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Some unique  features of Sinhala Language

by Edward Perera

Sinhalese language belongs to the Indo-Aryan group of languages. The Indo-Aryan group consists of languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Punjabi and Maldivian. These languages share common characteristics and the Indo-Aryan language which is closest to Sinhala is “Divehi” the language of the Maldive Islands, which is written in a script called “Tana”. Tana represents a mixture of both Indic and Semitic traditions. ‘Divehi’ is considered as an offshoot or a sister language of Sinhala. 

As modern European languages trace their ancestry to Greek and Latin, Sinhalese and other Indo-Aryan languages trace their origins to Sanskrit.

Sinhalese, which developed as an island language, has some unique features which are not known in any other Indo-Aryan language. This uniqueness of Sinhala is due to its exposure to other language families of the region such as Dravidian and Malayo-Polynesian. The Tamil language, which belongs to the Dravidian group has influenced the structure and vocabulary of Sinhalese to such an extent that some scholars were erroneously led to believe that Sinhalese belonged to the Dravidian group of languages.

There are many features in Sinhala, particularly in the sound system, which are not found in the neighbouring Aryan or Dravidian languages. These elements are said to have crept in from African or Polynesian languages. The Sinhala language also contains lexical borrowings from Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and English.

Sound System

Sinhalese has 14 vowels sounds, seven of them are short and the other seven are long. Two of these vowels are unique to the language. They are represented as “æ” and “æ:” and not found in Indo-Aryan or Dravidian. The Germans interpret them as a vowel change caused by the umlaut.

There are 26 consonants of which four are prenasalized stops. The prenasalized sounds indicated as mb, ?d, ?d, ?g do not occur in South Asian languages except in Maldivian. They are attributed either to African or Polynesian languages.

The general sentence pattern in Sinhala is subject-object-verb. In literary Sinhala the subject agrees with the verb in gender number and case, whereas in spoken Sinhala there is no agreement between the subject and the verb.

Writing System

Sinhalese is written from left to right. It has no capital letters. The writing system is called syllabic, in other words, the vowels and consonants are not represented as separate units like in the Roman script, but as syllabic units in which the vowel is inherent in the consonant. For instance, the consonant “k” is both “k” and “a” combined. A vowel appears as a separate letter only in the initial position of a word. In other places, it is indicated by adding a vowel stroke to the consonant.

Spoken Sinhalese has 40 sounds that can be represented by the traditional alphabet, except the two central vowels. The alphabet has 18 extra symbols to write words of Sanskrit and Pali origin. The script used in writing Sinhalese is evolved from the ancient Brahmi script used in most Aryan languages, which was introduced to the island in the 3rd century B.C. Around the 6th century,  certain symbols were borrowed from a Dravidian writing system to replace some existing symbols.

The Sinhala script is phonetic, in other words, everything that is written down is pronounced the way it is written.

Books on Sinhala language

1. “Say it in Sinhala” by J.B. Dissanayake ; Colombo, 1992
Lake House Printers & Publishers Ltd.
41, W.A.D. Ramanayaka Mawatha, Colombo 2

2. “Sinhalese, the spoken Idiom” by D. Garusinghe
Max Hueber Verlag Munchen, 1962

3. “Sinhalese : An introductory Course” by C.H.B. Renolds, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1980

4. “Colloquial Sinhalese”, by Fairbanks, Gair and De Silva Cornell University, U.S.A., 1968

5. “An introduction to spoken Sinhalese” , by W.S. Karunatilaka
M.D. Gunasena & Co. Ltd.
217, Olcott Mawatha ; Colombo

1. English-Sinhalese Dictionary by Prof. G.P. Malalasekera.
M.D. Gunasena & Co. Ltd.
217, Olcott Mawatha. Colombo

2. French-Sinhala, Sinhala-French Dictionary by Edward  Perera & Rohan Jawardena. M.D. Gunasena & Co. Ltd.

Sinhala Courses in European Universities
1. School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London.

2. Institut National des langues et civilisations orientales, Université de Paris

Compiled by Edward Perera,  Ph.D.   Sorbonne .
Brussels, 21th October 2000

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka