One of the problems in learning to write/read Malayalam is the large number of letters in the alphabet. The problem is further aggravated by the changes in scripts introduced from time to time. To start with there were 56 letters, one of the largest number for any language.
These letters may belong to these broad categories:
- equivalent to the vowels
- equivalent to the consonants
- conjugated alphabets
There are 15 vowels and 36 consonants in addition to the many conjugated and miscellaneous letters. The conjugated letters are combinations of two consonants, but they are written distinctly.
Unlike in English, the ‘vowels’ are NOT used as such to give the vowel sound to consonants. Instead, certain signs, called ‘mAtras’ substitute them in a word. For instance, if the same rule is applied in English, you would write ‘cat’ as ‘c’ followed by a sign representing the sound ‘a’ and then ‘t’. The long and short of this is that in addition to the letters, one should also know these signs (mAtras) which are to be added to the consonants to get the required sound.
Let’s first look at the so called Vowel letters in Malayalam; there are 15 of them: