Posted by: lrrp | November 1, 2004

The Sinhala Language by Haris de Silva

I read with interest my good and long standing friend Dr G Usvatte-Arachchi’s (U) prologue to an obituary on the Sinhala language and an epitaph for it, published in your Midweek Review of 13/10 2004.

Like U, I too am neither a Sinhala scholar nor an astrologer. He is an economist by academic discipline and profession. My academic discipline is history and by profession. an archivist So there is something negatively common between us, although his knowledge of Sinhala language and writings far exceed that of mine. The thoughts that came to my mind on reading U’s contribution which I pen here, is of a historical nature.

If we go by what U has said that a language has to be spoken and used in writing for it to thrive, it certainly has gone from strength to strength going by the number of people, 13 million, who use it today to speak as well as to communicate in writing. As I have already said, I have no competence to judge the quality of the spoken language or of its written form.

Languages are not static. They change with time, and so is the script. One needs special training to read the script as well as well as to understand the language of the 3rd c. BC inscriptions although it’s an early form of Sinhala. The evolution of the script from that of the pre-Christian era, until it got almost stabilized around the 12th c. has been admirably shown in Prof P E E Fernando’s contributions to the University of Ceylon Review (UCR), 1949 and 1950. There, he shows its evolution from the 3rd c. BC to the 15th c. AD. The UCR is now regrettably defunct, although many others have come to take its place.

Similarly, I believe, one has to learn medieval Sinhala or have sannes or commentaries to read and understand the few extant books of the 13th c., like the Amavatura, Dhanrmapradipikava or Muvadevdavata. Commenting on the early gi poetry of the Sinhalese CHBReynolds said ‘The reason why the early poetry disappeared is partly that it was no longer understood.’ (Anthology of Sinhala Literature,1970. p.18) In a way the language of that period must be dead, but Sinhala is not dead. Take another example, English of literary works and the official documents of the medieval period in England. Of that, I am familiar only with the latter which requires special study to read the forms of its writing, and to understand the contents. That discipline of study is known as diplomatics. Some of the expressions then used and many forms of writing in those documents are no longer used. But English is not dead.

Take Greek, a more ancient language than Sinhala. It first came into use in the 8th c. BC, and by the 4th c. BC the Attic dialect became the common language in Greece and its colonies. Greece went under Rome in 146 BC, then under the Byzantine or the Eastern Empire, whose Justinian closed the University of Athens in 529 AD. Later, it came to be battered by the Ottoman Turks from 1460, and was in shambles, when the final resurrection began in the 19th c., yet, the language did not die. Even today, they use the same script, although the phonetics and grammar now used varies from that of classical Greek.

Sinhala too like other languages has acquired many words from Sanskrit, Tamil, Portuguese, Dutch and English. Some of the earliest contributions on that aspect were made by Louis Nell, who showed the accretions from the Portuguese and the Dutch, in his contributions made to the Orientalist of 1888 and 1889. Similarly a recent publication has the Sinhala words in the English language. The number may be few in comparison with the number of English words in the Sinhala language, but nevertheless it is significant. I do not know what Sinhala words have gone into Portuguese and Dutch. Perhaps, the translations of the Gospel will show them, but they will, I presume, be only for the consumption of the Sinhalese.

That reminds me of an amusing incident in 1960 or 1961. I and my Head of the Department were trying to get at the meaning of a word in a Dutch tombo entry made in the 1760’. We looked up every dictionary that was available to us, with no clue as to what it meant. Finally I asked my friend, the legendary Sam Mottau of Nuvara Eliya. He, as usual, laughed to his heart’s content and said, you will not find it in any dictionary, because ‘koite’ is how they wrote the Sinhala word ‘katte’ meaning a long handled garden or pruning knife! That word was used to indicate a tax a particular land-holder had to pay in kind. Once again, it was only for local usage. Incidentally, Mottau’s Glossary of words in official writings of the Dutch, is published in The Sri Lanka Archives, Vol. 3, 1985-86.

