Hermann Gundert (Feb 1814-April 1893)

A German scholar, Herman Gundert, is known for his pioneering works in the field of Malayalam language. As part of a missionary group, the 22-year-old Gundert arrived in India and for some time traveled across South India before settling down in Thalassery.

For almost 20 years after that, Gundert dedicated himself for a systematic study of Malayalam language and culture. His efforts led to the publication of the first Malayalam-English Dictionary in 1872.
Historians and linguists regard this as Gundert’s biggest contribution to the Malayalam language – wherein words and their meanings were documented for the first time. According to Prof MGS Narayanan, it was not just a “mechanical meaning-making equipment”, the dictionary was a rich source of words and all related references.

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Gundert not only looked at Sanskrit or literary words, but incorporated common words used by the locals, and dialects specific to fishermen, adivasi communities in his dictionary.

Gundert’s next major contribution to Malayalam was that he developed the language by adding punctuation marks similar to those found in European languages. Until then, people just wrote long sentences without any breaks. The only break earlier was provided by the symbol ‘|’ that was equivalent to a full stop.

According to noted linguist Dr Scaria Zacharia, it was Gundert who helped fix the word Malayalam as the name of the language. Before his time, the language had multiple names such as Keralabasha and Malayalanama. Through his publications, Gundert was able to popularize the word Malayalam and made it the standard name for the language.

His other major works would include Keralapazhama (history of the land, 1868), Keralolpathi (origin, 1843) and Malayala Bhasha Vyakaranam (grammar text, 1851).

Gundert also is credited with starting the first Malayalam newspaper – Rajyasamacharam. Noting these many contributions to the language by the German scholar, Prof Narayanan opined, “If Ezhuthachan is considered to be the father of Malayalam, then Gundert should be accorded the title of “stepfather” (valarthachan).”

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