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The roots of Sinhala


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A Sinhalese slab inscription in the reign of Abha Salamevan.

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An old Sinhalese rock inscription found near Galpaya Rajamaha Vihara.

Linguistics or the study of languages is a particularly interesting subject. It is also a very romantic subject, and the more one gets involved with it, the more one becomes enamoured of it. This is especially so with regard to the origin of words.

Words have evolved with time, passing through various phases before assuming their present form. Sinhala is no exception. That the Sinhala language is an Aryan one and is related to other Indo-Aryan speeches such as Hindi and Bengali is generally well known. Less known, however, is the fact that Sinhala is distantly related to other major languages such as German, French, English, Russian, Persian and Lithuanian. The fact is that Sinhala is not only a member of the Aryan group of languages, but also of a larger linguistic group, the Indo-European family, which includes all the major languages of Europe, Iran and Southern Asia. The parent indo-European speech from which all these languages derive, was evidently spoken somewhere in Europe, probably Southern Russia, over 5000 years ago.

Linguistic research pioneered by nineteenth century German Philologists such as Franz Bopp and August Schleicher has made it possible to connect Sinhala words to words occurring in European, Iranian and North Indian languages. Such resemblances are however not very apparent due to the sound or phonetic changes they have been subjected to throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, many forms could be shown to be connected.

For instance, the Sinhala word hata (seven) could clearly be shown to be related to the Hindi sat, Sanskrit sapta, Greek hepta, Latin septem, French sept and Persian haft.

Similarly, Sinhala du (daughter) could be connected to the Bengali duhita, Sanskrit duhitr, Gothic dauhtar, Persian dokhtar, Dutch dochter and Russian doch.

Sinhala nahaya (nose) could likewise be shown to be related to the Sanskrit nasa, Latin nasus, Russian nos, German nase and Lithuanian nosis.

Closest resemblance

However, it is to Sanskrit, Pali and other modern-day Aryan speeches such as Hindi and Bengali, that Sinhala shows the closest resemblance. This corroborates the story related in the Sinhalese chronicle, the Mahavamsa (5th century A.C.) which traces the origin of the Vijayan or early Sinhalese settlers to the Lala country (West Bengal).

Sinhala has evolved in stages. We have the old Indo-Aryan stage largely represented by the Sanskrit speech introduced by the Aryan invaders of India around 2800-2500 B.C. Then we have the later Middle-Indo-Aryan or Prakritic stage, largely represented by Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures. Thus, Sanskrit and Pali forms may generally be taken as furnishing the early- or proto-types of modern Sinhala forms. These Sinhala forms have not evolved arbitrarily, but have come about as a result of phonetic changes through specific laws.

For instance, the sound r is a common feature in Sanskrit words. Not so in Prakrit which had a tendency to eliminate this sound. The Prakrit forms in turn possessed a high proportion of double consonants, a feature that was eliminated in Sinhala.


maga (path)
hama (skin)

Another major feature of Sinhala is the de-aspiration of the aspirated consonants of Old-and Middle-Indo-Aryan.


geba (womb)
tena (place)

Yet another salient feature is the dropping of the nasals of Old-and Middle-Indo-Aryan.


pas (soil)
geta (knot)

The Sanskritic cluster -ksh- became -chch- in Prakrit which in turn was changed to s in Sinhala. Thus: Sanskrit Pali Sinhala akshi achchi esa (eye) kukshi kuchchi kusa (womb)

The change of ch to s is an extremely common one. The sibilant obtained thus has often been aspirated in the modern language as is borne out by Sinhala words such as handa 'moon' which has evolved from sanda (P.chanda, Skt.chandra) and hatara 'four' which has developed from satara (P.chattaro, Skt.chatvarah).

As for those Sinhala words which have developed from Old- and Middle-Indo Aryan forms containing a sibilant, we find that these too have undergone aspiration in their passage to Sinhala.


himi (master)
heta (sixty)

Yet others have been de-aspirated in modern day speech as is borne out by Sinhala ira 'sun' from hira (P.suriya, Skt.surya) and inguru 'ginger' from hinguru (P.singivera, Skt.shrngavera). The Sanskritic cluster -dy- became -jj- in Prakrit which in turn was changed to -d- in Sinhala.


ada (today)
veda (physician)

The change of j to d is a widespread one as is borne out by such common words as diva 'tongue' (P.jivha, Skt.jihva) and della 'flame' (P.jalita, Skt.jvalita).

Yet another notable phonetic change in Sinhala is the softening of the Old-and Middle-Indo-Aryan p to v in cases where the p is found to occur between vowels.


duva (island)
diviya (leopard)

Among the less common phonetic changes that have taken place in Sinhala may be cited the change g to v as borne out by the form hivala 'jackal' (P.sigala, Skt.shrgala) and that of k to v as borne out by the form danduvama 'punishment' (P.danda-kamma, Skt.danda-karma). Phonetic change

What is however particularly interesting is the fact that place-names and personal names have also been subject to phonetic change. For instance, we find Situlpavuva vihara in the south being described as chitalapavata vihara in inscriptions in situ. The site which is supposed to have been built by King Kakavanna Tissa in the 2nd century B.C is called Chittalapabbata in the Pali Mahawamsa.

As for personal names, an interesting example is seen in the Kumbukveva Pillar inscription of the 10th century. The inscription records a proclamation to the effect that the female attendants of a foot through vessel (pen mindiyan) in the village shall be recruited from among the descendants of the lineage of one Doti (Doti himisura nuvata parapuren).

According to the Mahavamsa, Jotiya was a Nigantha or Jaina monk who lived in Anuradhapura around the 4th century B.C. and for whom King Pandukabhaya built a house near the lower cemetery. An application of the phonetic laws that have characterised the evolution of Sinhala will easily enable us to identify this Doti with the Jotiya of the Mahavamsa.

The appellation nuvata used to describe this personage is in fact the Sinhala equivalant of the Pali nigantha. These few examples will suffice to show the profound influence phonetic change has exerted on the evolution of Sinhala throughout the ages.

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