Entrenching the Sinhala language

by Kamalika Pieris
From the 16th century onwards, the coastal areas of Sri Lanka were influenced, in sequence, by Portuguese, Dutch and English. English became the all-island language of administration in 1815. Therefore, one wonders how the Sinhala language managed to survive the colonial period.

It survived because the Portuguese, Dutch and British were not interested in innihilating it. They gave it a significant place in certain activities, and left it alone at other levels. Therefore during the colonial period, Sinhala was largely left undisturbed, to be nurtured and maintained in the villages and temples, by the villagers, and the Buddhist monks. The colonial rulers were interested only in training a few locals to speak Portuguese, Dutch or English. The rest could speak anything they liked. .

When the British took over the island, in 1815, they recognized Sinhala as the official language of Sri Lanka. Their proclamation was read in English and Sinhala before a gathering of Kandyan chiefs and British officials. It was read again in Sinhala before the lesser aristocracy and only thereafter was the British flag raised in Kandy. (H. Marshall. ‘Ceylon, a general description..’ 1954 p 124-125). The Kandyan chiefs signed the convention in Sinhala, not in Tamil. Only one signature is in Tamil. A copy of the convention is displayed in the Kandy museum so it is not difficult to find this out. Sinhala got a boost in 1822 with the regulation that no British civil servant would be promoted unless he knew either Sinhala or Tamil.


Christian conversion was done in Sinhala. The Raman Catholic missionaries who came with the Portugese, in the 16th century, realized that it was best to preach Catholicism in the indigenous languages. Otherwise no one would convert. The Protestant missionaries who came with the Dutch and the British, followed the same practice. They trained their preachers to preach in Sinhala (and Tamil). They compiled Sinhala dictionaries such as the Sinhala -English Dictionaries by Rev. B. Cough, (1892) and by Rev. Charles Carter (1924). They translated the Bible into Sinhala, composed Sinhala hymns. Christian services were conducted in all three languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English, Therefore, it must be admitted that Christianity too, helped to sustain Sinhala.

Independence was obtained by negotiating with the British in English. But Sinhala was heavily used in the independence and nationalist movements, to wake up nationalist sentiment, and drum up support for independence. In the process, emotional feelings towards Sinhala also developed. The Buddhist movement led by Anagarika Dharmapala was a contributory factor, but the main player in this was the Ceylon National Congress (1919-1946). This Congress established branches islandwide. In 1945, for example, branches were established in Ranna, Ambalantota, Urubokka, Pata Hewahata, Haputale, Morawaka, Thiagoda. They conducted their meetings in Sinhala. The Annual Report for 1941 was issued in Sinhala and English. (Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, ed by M. Roberts, vol 3 p 1826,1874, 1876 footnote, 1912,)

Throughout the British period, the Sinhala-Buddhist urban elite (and some leading Chrisfian families as well) hung on to the Sinhala language, while getting thoroughly westesnized in every other aspect. They attended missionary schools, where they were punished if they spoke in Sinhala. They learnt English, because they could rise only if they knew English. But they did not target their native language. They stuck to it, and in the 1930s or so, they started sending their sons and daughters to the Buddhist temples, to learn the language properly. In those days children obeyed their parents implicitly, so the children jolly well went, whether they wanted to or not - and learnt to respect the language even if they did not learn it.

From 1932 onwards came the cry to make Sinhala (and Tamil) a part of the administrations of the country. Sinhala should he introduced to the civil service and the clerical service. It should be used in the courts of law and at the police stations. The debates of the State Council should be in Sinhala. So in 1943 State Council resolved that the business of State Council be conducted in Sinhala and Tamil. That Sinhalese and Tamil be made compulsory subjects in all public examinations. And in 1946, the Ceylan Civil Service examination, the Generate Clerical Examination, the Police Probationers exam, English Teachers Certificate exam and the Senior School Certificate exam, called for a pass in Sinhala or Tamil. (Report of the Select Committee of State Council an Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages. Sp 22 of 1946 p 6-9)

It would not have been possible to obtain a place for Sinhala, if Sinhala had been left out of the education system. There was always some education going on in the Sinhala medium throughout the colonial period. There were pirivena schools. These were in existence from pre-colonial times, and continued through the colonial period, right up to the present. From 1841, the British provided vernacular schools teaching in Sinhala and Tami1. The Portugese and Dutch too, had given instruction in these two languages.

