Hermann Gundert- German Who Touched the Soul of Malayalam
Updated: Apr 27
Kerala’s history witnessed a great turn after the arrival of Hermann Gundert (1814-1893) in Thalassery. He came to Kerala as a missionary with Basel Mission, but what he did was more of an educational reformation.
Gundert is known as a scholar, linguist, and educational reformer. During his stay in Kerala from 1836-1859, he made significant contributions to the Malayalam language.
Hermann Gundert in Kerala
Gundert, born in Stuttgart, Germany was primarily interested in Christian missionary activities and joined in Protestant University. He studied Sanskrit along with theology and later moved to England to learn more about mission work and got a chance to learn a few Indian languages such as Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, and Urdu.
Though he traveled to different parts of India, he fell in love with Thalassery, then Tellissery, and set up a bungalow there. At Illikkunnu Bungalow, he lived, worked, and set up a lithographic press, which was the first printing press in North Kerala. Many of his works were printed here. The first Malayalam newspaper Rajyasamacharam, and another, Paschimodayam, were a few of them. Though Gundert had to leave India following health issues, he continued writing Malayalam books.
In his work Kerala History and its Makers, historian Sreedhara Menon says Gundert helped to develop the Malayalam language and literature, and focused on educating the less privileged. He made educational facilities available to everyone regardless of caste.
Gundert started a school in Tellicherry on May 14, 1839, and another school in Dharmadam. He taught history and geography and encouraged marginalized sections of society to come forward.
Hermann Gundert’s Contribution to Malayalam
The interest in learning different languages helped Gundert to become proficient in Sanskrit and South-Indian languages. Hence, it became easy for this multi-linguist to comprehend Malayalam. He became an expert in Malayalam and translated ‘The Bible’ into Malayalam.
Malayalam-English dictionary and Malayalabhasha Vyakaranam (1851) were his most remarkable contributions to Malayalam. It was followed by Malayala Vyakarana Chodhyothram.
Gundert compiled the first Malayalam-English dictionary in 1872, but controversy remains that it was Benjamin Bailey, who wrote the first Malayalam-English dictionary in 1846. Bailey also wrote an English-Malayalam dictionary in 1849. However, Gundert’s dictionary which was prepared scientifically is widely accepted as the first advanced Malayalam dictionary and is still used. It was not a mere ‘mechanical meaning-making equipment’, his dictionary also contained dialects from different communities.
In the preface to his Malayalam-English dictionary, Gundert wrote: “The materials for this work have been collected during more than twenty-five years’ study of the language. The words have been taken from all available sources, from the lips of speakers of all ranks, castes, and occupations, from the letters and records of many different districts, and from the writers in prose and poetry of every age.” (1872:3)
Even though Keralabhasha and Malayalanma were used, there was no standardized name for the language in Kerala. Gundert standardized the word Malayalam for language through his publications. He not only introduced chandrakala, (the crescent moon sign) to the alphabet but also added a few punctuation marks in Malayalam.
Gundert was interested in the culture and delved further to understand the Malayalam language. His frequent acquaintances with locals taught him that people have a penchant for proverbs. Therefore, he printed a book called Aayiram Pazhanjollukal (A Thousand Proverbs).
Gundert wrote Paathamala (1860) for children. Though educational publications were his forte, he also wrote historical books such as Keralolpathi (1843), Lokacharithra sastram (1849-51), Kerala pazhama (1868), and Malayalarajyam (1879)- the first book on geography. Mathavicharana, Muhammadu Charithram, Manushyahrudayam, and Pazhancholmala were a few among the 21 books he compiled in Malayalam.