The use of Sinhala as a written language greatly increased with the introduction of the printing press by the Dutch in 1736. It was first used to print religious tracts. Later, the Dutch used it to print official notices known as plakaats, in Sinhala and Tamil. Here, I do not say anything on Tamil, because I do not know that language. Something I know is that litigants who needed to read the Tamil tombo entries on palm-leaf made in the late 18th c. in Jaffna had to come with experts in that period language to read them, as the forms of writing in those documents were not intelligible to ordinary literate Tamils. Perhaps, that Tamil may now be dead, but Tamil is not dead.

Coming back to the Sinhala publications, The Ceylon Gove
rnment Gazette from 1802 contain material in Sinhala too. But the earliest Sinhala newspaper was Lankalokaya published in 1860. The following table shows quantity-wise, the growth of the Sinhala publishing industry

[P=Periodicals. Figures for publications given here are not comprehensive ones, as every publication has not got listed in official documents. Similarly the early population figures are not accurate. The number for 2000, is minus the Northern and Eastern provinces, except Amparai Details of newspapers, such as frequency of publication etc..are available in the Blue Books and in the annual Administration Reports of the National Archives]

Now, with a literacy rate of nearly 92% in the country, and the medium of instruction and the official language of administration being Sinhala, I guess it will be most unlikely there will be a decline in the quantity of publications in the future, and hence, in the number of people using the language. That will be an index to its health.

There are few other points on which I wish to say something. Sinhala was used in administration almost from the famous or notorious 24 hour switch-over. In the 60’we used to write at the bottom of an official letter written in English either ‘English translation’ and/or ‘The original in Sinhala will follow’; but it never did! That, as I now recall, was to escape a circular which required offices to maintain statistics of letters sent in English! But with the lapse of time all correspondence and the maintenance of files came to be in Sinhala. The latter was mainly because the clerks -except for a very few- could minute only in Sinhala. The exceptions to correspondence in Sinhala were, and presumably are, the correspondence with foreigners, foreign countries or where a foreign component was/is involved. English as the language of internal administration, by and large, perhaps died a long time back due to the same reasons adduced by U, for the supposed eventual demise of Sinhala

In the 1980’ a retired Government Agent of a provincial kachcheri, handed over to me an official diary kept by him in the traditional form that was maintained up to about the 1930’ It was an extensive diary kept in Sinhala, with very valuable information in it. Since it was handed over sometime after his retirement, and after having had it with him for quite sometime, it couldn’t get listed in the official documents of that kachcheri, and acquire its ‘legal validity’, but it’s available at the Archives and retains its historical value. . What I wish to point out here is that even in the highest strata of administration Sinhala had been in use for quite sometime.

The remarks about ‘international schools’ can be best summarized by the well known aphorism ‘Kolombata kiri apata kakiri’ But it goes beyond that. Today, the word ‘international’ usually prefixed to a school would be more an indication of extortion of fees. How can you have so many ‘international’ schools in a country. Our diplomatic personnel will know how many International Schools there are in the capitals of other countries, where there are thousands of foreign personnel in various walks of life. I believe there must be only a couple of established International Schools in Colombo. Practically all others must be just institutions coaching children of parents who are willing to undergo extortion for some instruction in the English medium or to prepare them for foreign examinations. It’s high time that rules and regulations are laid down by the government for the use of the word ‘international’.in connection with schools or educational institutions

That the children who attend those places jabber in English will be no indication as to what will happen to Sinhala. When the total number of children attending regular schools are taken into account, the ‘international school’ children will be a microscopic minority. Yet, name boards bearing the word ‘international’ now spring up so fast all over the country, and in most unlikely places for such schools, one would wonder from where they get the suitably competent staff to teach in them. That is another question not relevant to the subject under discussion.

