Nature of Malayalam spelling mistakes

Malayalam uses an alphasyllabary writing system. Each letter you write corresponds to the grapheme representation of a phoneme. In broader sense Malayalam can be considered as a language with one to one grapheme to phoneme correspondence. Where as in English and similar languages, letters might represent a variety of sounds, or the same sounds can be written in different ways. The way a person learns writing a language strongly depends on the writing system.
In Malayalam, since there is one and only one set of characters that can correspond to a syllable, the confusion of letters does not happen. For example, in English, Education, Ship, Machine, Mission all has sh sound [ʃ]. So a person can mix up these combinations. But in Malayalam, if it is sh sound [ʃ], then it is always ഷ.
Because of this, the spelling mistakes that is resulted by four edit operations(deletion, insertion, change, or transposition) may not be an accurate classification of errors in Malayalam. Let us try to classify and analyse the spelling mistake patterns of Malayalam.
  1. 1.
    Phonetic approximation: The 1:1 grapheme to phoneme correspondence is the theory. But because of this the inaccurate utterance of syllables will cause incorrect spellings. For example, ബൂമി is a relaxed way of reading for ഭൂമി since it is relatively effortless. Since the relaxed way of pronunciation is normal, sometimes people think that they are writing in wrong way and will try to correct it unnecessarily പീഢനം->പീഡനം is one such example.Consonants: Each consonant in Malayalam has aspirated, unaspirated, voiced and unvoiced variants. Between them, it is very usual to get mixed upAspirated and Unaspirated mix-up: Aspirated consonant can be mistakenly written as Unaspirated consonant. For Example, ധ -> ദ, ഢ -> ഡ . Similarly Unaspirated consonant can be mistakenly written as aspirated consonant – Example, ദ ->ധ, ഡ ->ഢ.Voiced and Voiceless mix-up. Voiced consonants like ഗ, ഘ can be mistakenly written as voiceless forms ക, ഖ. And vice versa.Gemination of consonants is often relaxed or skipped in the speech, hence it appear in writing too. Gemination in Malayalam script is by combining two consonants using virama. നീലതാമര/നീലത്താമര is an example for this kind of mistakes. There are a few debatable words too, like സ്വർണം/സ്വർണ്ണം, പാർടി/പാർട്ടി. Another way of consonant stress indication is by using Unaspirated Consonant + Virama + Aspirated Consonant. അദ്ധ്യാപകൻ/അധ്യാപകൻ, തീർഥം/തീർത്ഥം, വിഡ്ഡി/വിഡ്ഢി pairs are examples.Hard, Soft variants confusion. Examples: ശ/ഷ, ര/റ, ല/ളVowels: Vowel elongation or shortening, gliding vowels and semi vowels are the cause for vowel related mistakes in writing.Each vowel in Malayalam can be a short vowel or long vowel. Local dialect can confuse people to use one for the other. ചിലപ്പൊൾ/ചിലപ്പോൾ is one example. Since many input tools place the short and long vowels forms with very close keystrokes, it is possible to cause errors. In Inscript keyboard, short and long vowels are in normal and shift position. In transliteration based input methods, long vowel is often typed by repeated keys(i, ii for ി, ീ). The vowel ഋ is close to റി or റു in pronunciation. Example: ഋതു/റിതു. The vowel sign of ഋ while appearing with a consonant is close to ്ര. Example ഗൃഹം/ഗ്രഹം. ഹൃദയം/ഹ്രുദയം. Gliding vowels ഐ, ഔ get confused with its constituent vowels. കൈ/കഇ/കയ്, ഔ/അഉ/അവു are example.In Malayalam, there is a tendency to use എ instead of ഇ, since the reduced effort. Examples: ചിലവ്/ചെലവ്, ഇല/എല, തിരയുക/തെരയുക. Due to wide usage of these variants, it is sometimes very difficult to say one word is wrong. See the discussion about the ‘Standard Malayalam’ at the end of this essay.Chillus: Chillus are pure consonants. A consonant + virama sequence sometimes has no phonetic difference from a chillu. For example, കല്പന/കൽപന, നിൽക്കുക/നില്ക്കുക combinations. The chillu ർ is sometimes confused with ഋ sign. Examples are: പ്രവർത്തി/പ്രവൃത്തി. The chillu form of മ – ം can appear are as anuswara or ma+virama forms. Examples: പംപ, പമ്പ. But it is not rare to see പംമ്പ for this. Sometimes, the anuswara get confused with ന്, and പമ്പ becomes പന്പ. There were a few buggy fonts that used ന്+പ for മ്പ ligature too.
  2. 2.
