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The origin of Sinhala

Asgar Hussein

(The Sunday Leader ) The fact is that the Sanskrit language in which the vedas were composed, had been in existence in north western India ever since 2000 B.C. This is borne out both by the internal evidence of the Rigveda and the science of comparative philology. The grammarian Panini merely standardised the language.

The origin of the Sinhala language has been the subject of much controversy, and has lately provoked much debate. The Hela Havula movement's claim that Sinhala developed independently on Sri Lankan soil, sans any foreign influences, is not tenable considering the available philological evidence.

Indeed, there hardly exists any modern language that has not evolved from an older source.

It is widely accepted that all modern Indo-Aryan vernaculars including Hindi, Bengali and Sinhala have undergone two main stages before reaching their present state, viz. the old Indo-Aryan stage and the middle Indo-Aryan stage.

The old Indo-Aryan speeches which were spoken in India during 2000-800 B.C. were evidently similar to one another. All these have been conveniently designated as Sanskrit. The term Sanskrit literally means 'refined', 'polished' and was first employed sometime between 7th-4th century B.C. to denote the Old Indo-Aryan speech in contra-distinction to the Prakritic or crude natural speech that evolved from it.

This view has unfortunately not appealed to certain academics. In fact, a well-known linguist, Aelian de Silva has gone so far as to suggest that Sanskrit was 'created' by Rishi Panini around the 4th century B.C.

The fact is that the Sanskrit language in which the vedas were composed, had been in existence in north western India ever since 2000 B.C. This is borne out both by the internal evidence of the Rigveda and the science of comparative philology. The grammarian Panini merely standardised the language.

It cannot be denied that Sinhala is ultimately derived from an old Indo-Aryan speech largely represented by the Sanskrit of the Madya Desha (central India) via a middle Indo-Aryan speech largely represented by Pali. It is therefore not incorrect to employ Sanskrit and Pali terms in representing the prototypes of modern Aryan speeches. For instance, the Hindi Kaam (work) has evolved from the old Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit) karman via the middle Indo-Aryan (pali) kamma. The same could be said of the Sinhala kam as in Kamhala (workshop). Other examples include the Sinhala tena 'place' (Pali, thana, Sanskrit, sthana) the Sinhala mega 'path' (Pali, megga, Sanskrit marga) and the Sinhala eta 'bone' as in eta-sekilla (Pali, atthi, Sanskrit, ashthi).

In fact, epigraphic evidence from Sinhala inscriptions may be cited to show how a language can evolve. For instance, a 4th century Sinhala inscription gives the form chada (moon) which evolved from the pali chanda and the sanskrit chandra, while we find sada occurring in a 15th century inscription. This form in turn became the modern Sinhala handa by aspiration of the 's; and introduction of a semi-nasal before the intervocallic 'd'.

It must however be conceded that Aelian de Silva's attempts at coining a modern Sinhala technological terminology are commendable, for it is imperative today that the younger generation be equipped with a rich scientific vocabulary as they step into the 21st century.

Indeed, his contention that the Sinhala professors are replacing certain elu (pure Sinhala) forms with jaw-breaking Sanskrit terms, is not unreasonable.

He has cited the case of the simple Sinhala eta-sekilla (skeleton) being superceded by the cumbersome sanskrit term ashthipanjaraya. Many young children find such words not only hard to pronounce, but also difficult to remember.

However, at the same time, the Hela Havula's campaign to completely rid the Sinhala vocabulary of Sanskrit terms is also unjustified.

There do exist very many simple sanskrit terms that have been assimilated into the language, such as rupa (form), basha (language), desha (country), dharma (religion), shri (fortune) and sundara (beautiful). Deleting such words which have gained wide currency in everyday usage is impractical. Further, ridding the language of sanskrit loans will deprive it of pleasant sounds such as sha and ja.

Besides, there is nothing wrong in allowing the elu terms and their Sanskritic equivalents to exist side by side in the language as synonyms. The existence of synonymous terms in any given language is an indicator of its richness.

It is imperative that extremist tendencies of any nature should be discouraged. What has made Hindi the rich language it is today is its resistance to extremist moves at linguistic purity.

Indeed, one dreads to think what would have happened to this rich and mellifluous language if the views of the Nagary Pracharini Sabha (which advocated the replacement of perso-Arabic loans with Sanskrit terms) won out. In such as eventuality, Hindi would have been deprived of such common words as asman (sky), dunya (world), zindagi (life), mohabbat (love), dil (heart) and insan (man).

It is high time that the Sinhala scholars got their priorities right and stopped bickering among themselves as to the suitability or unsuitability of sanskritic loans.

What is of more concern today is not the Sanskrit loans that have been assimilated into the language, but rather the usage of English words where native terms will suffice. If this disturbing trend is not arrested, we will probably see the degeneration of Sinhala into a creolized language comprising an English - Sinhala vocabulary.

Although some may dismiss such on eventuality assuming serious proportions, this is in fact now taking place in the urban areas and in a short time may be disbursed to rural regions via media channels.

This is likely to happen since in media dialogues, it is not the literary language that is employed but the colloquial speech.

This could ultimately lead to anglicization of the Sinhala vocabulary to the extent where it could influence literary works.

In fact, this could reach such horrendous proportions that even school text books will have to be revised in favour of English terms. All this will render useless the Hela Havula's painstaking efforts at linguistic purity.

There is nothing wrong in employing English terms to denote modern household conveniences, etc. in a context where the equivalent native terms are cumbersome or do not exist.

However, it is folly when English forms are employed to denote common intimate terms such as boy, girl, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband and wife.

In fact, urban Sinhala is unique in that it remains the only yet uncreolized language where these terms have gained such wide currency.

It is however saddening that Sinhala terms like kolla and kella have assumed a derogatory sense and are deemed unsuitable for polite conversation, especially in urban areas. The more formal pirimi lamaya (boy) and gehenu lamaya (girl) on the other hand are too cumbersome, thereby encouraging the use of the English equivalents. As for the colloquial Sinhala terms mahattaya (husband) and nona (wife), it can be said these are status terms conveying the sense of not only husband and wife, but also master and mistress. This peculiarity has also encouraged usage of the English terms.

One means by which we can rectify this situation is to revive older terms or popularise those already in existence but which have not gained wide currency. Indeed, such a process of linguistic revivalism is not wholly impractical. For example, only a few today know that the common English word 'sibling' is a revived old English term.

Old Sinhala terms could similarly be revived to suit modern usage. For example, kumara (the old sinhala term for boy) could well be revived for usage in polite conservation, while lamissi (girl) which is still used in rural areas, could similarly be employed. The pure Sinhala (elu) terms himiya and biriya could be used for husband and wife. Pemvatha and pemvathiya could be used instead of boyfriend and girlfriend. Such attempts are likely to prove successful, considering the fact that even the term pasala (school) is but a neologism coined by Hela Havula founder Munidasa Cumaratunga.


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