trades and/or communities,” adds Krishna’s mother, translator Prasanna Varma. The duo set out, last March, to record words that were lost or remembered by a few. They picked Facebook for its reach.

Over the last one year ‘Nalla Vaakku’ has garnered a small albeit loyal following. The words, most often, are seldom heard now, for instance a word like ‘lotta’ (a type of tumbler), today the generic glass is used as a sort of one size fits all.

‘A good Malayalam word. Everyday’ goes the tagline for ‘Nalla Vaakku’. The accent is on Malayalam, Prasanna makes a point about pride in one’s dialect, irrespective of which part of the State one is from.

Prasanna posts the word for the day complete with the Malayalam meaning, the English meaning and transliteration.

Nalla Vaakku also has a steady list of contributors, “crowd sourcing”, says Krishna, and there are times when a word provokes a lively discussion. “The crowd sourcing idea came from The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary,” says Prasanna.

Interactive activities include a contributor’s week— when, for a week, contributors words are posted—which keeps the interest up.

Although it documents, or reminds of forgotten words, it is also an informal archive of society— a lost way of life.

Like ‘panenkali’ — an ancient art form of the Nampoothiris or ‘thanneerppanthal’— shed where water is given free to wayfarers, for instance which tell something of how life might have been once upon a time.

Krishna is working on a doctorate in ecology, while Prasanna is translator. A post-graduate in English, Prasanna holds Malayalam close to her heart and has passed on that love to her daughter. Among the books she has translated are ‘The Ivory Throne’, a compilation (translation) of some of Manu Pillai’s articles and is currently working on translating ‘Homo Deus’. Krishna is the ‘tech’ person, and since she is not based in Kochi, Prasanna has help from equally interested youngsters —Soumya Suresh, Aparna Parameswaran and Keshav Varma.

“We use a couple of books for references; there are times when what we understand of the word or its meaning tends to be different from its actual meaning. We are after all documenting, so we have to be careful,” says Prasanna.

She refers to Sabdatharavali compiled by Sreekanteswaram Padmanabha Pillai and Sumangala’s Pacha Malayala Nikhandu to ensure there are no errors.


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