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 Post subject: Semantic changes of Sinhala
 Post Posted: Sun Apr 17, 2005 3:04 am 
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Semantic changes of Sinhala

by Asiff Hussein

Semantics or the study of the meanings of words is perhaps one of the most interesting branches of that great discipline we know as linguistics.

Just as the sounds of words change in a language, so do meanings, depending on the context in which they come to be used. Changes in the environment or culture of a people and association with similar concepts or objects are among the factors primarily responsible for semantic shifts or changes in the meanings of words.

Sinhala, like other languages, has undergone considerable semantic changes since very early times and a study of it would necessarily involve an examination of written records in the language from ancient times to the present day as well as a comparison of Sinhala vocables with their Old Indo-Aryan or Sanskritic and Middle Indo-Aryan or Prakritic prototypes from which they derive.

The Old Indo-Aryan forms are provided by Sanskrit and the Middle Indo-Aryan forms for the most part by Pali, the best recorded of the Prakritic speeches.

We would also be including in our study lithic inscriptions, literary works and Sinhala lexicons of the medieval period as well as works by olden day European writers which contain a good deal of information on the Sinhala language as it was understood then.

These include Robert Knox's Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), Rev. B. Clough's Sinhalese-English Dictionary (1892) and H.W. Codrington's Glossary of native, foreign and anglicized words (1924).

Early times

Semantic change is evident in Sinhala from the earliest times, even before the language came to be established in the island around the middle part of the first millennium B.C. Take for instance, the Sinhala word ganga which is a general term meaning river. However, in Sanskrit and Pali, the term ganga specifically refers to the river Ganges, the general term for river being nadi. Such a usage might indicate that the early speakers of Sinhala hailed from a country watered by the Ganges. Such a term would have no doubt been familiar to the early settlers hailing from the Gangetic plains, and especially the region of the Ganges delta where the many branches of the river would have been known by one and the same name, namely Ganga.

This is supported by the Bengali term for river gang which like the Sinhala term has arisen from ganga, the appellation originally given to the river Ganges and to that river alone. This could be taken as evidence that the early Sinhalese who introduced the Sinhala language to the country C.600-400 B.C. hailed from a region watered by the Ganges, probably the Lala country or West Bengal as clearly stated in the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty, the Mahavamsa, composed by Mahanama around the 5th century B.C. Then consider the Sinhala term gama 'village'.

The Sanskritic term from which it derives seems to have originally meant 'horde', 'multitude' and not village as it is commonly understood today. However this semantic change seems to be fairly old since even in Pali the cognate term gama signifies a village. It is nevertheless a curious fact that the names of certain caste groups among the Sinhalese such as the Govigama and Salagama should have retained the older sense of 'horde' or 'multitude'.

Then take the Sinhala term dola-duka meaning 'pregnancy craving', that is to say, the unusual longings for food experienced by pregnant women which custom demands has to be met at any cost. The first member of this compound term, dola seems to have derived from the Prakritic dohada and Sanskritic dvaihrda which literally means 'two hearts'. It seems to have arisen from the belief that an expectant mother has two hearts, hers and that of her unborn child.

This contention is lent support by the Hindu medical writer Sushruta who in his Sanskrit treatise alludes to a pregnant woman as 'one with two hearts' (dvihrdayam).

Thus we may suppose that the idea of dola-duka or pregnancy craving among the ancients arose from the belief that the unborn child's desires were manifested in the longings for certain foods on the part of the mother and that they had to be satisfied to ensure the well-being of the child.

Later changes

When we compare Sinhala with Sanskrit and Pali, we find that a few sinhala words have undergone semantic changes due to some reason or other. Take for instance, the Sinhala in a 'waist', 'loins' which derives from the Sanskritic shroni and Prakritic soni 'buttocks'. Sinhala kata 'mouth' has its origins in the Sanskritic and Prakritic kantha 'throat', 'neck'. The Sinhala gediya which means 'fruit' has similarly arisen from the Sanskritic and Prakritic genduka meaning 'playing ball'.

Sinhala pulun 'cotton' seems to have arisen from the Sanskritic sphutana 'bursting', 'expanding' through the Prakritic phutana 'blossoming out'. Sinhala goyam 'standing rice' derives from the Sanskritic and Prakritic godhuma 'wheat'.

The shift from wheat to rice cultivation might explain why in Sinhala goyam came to denote rice and not wheat. Divehi, the language of the Maldive Islanders which branched off from Sinhala around the 6th-8th centuries has however managed to retain the older sense since godan in that language means wheat.