    Weak Phoneme-Grapheme correspondence: Due to historic or evolutionary nature of the script, Malayalam also has some phonemes which has a weak relationship with the graphemes.ഹ്മ/ മ്മ as in ബ്രഹ്മം/ബ്രമ്മം, ന്ദ/ന്ന as in നന്ദി/നന്നി, ഹ്ന/ന്ന as in ചിഹ്നം/ചിന്നം are some examples where what you pronounce is not exactly same as what you write.റ്റ, ന്റ – These two highly used conjuncts heavily deviate from the letters and pronunciation. While writing using pen, people don’t make much mistakes since they just draw the shape of these ligatures, but while typing, one need to know the exact key sequence and they get confused. Common mistakes for these conjuncts are ററ, ൻറ, ൻറ്റ , ൻററ
  3. 3.
    Visual similarity: While using visual input methods such as handwriting based or some onscreen keyboards, either the users or the input tool makes mistakes due to visual similarityൃ, ്യ often get confused.ജ്ഞ, ഞ്ജ is one very common sequence where people are confused. ആദരാജ്ഞലി/ആദരാഞ്ജലി.ത്സ, ഝ is another combinationThe handwriting based input methods like Google handwriting tool is known for recognizing anuswara ം as zero, English o, O etc.When people don’t know how to insert visarga ഃ, and since there is a very similar key in keyboard- colon : they use it. Example: ദുഃഖം/ദു:ഖംള്ള, the geminated form of ള, is very similar to two adjacent ള. This kind of mistakes are very frequent among people whi studied Malayalam inputting informally. Two adjacent റ, is another mistake for റ്റ,The informal, trial-and-error based Malayalam inputting training also introduced some other mistakes such as using open parenthesis ‘(‘ for ്ര, closing parenthesis ‘)’ for ാ sign.
  4. 4.
    Ambiguity due to regional dialect: A good example for this is insertion of യ് in verbs. കുറക്കുക/കുറയ്ക്കുക, ചിരിക്കുക/ചിരിയ്ക്കുക, Also in nominal inflections: പൂച്ചയ്ക്ക്/പൂച്ചക്ക്. Usuage of Samvruthokaram to distinguish between a pure consonant and stressed consonant at the end of word is a highly debated topic. For example, അവന്/അവനു്/അവനു. All these forms are common, even though the usage of നു് is less after the script reformation. But since script reformation was not an absolute transformation, it still exist in usage
  5. 5.
    Spaces: Malayalam is an agglutinative language. Words can be agglutinated, but nothing prevents people to put space and write in simple words. But this should be done carefully since it can alter the meaning. An example is “ആന പുറത്തു കയറി”, ആനപ്പുറത്തു കയറി”, “ആനപ്പുറത്തുകയറി”, “ആനപ്പുറത്ത് കയറി”. Another example: “മലയാള ഭാഷ”, “മലയാളഭാഷ” – Here, there is no valid word “മലയാള”. The anuswara at the end get deleted only when it joins with ഭാഷ as adjective. A morphology analyser can correctly parse “മലയാളഭാഷ” as മലയാളം<proper-noun><adjective>ഭാഷ<noun>. But since language already broke this rule and many people are liberally using space, a spellchecker would need to handle this cases.
  6. 6.
    Slip of Finger: Accidental insertions or omissions of key presses is the common reason for spelling mistakes. For alphabetic language, mostly this type of errors are addressed. For Malayalam also, this type of accidental slip of finger can happen. For Latin based languages, we can make some analysis since we know a QWERTY keyboard layout and do optimized checks for this kind of issues. Since Malayalam will use another level of mapping on top of QWERTY for inputting(inscript, phonetic, transliteration), it is not easy to analyse this errors. So, in general, we can expect random characters or omission of some characters in the query word. An accidental space insertion has the challenge that it will split the word to two words and if the spellchecking is done by one word at a time, we will miss it.
I must add that the above classification is not based on a systematic study of any test data that I can share. Ideally, this classification should done with real sample of Malayalam written on paper and computer. It should be then manually checked for spelling mistakes, list down the mistakes and analyse the patterns. This exercise would be very beneficial for spellcheck research. In my case, even since I released my word list based spellchecker, noticing spelling errors in internet(social media, mainly) has been my obsession. Sometimes I also tried to point out spelling mistakes to authors and that did not give much pleasant experience to me. The above list is based on my observation from such patterns.
The common Malayalam spelling mistakes and confusables were presented in great depth by Renowned linguist and author Panmana Ramachandran Nair in his books ‘തെറ്റില്ലാത്ത മലയാളം’, ‘തെറ്റും ശരിയും’, ‘ശുദ്ധ മലയാളം’ and ‘നല്ല മലയാളം’.