The 1940s saw the beginning of Sinhala medium education. In 1943, on the unanimous recommendation of the Special Committee on Education, State Council resolved that Sinhalese and Tamil be made the medium of in all schools. (SP 22, 1946, p 8-9). Sinhala did not look back after that. It reached 8th standard in 1956, Ordinary Level in 1958, and Advanced Level in 1960. From 1961, University education was in Swabhasha. The 1956 Commission on Higher Education had pointed out that 92% of the population could not study beyond 8th standard, because rest of the education was in English. That science and other modern subjects could be taught in Sinhala. That Sinhala was not a dead language. (SP 22 of 1946p8-9,SP 10 of 1956 p8,37, 61)

Sinhala became the sole official language of Sri Lanka in 1956 as ‘Sinhala only’. Due to this, Sinhala promptly got modernized. The vocabulary expanded, amidst much controversy and fun. Glossaries committees were set up to provide scientific and technical teens. A Sinhala typewriter keyboard, and a Sinhala shorthand system was devised. America, Russia and China started to teach Sinhala to its foreign service. The Sinhala Dictionary and the Sinhala Encyclopedia, got a temporary shot in the arm. The Hansard recorded proceedings in Sinhala, sign boards on streets had names in Sinhala, Tamil and English. (A good description of all this and more, could be found in ‘ Sinhala: changing bends in status and structure’ by J. B. Dissanayaka published in "Milestones to Independence" Peoples Bank, 1999. P 260-270)

The ‘Sinhala only’ of 1956 is not the awful, backward thing it is presented to be. It was, true ‘self determination’. It was building up over the decades. There were five identifiable groups who called for Sinhala. The farmer, the Sinhala trained teacher, the ayurvedic physician, the Buddhist monk, and the Sinhala urban elite discussed earlier. This elite did not consist exclusively of Buddhists. The Christian elite sensitive to Sinhala culture also supported it. The Sinhala used by the urban elite was, in comparison clumsy and inelegant, hut it is this elite who supplied the necessary political clout. Otherwise ‘Sinhala only’ would not have happened.

It is not necessary to illustrate the support given by all these groups. However let me illustrate the support given by ayurvedic physicians, with just one example. In the 1930s, Newstead College, Negombo wanted Dr. Wimala de Silva to transfer from Sinhala to Latin. Her father, an ayurvedic physician, stated firmly that his daughter could study any subject she chose, but ‘Wimala must not give up Sinhala’. She went on to study English and Sinhala at university.

Let us now fast forward into the present period. Thanks to ‘Sinhala only’ and ‘free education’, we now have a sizeable middle class who are Sinhala speaking and proud of it. Architecture students study in English but converse in Sinhala. Our cricketers call out to each other in Sinhala at test matches. (Sinhala at Lords. Sunday Times Sports Plus.5.11.2000 p 2). The commercial sector is catering to this market segment in Sinhala. There are 4 Sinhala radio channels. Cellular phones offer short message services in Sinhala. English speaking pop singers such as Dalrene, sing in Sinhala. TV programmes like BBC’s ‘Face to face’ carry Sinhala subtitles. ‘The first Sinhala TV cartoon has appeared on Rupavahini.

Sinhala words and Sinhala script are appearing frequently in the English newspapers. Ryp Wan Winkle wrote to chandadayakaya about the avanka, pirisindu, edithara candidates he would be voting for in the December 2001 election. (Sunday Times. 2.12.01 p 10). Advertisers are using Sinhala words in their English advertisements like ‘more katha, more sina’. One telephone firm ran a whole series using Sinhala conversations. (examples could be found in Daily News. 30.1.01 p 7, 16.701 p 15).

There seems to be growing confidence in Sinhala as a contemporary language, which can reflect anything published anywhere. There are Sinhala radio commentaries on everything from politics to fashion to cricket. There are manuals like ‘Cricket huruwa’ and ‘Sinhalen business’. There are periodicals on a range of contemporary subjects such as ‘Neethiya’ and ‘Camera’. Translations are continuing at an accelerated pace. ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Adventures of Tin Tin’ and the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ have been translated. Readers are complaining bitterly that the translations are too literal and fail to give the essence of the original. Translators and publishers could not care less. In addition, the British Council, committed to teaching English, has been running a Sinhala course for the past two years. The information leaflet says it is intended to help enrich the Sri Lankan experience.

The entrenchment of Sinhala culture has no place in this essay, but it may be pertinent to note the belated arrival of Sinhala theatre into English theatre. ‘Last bus eke kathawa’ by Dhananjaya Karunaratne was translated and acted in English by Gihan de Chickera, in August 2001 at the British Council. He stayed with the Sinhala idiom and used local English intonation.

Until recently, there was little emphasis on the influence of Sinhala on the cultures with which it came into contact. The emphasis was on foreign borrowings into Sinhala, such as Tamil, Portugese, Dutch and English. This was intended to reduce the admiration for Sinhala and thus subtly devalue the Sinhala-Buddhist culture of Sri Lanka. All languages are nourished by words from other languages. It is not necessary to make such a fuss about it. Now things are changing. There is considerable published work on the influence of Sinhala on the Divehi language of the Maldives. English took on several words used by its empire: ‘Tourmaline’ I am told, comes from the Sinhala word ‘Thoramalli’. Recently, Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya has researched on Sinhala burrowings in Sri Lanka Portugese Creole. Whenever the Portugese encountered a new object or concept, they used the Sinhala word instead of coining a new world. (Journal Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, vol 44, 1999 p 31-37).