Since I mentioned extortion. I must say a few words on a personal experience I had recently. I just walked into one such place located in a well known place in Colombo. My objective was to see what such a place had to offer for a 3 year old child. That place had only cuddly toys for the children to play with; the toilet was perhaps the original built about 60 or 70 years back, with presumably the same commode or perhaps one 30 or 40 years old, and a bidet and a bath of the same vintage. That was for 3 year old children! And the fees: Rs.70,000/- on admission, plus something for a building fund; term fees 14,000/- + 1000/- for other facilities + 10%VAT, all non-refundable under any circumstances. Well, you may figure out what it is, if it is not extortion. Fortunately, I just made inquiries only for curiosity sake.

English in the private sector. Well, the private sector does not mean only establishments like the CTC, JKH the Stock Market and the commercial banks. Here I am on U’s half of the field! The establishments I’ve mentioned and similar ones may be the places which offer attractive remuneration, and need capable, hard-working men and women. At the top level they will need competent people with a knowledge of English and perhaps other languages as well. So will it be in the top rungs of the
public sector. Although the majority of ads seeking personnel for the private sector are in English, where does English come in the middle and the lower levels. All the selling country-wide have to be done in Sinhala, and I guess what such establishments need are smart, intelligent guys, with some knowledge of English, more for internal communication than external.

But, there are also hundreds of thousands in the private sector, some of whom must be earning much more than the city dwellers and communicating perhaps only in Sinhala. Lack of English wouldn’t have bothered them a wee bit. Once again the first category I spoke of is only a small minority, to pause a threat to Sinhala.

Take the highly advertised 40,000 + graduates unemployed or under-employed. Was it due to their lack of English to join the private sector? I would venture to say it must be more due to the government service syndrome which still persists in SL well over 50 years after independence. This government is perpetuating it in spite of high level advice against such recruitment given by their own appointees. History has no evidence for an entrepreneurial class in SL even in the days of the Sinhala monarchy. The 19th century rich were the trail blazers.

And then, English as the medium of instruction from grade 1. Once again I am on U’s half of the field! Well I am no educationist. But, let me also say that there are people of our vintage, who started schooling in the English medium from LKG onwards, as it was the then rule in some schools, and also had to read the Vadan kavi pota, Subhashitaya, the sandesa kavya and similar books at the appropriate age for reading such books, and got a good working knowledge of Sinhala. I presume they also have done well in life. Anyway, the number of people really competent in English, then as well as now was and must be absolutely small, in comparison with the total population.

On the other hand, even in the UK, the knowledge of English of primary grade children is said to be very poor. [Personal communication had from a teacher in the UK] It’s their mother tongue so they speak it. But when it comes to reading and writing they stumble at words like ‘put’ and ‘but’. We can never have ‘total emersion’ jn this country. And, is it necessary? Aren’t there professors who learned English in late secondary school stage, and have excelled nationally and internationally? It’s a matter of application and a will to succeed. Of course, the government or whoever it may be should provide the facilities for such enterprise. Sometimes, theories can wreak havoc.

But it must be said, and emphasized, that without English there can’t be any modern higher education. Our literature does not have the variety of literature and other written works as for instance in Greek or Chinese. We have no long standing tradition of research in any modern sciences or technologies. But we are gaining ground in such areas of study although more in the western tradition. That is inescapable, and it is also at higher levels of education. Only a very small minority will reach those heights. And, for that should we start English at Grade I. That is a question for those who are competent in that field of education. It’s not my forte. But whatever English is learnt or taught at whatever stage, it couldn’t be a threat to Sinhala, for it would still be the mother tongue and the most used medium of at least a 20 million people by 2104.

To end these remarks, let me say, if today we have to learn medieval Sinhala, and have atuvas or sannes to understand the Sinhala of that period, perhaps in the 22nd century one may have to learn the Sinhala of the 20th and 21st centuries to have a proper understanding of the Sinhala of that period. But that will not mean Sinhala is dead. Like Greek or Chinese of greater antiquity than Sinhala, it will also change with the times and prosper, as it has done for the last 2300 years.


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