The versatility of the Sinhala language

By Aelian de Silva
Mr. C. A. Chandraprema in his article, in the ‘ISLAND’ of 2001-01-29, divulges a very novel and profound theory to the effect that the Sinhala language was always one which served only the speech of the common man and it was not capable of expressing complex thought. He further points out that for expressing of complex thought Pali was the language used and therefore, we should now consider English as the lingua franca and not Sinhala. Comments on this preposterous statement were expressed by Mr. Leo Panthera in the ‘ISLAND’ of 2001-02-07 under the heading "Bilingualism of the Sinhala folk" and by a correspondent writing under the pseudonym "Hudee Janayalage Yokel" in an article headed "In defence of yokels" which appeared on 2001-02-15 in the ‘ISLAND’. Nonetheless, some important salient points have to pointed out.

Firstly, it must be pointed out that ‘hudee janaya’ in Sinhala does not refer to the common man or the ignorant man but to the learned man and the virtuous man! Be that as it may, for over 2000 years the Sinhala peoples have been successfully engaged, among other things, in Engineering of the highest order. The massive tanks which are interconnected by a network of canals and the numerous dagobas amongst which the Jethavana stupa, built in the 4th century, being the tallest brick structure in the world and the third tallest edifice next to the pyramids one and two at Giza stands as evidence of Sinhala technology through the ages. The English engineer Mr. H. Parker, who was attached to the Sri Lanka irrigation department, mentions in his book Ancient Ceylon the following comment:

" Since about the middle of the last century, open wells called ‘valve-towers’ when they stand clear of the embankment and ‘valve-pits’ when they were in it, have been built at numerous reservoirs in Europe. Their duty is to hold the valves and the lifting gear for working them, by means of which the outward flow of water is regulated or totally stopped. Such also was the function of the bisokotuwa of the Sinhalese engineers: they were the first inventors of the valve-pit, more than 2100 years ago."

The Sinhala term ‘bisokotuwa’ comes from ‘baswanakotuwa = basawkotuwa = bisokotuwa’ it being the contrivance by which the water at the higher level in the reservoir is lowered to the paddy fields located at a lower level. Such technical terms are available in abundance in the Sinhala language in contradistinction to the Pali language, for, it was the Sinhala language that was used for the design and construction of technological inventions.

On the other hand, an unsurpassed achievement of the Sinhala peoples was the wind-powered steel industry created earlier than 300 B.C and which continued till the colonial government was installed. A research document on the relevant archaeological artefacts states as follows:

"Two ancestral Sri Lankan furnace forms show progressive evolution of the ‘frontal’ concept, namely, the third century B.C. Samanalawewa example, and the first century B.C. to third century A.D. examples from Sigiriya....As the data stands, the west facing furnaces seem to represent an independent development with no known parallels in India, the assumed cultural well-spring of Sri Lanka....

It is this Sinhala technology of industrial production of steel, filtering down the ages, which enabled king Rajasinghe the first to manufacture twenty thousand guns and push the Portuguese back into their fortress in Colombo: the Sinhala guns that the Portuguese themselves claimed to be superior to the guns manufactured by them. It was the Sinhala language that was the medium for such technological prowess. Indeed, though the steel manufacturing technology was there from earlier than 300 B.C. the Pali language was introduced only after 270 B.C. Arahat Mahinda wrote his famous commentaries on Buddhism not in Pali but in pure Sinhala. Even if Pali was available at that time, Arahat Mahinda would have had to use the Sinhala script as there is no specific script for writing the Pali language. Today, under the use of English as suggested by Mr. C, we all know the disaster that was our attempt to produce steel. In the face of such evidence can one say that the Sinhala language is not suitable for expressing complex thought and can be used only for the day to discourses of the common man.

It is pertinent to mention that, there were instances where the Sinhala language was not only derided but action taken to wipe out its very existence. For example, the sage Buddhagosa came to Sri Lanka, years after Arahat Mahinda, specifically to translate the Sinhala Commentaries into Pali, as similar commentaries were not available in India. The action taken by Buddhagosa, after translating the Sinhala commentaries into Pali, is described as follows: "Buddhagosa, after that, had the works written by the Thera Mahinda put into a heap in a sacred place near the Great Pagoda and set on fire." This was an attempt at wiping out the Sinhala language.

