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Vedda language: Distinct speech or dialect of Sinhala?


The language of the Veddas has aroused much debate in learned circles ever since the early twentieth century when detailed records of their speech were being published in works such as the Seligmanns' Veddas (1911) and Wilhelm Geiger's Der Sprache der Vaddas (1914). Other important works of more recent times include Piyasena Kahandagamage's Bintenne Vitti (1988) where a comprehensive vocabulary of over 1000 words employed by the village Veddafolk of Bintenna has been provided and E.M. Ratnapala's Lankave Veddo (1996) who has likewise provided a sizeable Vedda vocabulary.

Ratnapala's work is particularly interesting as it contains a lengthy conversation in the Vedda tongue he had with the Vedda chief of Dambana, Tisahami on Vedda language, customs and economy.

Vedda speech

Our interest in the Vedda language was aroused recently when we met Vedda chieftain Uruvarige Vanniyalaetto, son of Tisahami at Kataragama following the culmination of the Esala festival there. During the course of an interview with him on their problems, numbers etc we were fortunately able to gather some specimens of Vedda speech which we reproduce below for the benefit of our readers.

Responding to a question on the Vedda population in the Dambane area, he had this to say: Me ettanne e gampojje tibenava. Kotabakiniyapor gampojja, Dambanapor gampojja, Vatiyayapor gampojja, Kurukumburapor gampojja, gampojjaval hataramak tibenava.

E gampojjaval hataramema me pavul pojjaval tibenava. Siya pojja tunamayi panahamak. Miniggejjo mando karagattot dahaya pojje ekamayi siya pojje atamayi baga tenai kala pojja. E hema ekamekma kele pojjen tamayi raksa pojja mandovenne. Kelepojjata mangochchena kodoyi kiyala tahanam pojja mandovenne me parampara pojjeta anga pojjak kodovenava. Miniggajju raksa pojjaval tibenna one. Andu pojje raksapojjaval kodoyi. Goviten pojja mando karaganna, dadayam pojja mando karaganna, kele pojja mangachchanna, evage tibenna kodovunot minigajjunta vena mona ekak kara tibenna one.

An average Sinhala speaker we presume would be able to understand this passage without much difficulty if he takes into consideration the following expressions peculiar to Vedda speech.

For instance me etto 'us'(lit.these people) which commonly occurs in their speech. Similar expressions include Vanniyaletto or 'Those of the forest', the name by which the Veddas term themselves, appiletto 'father' and ammiletto 'mother'. Then there is the distinct Vedda form pojja which is very commonly suffixed to nouns. This form which is supposed to derive from the Sinhala podda 'little bit' occurs in a number of expressions in the sense of 'thing', 'object' or 'heap'. For instance, gampojja 'village', kelepojja 'forest', varigapojja 'lineage' and dadayampojja 'hunting'.

Although these are easy to make out due to their obvious Sinhala loans there are others like pana-pojja 'moon' (lit.lamp-thing) and gini-pojja 'star' (lit.fire-thing) which require more caution. However even these have their more Sinhalized substitutes such as taru-pojja for 'star'. There is also the use of miniggajju for 'men' or 'people' which has evidently derived from the Sinhala minissu and the peculiar suffix-por attached to village names which may be a corruption of the Sanskritic pura 'city' also commonly used in Sinhala. Besides these, there are some peculiar usages such as kodoyi 'no','not', mangachchanna 'to go' and mando-karanna 'to do', to engage in', 'to add or include'.

Taking these usages into consideration, we would not find much difficulty in understanding what Uruvarige Vanniyaletto is telling us. He is telling us that the Veddas have four villages, namely, Kotabakiniya, Dambana, Vatiyaya and Kurukumbura. In these villages are 350 families and 1800 odd individuals. All of them subsist on the forest. By prohibiting them from going into the forest, this generation is losing something very important. People must have jobs. There are no jobs in the government. If they are not able to farm, to hunt or go into the forest, people must have something else to do.

Sinhala influence

Vedda speech it is evident has been subjected to considerable Sinhala influence. What may seem to be distinct Vedda words may actually be corrupt Sinhala. For instance, the Vedda term for 'fish' diyamachcha most probably has its origins in an old Sinhala term for fish diyamas occurring in a tenth century work on monastic discipline known as Sikhavalanda.

The change of Sinhala s to ch is attested in a number of Vedda words such as icha for Sinhala isa or hisa 'head'. The reason is obvious. The old Vedda speech in common with other primitive tongues belonging to the Austro-Asiatic, Dravidian and Negrito groups possessed no sibilants or s sounds and so had to substitute the palatal ch in its stead when borrowing from Sinhala. This feature is very common in the Vedda language. Take for instance an expression like miniggajjunta ichchata pachchata mangachchanna kodoyi which is good Vedda for the Sinhala minissunta issarahata passata yanna behe (People cannot go forwards or backwards).

Other notable phonetic changes include the change of Sinhala retroflex t into ch such as for instance in Vedda acha 'bone' (Sinh.eta) and hochcha-dikka 'boar' (Sinh.hota-diga-eka). Other notable changes include that of Sinhala -tiy- to Vedda -chch- and Sinhala -diy- to Vedda -jj-. This could be seen in such forms as pechcha 'little one' (Sinh.petiya) and gejja as in kiri-gejja 'coconut' (Sinh.gediya). Vedda speech is also characterised by a high degree of periphrasis where two or more words of Sinhala origin are used to construct a noun or verb.

For instance, la-gecha 'breast' (lit.heart-house), kiri-ula 'paps' (lit.milk-point) and diya-gama 'river' (lit.water flow). More complex forms include olu-gediya-kaneka 'louse' (lit. one who eats the head) and hochcha-dikka 'boar' (Probably a corruption of the Sinhala hota-diga-eka or 'long-snouted one').

Aboriginal folk

Although it is likely that the Veddas being an aboriginal,pre-Aryan people formerly had a language peculiar to themselves, it would appear that today this has been largely superseded by Sinhala, the speech of the Aryan settlers from Bengal who arrived in the country about the 5th century B.C.

In fact, remnants of the ancient Vedda speech seem to have survived in such Vedda words as tuta 'son', tuti 'daughter', kukka 'dog', kokka 'monkey', dola 'pig', okma 'buffalo', munda 'monitor lizard', limba 'mouse deer', tomba 'snail', bokki 'yam' and moru 'fungus'.

However, given the considerable influence Sinhala has exerted on Vedda speech, both lexically and grammatically, there are those who believe the modern-day Vedda language to be a mere dialect of Sinhala. This is not something new.

In fact, Robert Knox, an English captive in the Kandyan kingdom has recorded in his Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681) that the Veddas of his time spoke the 'Chingulayes language', that is Sinhala.

All this would suggest that the Vedda language of today approaches a sort of dialect of Sinhala though it preserves certain forms which may constitute the original speech of their ancestors. (@ Sunday Observer)

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