Tag Archives: palindrome

Malayalam is a palindrome

To be honest, this post only tangentially concerns Spanish, by virtue of references to the Indo-European family, and to the delightful word blablablá. And it’s more about language than linguistics. It’s my way of kicking back and celebrating the end of my teaching semester — already!

Although I’m the linguist of the family, my husband has his own way with words. He’s always playing with them in his head, turning them around, looking for palindromes and anagrams. Perhaps this compulsive mental rearrangement comes from years of playing competitive chess as a teenager? His favorite palindrome is wonton ↔ not now, which suggests the following madcap dialogue:

Person A: How do you say wonton backwards?
Person B: Not now!
Person A: No, I really want to know!
Person B: Not now!
and so on…

His skill most impressed me on the day, perhaps ten years ago, that a young driver rear-ended my car on a busy street in the nearby city of New Rochelle. The driver and I chatted while waiting for the police to come, and I learned that his parents were from Kerala in southern India. This meant that he spoke Malayalam at home. While I don’t remember our conversation too well, I’m pretty sure that, compulsively didactic as always, I explained to him that his family’s language, like other languages of southern India such as Tamil and Kannada, was part of the Dravidian language family. These survived when the original languages of northern India were overwhelmed by the Indo-European invasion that swept the subcontinent from the northwest thousands of years BCE. The effects of this invasion can be seen in Indian genetics as well as linguistics.

When I came home that day and announced that “I was rear-ended by a Malayalam teenager in New Rochelle”, my husband asked, without blinking an eye, if I knew that the word Malayalam is a palindrome. This is true, though only with Roman alphabet spelling. The original spelling in the Malayalam script is the asymmetrical


Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching two Fordham students from Malayalam-speaking families. Both were wonderful students, not only bright but gregarious, hard-working, and upbeat. When I met each of them, I of course went into my usual spiel about Indo-European versus Dravidian languages in India (blablablá, an actual, RAE-sanctioned Spanish word!, is perhaps the best way to describe this), combined with my husband’s. Both already knew that Malayalam was Dravidian, but neither had realized that their language name was a palindrome.

So, dear readers, now you know how to amaze any Malayalam-speaking acquaintance. You can tell them both the bad news — that their language is unrelated to Spanish since it’s Dravidian, not Indo-European — and the good — that its name is one for the books.