Thomas Babington Macaulay was a member of the colonial government. As the chairman of its Committee of Public Instruction, issued his famous minute in February 1835. This minute stipulated that:

(1) the languages of the colonial peoples should be replaced with English.

(2) the cultures of the colonial peoples should be replaced with western culture.

(3) the technologies of the colonial peoples should be replaced by western technology.

The unswerving implementation of these edicts did considerable damage to the Sinhala language, culture and technology.

Even so, what are the characteristics of the Sinhala language which make it specially suitable for the expression of modern scientific and technological thought? As far as technical terms are concerned, I refer to Sinhala words and not to the monstrosities pretended to have been derived from Sanskrit. Firstly, the Sinhala words are relatively short: a very desirable feature in a language that is required to express scientific and technological thought. In English, efforts are made to make the terms as short as possible. For instance a phrase such as ‘hydro electricity’ is being abbreviated to ‘hydrel’: the phrase ‘aviation electronics’ is combined to form the word ‘avionics’.

Secondly, the large majority of Sinhala terms have an indicator showing its meaning within the term itself, which among other things is an aid to remember the meaning of the word. Professor Dr. Raguvira, who was responsible for the formation of technical terms in Hindi, refers to this aspect as follows:

"Those boys who read English, and Science through English, even they find it hard to make any sense from scientific terms because a majority of them are derived from or based upon Latin and Greek roots which are not ordinarily used in literary English...."

Take for instance, the term ‘undukapuchchaya’ which is supposed to be the equivalent of the English term ‘appendix’ (a part of the human anatomy). The term ‘undukapuchchaya’ does not give any clue to its meaning. In contradistinction if we were to use a Sinhala term such as ‘upandiya’ where ‘upa’ means secondary and ‘andiya’ meaning ‘attached’, the term itself gives an indication to its meaning namely, the idea of ‘additional attachment’. Also, the term can be used not only to connote the human appendix but also to refer to the appendix of a book, whereas ‘undukapuchchaya’ cannot be used in the context of the book.

Thirdly, and more importantly, the Sinhala language, with its thousands of verbs and nouns and a number of prefixes and suffices, can with permutation and combination produce an infinite number of new words. Therefore, the need to borrow words from other languages does not arise. The keeper of oriental manuscripts and printed books at the British Library, Mr. Martin Links, Ph.D., in his book "Ancient beliefs and modern superstitions" talking of ancient languages, writes as follows: "The most ancient known languages may be said to possess almost an unlimited capacity for word forming which is inherent in the structure of the language." This is certainly true of the Sinhala, which is one of the oldest of languages. Some in this country claim that Sinhala was derived from Sanskrit. This is completely untrue. The Sanskrit Language was created by the grammarians such as Panini in the 4th century B.C.: at which time Sinhala was already in use.

Apart from these features, Sinhala is a language which can be used with ease. It has an unambiguous and rational grammar. For instance, the linguistic gender of Pali words do not coincide with the relevant natural genders respectively. Therefore, the gender of every single Pali word has to be individually memorised. As an example, the Pali word for ‘woman’ is ‘mathugama’. A person will be excused if he expects its gender to be feminine. But, surprisingly enough, its gender is masculine! In contradistinction, in Sinhala, the linguistic gender of its words is largely the same as the relevant natural gender. No special effort has to be expended to identify the linguistic gender of Sinhala words. Also, as in English we do not have to make a special effort to memorise the spelling of Sinhala words.

As far as the use of English in science and technology, as suggested by Mr. C., is concerned, suffice it to produce what Professor, Dr. Raguvir has to say in that regard.

"It is our objective to impart education with the greatest ease and to avoid the huge waste of time that goes on to the imparting of English. It has been estimated that one third of the entire time of our schools and colleges is taken away by the teaching of English. Our boys spend the best part of their lives in acquiring English spellings which know no law, in solving exercises in the use of ‘shall and may, will and would’ and in mastering enumerable vagaries of expression and idiom. English, being far removed from our own country and civilization, taxes our memory and intelligence to an extent which has not been gauged so far by our educationists. The ten years which we spent on the learning of English can be better utilised in the acquiring of knowledge itself."

- The writer is a B.Sc.Eng.(Lond.); C.Eng.;F.I.E.E.(U.K); F.I.E. (S.L.), Chartered Consulting Engineer