Kerala's Portuguese heritage

The World Cup fever is on and everyone is tuned into Brazil for the latest updates on the football matches. I am no fan of football. Yet, I grew up in a sports loving family. My father is an ardent sports freak, having played a couple of sports himself, he instilled in me a love for all kinds of sports pretty early in my life. Out of those that stayed include basketball, cricket, and tennis. Football didn't. This, however, didn't stop me from watching the football matches with him, it was a father-daughter bonding time for us. I grew up watching all the World Cup matches together and even today we call and discuss about the current World Cup matches, almost on a daily basis.

Tomorrow at 9 a.m (PST), Germany is playing against Portugal and I couldn't help but ponder about Kerala's (my home state in India) long and old connection with Portugal. During the mid 14th century, the Southern part of India was conducive to trade as the coastal towns had ports which were accessible to European missionaries and explorers. Records date back to BCE, and recently a lot of interest has been revived in establishing and unearthing the heritage of the Muziris, the ancient port where the mariners anchored. Even though the exact location of this port is still unknown, it is suspected to be around 30 miles away from Kochi, my home town. Muziris is the anglicized version of the Tamil Muciri. This port became known as Muciripattanam, an idyllic town on India's South-West coast. Large scale excavations under the auspices of the Kerala government have taken place in and around Kochi from 1980. Many treasures were found and the search still continues today with many NGOs and archaeological institutions participating in the Muziris revival project.

India was one of the crown jewels in the European age of discovery which began in the 15th century. South India boasted of its aromatic and rich spices. Kerala cultivated large quantities of black pepper, popularly called 'Tellicherry black' for its bold and pungent aroma and it had established itself as a pioneer trade center since 3000 BCE. The first powerful and prolific empire around the 15th century was the Portuguese empire, also the longest ruling European empire (till it handed back sovereignty to East Timor in 2002). Being a coastal country, Portuguese sailors set sail to discover the spice route that the Arabs were talking about. In May 1498, Vasco da Gama set foot at Kappad beach, Calicut in Kerala. The animosity between the then ruler of Calicut, the Zamorins or Samoothiris and the ruler of Cochin, King Unni Goda Varma Tirumulpadu resulted in the first European settlement in Cochin. Although the Portuguese era in Kerala lasted hardly a 100 years before they were ousted by Kunjali Marakker followed by the Dutch invasion, the Portuguese left a lasting impression on the native tongue, Malayalam.

Malayalam, a Dravidian language, is said to have developed from the Proto-Tamil lineage of the Proto-Dravidian family. Early writings date to 13th century. All languages undergo diachronic changes and Malayalam was no exception. Around the 14th-15th century, heavy borrowings from Sanskrit and Pali resulted in a form of the language called Manipravaalam. This hybrid language was still in an infancy stage when it encountered Portuguese through the first explorers who came to Kerala. Portuguese was a lingua-franca used in the trading community, often talked about as the base language of pidgins and creoles (basic and reduced forms of languages used between communities for communication purposes). During the age of discovery, a linguistic process called relexification resulted in a rampant increase of Portuguese words in pidgins and creoles found across the globe. Malayalam or Manipravaalam also borrowed heavily from Portuguese.

It is suspected nearly 150 words were loaned from Portuguese into Malayalam. The long list of words can be found here on Wikipedia. One of the linguistic changes that happened was the shift from /r/ --> /l/, preceding a nasal sound such as /m/. This can be seen in the word for cupboard, armoire --> alamara. Almost all voicing contrast was lost, i.e. if the Portuguese words has a /b/, /d/, or /g/ sound, this was most likely to be substituted with /p/, /t/, /k/ in Malayalam native phonology, as seen in the words for a type of fish, crowbar, vicar etc. Interesting loans include the words for cemetery, satan, and foreman. The Portuguese words are cemitério, satan, and mesthre. These words are borrowed without much linguistic change, only a few modifications are made to the pronunciation. Thus, in Malayalam, it becomes semithery, saataan, and mesthiri, hardly any phonetic changes, only the pronunciation has been adapted to the native phonology.

The borrowings from Portuguese include common household items such as table, cupboard, towel, hat. Food items which were introduced by the discoverers were borrowed into the language, such as pineapple, tea, cashew, funnel, guava, and onion, wine and vinegar. Many if not almost all of these terms are commonplace in any dialect of Malayalam today. Even though some of the words may have been replaced by a more common Proto-Dravidian term, for example, 'adukala' for kitchen, these Portuguese borrowings survive in the older generations who use them interchangeably.

So, back to the World Cup again. In the US, the matches don't stream for free. You either need a cable subscription which allows you to stream ESPN, or you can stream the matches online from a Spanish TV channel with Spanish commentary. I don't have cable and my only resort is to brush up my rusty and forgotten Spanish and reconstruct some of these Portuguese remnants in Malayalam back to Spanish, which turns out to be a lot of fun.

Let me leave you with a story, one which involves the etymology of 'cashew'. If you go back and look over the table of Portuguese loans, you will see that 'cashew' was borrowed from the Portuguese word 'caju' (which remained as Kaju in Hindi) and became kasuvandi in Malayalam. Breaking down this word, we get kasu + andi = cashew + seed 'cashew nut'. However, there is a more interesting story behind the origin of the word. The popular story goes that these nuts, introduced by the Portuguese to the native lands, were sold on the beaches of Kerala, 8 pieces for 1 anna. The word for currency in Malayalam is kaashu. So now, imagine this Mallu boy sitting on Kappad beach with a hatful of cashewnuts and going 'kaashin ettu, kaashin ettu, kaashin ettu'. What does that sound like to you if you say it out loud? Bingo, 'cashewnut'.

Well, the Malayali will never know the true origin of the word, but we have a lot to thank our Portuguese capitans for, especially cashewnut and tobacco. These 2 industries bring crores of revenue to the state today. Quilon in South Kerala is now heralded as the cashew city and well, I needn't mention where the tobacco ends up. This old video from 1952 is self illustrative.


And yes, the author admits cigarette smoking is injurious to health. ting ting ti ding.

Oh, but I forgot to mention Kerala's German connection. The grandfather of Hermann Hesse, (psst Siddhartha, if you haven't read this book, go read) Dr. Hermann Gundert was one of the pioneers of Malayalam linguistics. He compiled dictionaries, wrote books on Kerala's history and as part of his missionary work, translated the Bible into Malayalam. Definitely not as colossal a contribution as the Portuguese, but the linguist in me is very happy with the German.

May the best team win tomorrow!