Sri Lanka, also known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island nation situated in South Asia, near southeastern India. With its diverse cultures, Sri Lanka is home to a multitude of ethnic groups, religions, and languages. While the majority of the population is Sinhalese, the country also boasts a significant presence of other communities such as the Vedda, Kaffirs, Malays, Burghers, Moors, Indian Tamils, and Sri Lankan Tamils.
Official Languages of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is known for its linguistic richness, with various languages rooted in the Austronesian, Dravidian, and Indo-Aryan families. Official status has been granted to two languages: Tamil and Sinhalese. These languages, influenced by neighboring countries like Malaysia, the Maldives, and India, have also been shaped by the presence of colonial powers such as Britain, the Netherlands, and Portugal, as well as Arab settlers.
Sinhalese Language in Sri Lanka
Sinhalese, locally referred to as Sinhala, is the language spoken by the Sinhalese people, the largest ethnic community in Sri Lanka, with a population of approximately 16 million. Other ethnic communities in the country, totaling around 4 million people, also use Sinhala as a second dialect. Belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family, Sinhalese has its own unique writing system known as the Sinhalese alphabet, which is closely related to the ancient Indian Brahmi Script.
The Sinhalese language exhibits several distinctive characteristics that set it apart from other Indo-Aryan dialects. These differences can be attributed to the influence of the parent stock of the Vedda dialect. Sinhala includes numerous words that are exclusive to Sinhalese or shared between Sinhalese and Vedda, which cannot be traced back to Old or Middle Indo-Aryan. Examples include “dola” for offering in Sinhala and pig in Vedda, and “kola” for leaf in Sinhala and Vedda. Similarly, “gala” and “rera” are used for stones and wild duck, respectively. Additionally, Sinhalese has high-frequency words for body parts, such as “bella” for neck, “olluva” for the head, “kalava” for thighs, and “kakula” for the leg. These words have evolved from pre-Sinhala dialects in the country.
The Sinhalese language has also borrowed words from Tamil, and it exhibits certain grammatical and phonetic characteristics found in neighboring Dravidian dialects. These factors distinguish modern Sinhalese from other Northern Indo-Aryan languages.
Sinhala encompasses various dialects and accents. The dialects spoken in different regions of Sri Lanka, such as the Southern Province and the North-Central and Central Provinces, have their own distinct vocabulary, similar to the dialect used by the Rodiya community. However, these dialects are mutually intelligible to local speakers, who often do not perceive the differences as significant. The Vedda language, spoken by the Vedda people, shares many similarities with Sinhala while also having words that cannot be traced back to any other dialect.
Notably, Sinhalese exhibits a unique diglossia, where the spoken and written forms differ from each other in several aspects. The written language is used in various written texts and official functions such as radio and TV broadcasts and public speeches. In contrast, the spoken language is used for everyday communication.
The Sinhalese alphabet comprises 53 characters, including 18 vowels and 36 consonants. However, for conversational spoken Sinhalese, only 36 characters (12 vowels and 24 consonants) are necessary. The additional characters represent sounds that have been lost due to linguistic changes. Sinhala is written from left to right, following the alphabetical sequence of Brahmic scripts.
Sinhalese has also absorbed loanwords from English, Dutch, and Portuguese, owing to the country’s history of colonial rule.
Tamil Language in Sri Lanka
Tamil, a Dravidian language, is spoken by the Tamil people of Sri Lanka and India. It is also used by other communities, including Chindians, Douglas, Burghers, Sri Lankan Moors, and the Tamil diaspora. Tamil serves as an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore, and it is one of the languages used for education in Malaysia, alongside Malay, Mandarin, and English. Tamil is predominantly spoken in the Eastern and Northern Provinces of Sri Lanka, as well as in the hill country and Colombo.
Tamil encompasses various forms, including a modern literary and formal style called centamiḻ, a classical literary style derived from the ancient language known as sankattamiḻ, and a modern conversational form called koṭuntamiḻ. These forms merge into a stylistic continuum, and one can write centamiḻ using vocabulary acquired from sankattamiḻ. Centamiḻ is the style primarily used in official speech, writing, public speaking, debates, and textbooks. However, koṭuntamiḻ is gaining popularity, particularly in entertainment media like TV shows, radio programs, theaters, cinemas, and among politicians aiming to connect with the public.
The Tamil script consists of 12 vowels, 18 consonants, and a special character called the āytam. The combination of vowels and consonants generates 216 complex characters, resulting in a total of 247 characters. Similar to other Indic scripts, the consonants carry an inherent vowel “a,” which can be removed by adding a mark known as puḷḷi to indicate a consonant without a vowel. Voiced and unvoiced stops or plosives are not distinguished in the Tamil script, as their pronunciation depends on their position within a word.
Pronouns and nouns in Tamil are categorized into two super-categories referred to as astiṇai: the irrational (akṟiṇai) and the rational (uyartiṇai). These categories are further divided into five classes known as pāl. Rational nouns and pronouns encompass three categories: rational plural, masculine singular, and feminine singular, which include deities and human beings. Irrational nouns and pronouns fall into irrational singular and irrational plural categories, including objects, animals, and abstract nouns. Suffixes are used to indicate pāl. The plural structure for rational nouns can also be employed as a singular, gender-neutral, honorific form. Tamil verbs are also modified using suffixes to denote tense, person, voice, mood, and number.
In traditional Tamil grammar, there is no distinction between adverbs and adjectives, both falling under the uriccol class. However, modern grammarians differentiate between the two based on syntactical and morphological criteria. Additionally, numerous ideophones are used as adverbs to depict how an object in a particular form “sounds” or “says.” Tamil does not employ articles, but certainty and uncertainty are expressed through specific grammatical devices, such as using the number “one” as a definite article.
Tamil sentences typically follow a subject-object-verb (SOV) word order, with the verb appearing at the end. It is worth noting that Tamil allows flexibility in word order, allowing variations with different pragmatic outcomes. Unlike English, Tamil does not use prepositions but instead employs postpositions.
Other Languages in Sri Lanka
Apart from Sinhalese and Tamil, Sri Lanka is home to several other languages. English is spoken by approximately 10% of the population and is commonly used for business and official purposes. In urban areas, around 74,000 people consider English as their mother tongue. Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole is spoken by individuals of Portuguese ancestry, comprising around 3,400 people. Arabic is used by the Muslim community for religious purposes. Another language, spoken rarely in Sri Lanka, is Arwi, a written register of Tamil that utilizes the Arabic script and incorporates significant lexical influences from Arabic.
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