Sinhala vada 'torture' has evolved from the Sanskritic vadhya and Prakritic vajjha 'execution'. The term might have assumed its present meaning from the fact that in the olden days - as in Kandyan times - execution was commonly preceded by physical torture, so that with time, the sense of 'execution' would have lost out with the connotation of 'torture' superseding it. The Sinhala dumburu 'brown' very probably derives from the Sanskritic dhumra primarily meaning 'smoke-coloured', hence grey, as well as purple and dark red. Given the wide application of the term, the shift in meaning to 'brown' is not difficult to imagine.

The Sinhala nangi 'younger sister' probably has its origins in the Sanskritic nagnika 'naked woman', 'a girl before menstruation'. Then take the rare Sinhala term hura used in the sense of 'male cousin' in the North Central Province, according to R.W. Ievers' Manual of the North Central Province (1899). The term is evidently connected to the classical Sinhala term suhuru which occurs in the sense of 'brother-in-law' in the 13th century Pujavaliya, and the Prakritic sasura and Sanskritic shvashurya 'brother-in-law'.

The reason for the change probably lies in the Sinhalese practice of cross-cousin marriage where one's cousin also becomes one's brother-in-law. The Sinhala bena 'nephew' or 'son-in-law' which derives from the Prakritic bhagineyya and Sanskritic bhagineya 'sister's son' may be similarly explicable, since in a context where cross-cousin marriage exists, one's sister's son would also become one's 'son-in-law'.

Sinhala terms

Sinhala terms itself have undergone semantic changes with the passage of time. Take for instance, pansala which today refers to a Buddhist temple or residence of Buddhist monks. The term literally means 'leaf-hall' and evidently denoted the abodes of Buddhist monks who formerly lived as ascetics in the woods and constructed houses from the boughs of trees, bent and interwoven so as to form a shelter. Similarly, the term Hamuduruva used to address a Buddhist monk literally means 'offspring of lords' though it today conveys the sense of 'honoured Sir'.

A Vessagiri inscription assigned to Mahinda IV (10th century) provides us with the older form sam-daruvan which was used in the sense of 'children or descendants of lords'. Hence the expression rad-kol-sam-daruvan 'Children or descendants of lords of royal lineage'.

The term was also commonly applied to the members of the Govigama caste and especially to the members of its upper rungs known as the Radala. Knox refers to the members of the Govigama caste as 'Hondrews'. Rajakariya which today signifies 'duty' formerly denoted compulsory service to the King or state, which in feudal Kandyan times was exacted from the land-holding populace by participation in military campaigns and manual labour. The Sinhala holmana which is today understood in the sense of 'ghost' formerly meant 'unusual noise'.

For instance, Clough gives solmana as 'any ominous sound, sound heard in the dead of the night, supposed to be the roaming of demons or hobgoblins'. The term may have assumed the intermediate sense of 'poltergeist' before coming to mean 'ghost' in general. The modern Sinhala term for water, vatura, in former times meant 'flood' or 'continuous flow of water' as evident in such medieval Sinhala lexicons as the Namavaliya, Ruvanmala and Piyummala. Indeed, the Amavatura of Gurulugomi (13th century) which contains a number of stories meant for the edification of the Buddhist laity literally means 'Flood of Ambrosia'. It may be that the term vatura came to be applied as a general term for water through the influence of the Dutch water (pronounced waa-tar). The older term for water in Sinhala was pen which in Divehi survives as fen.

The modern Sinhala term for 'mile' setapum formerly meant 'rest', 'repose'. Setepma which has given rise to the colloquial term for mile, hetepma meant 'the distance at which a cooly rests, a mile' (Clough). Another interesting term is kanatta 'cemetery' which until fairly recently meant 'elevated ground' or 'anandoned chena'.

For instance, Clough gives kanatta as 'elevated ground, hilly ground, field (with a little jungle)'. Codrington gives kanatta as 'a chena on which the jungle has just begun to grow after abandonment of cultivation'. To this day, in the Sinhala dialect of Vevgam Pattu, kanatta is said to refer to an abandoned chena (Janavahara. S. Wijesuriya 1997). Yet another interesting example is seen in pappa which is today applied to a thick glue made of flour and water and used to paste posters. The term formerly meant 'child's food or food prepared for infants' (Clough).


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 Post Posted: Sat Apr 30, 2005 2:20 pm 
P.S

It would be interesting to untertake a semantic study of a small but high-frquency segment of the Sinhalese vocabulary,especially words for parts of the body and the like:e.g bada "belly", bella "neck," oluva "head", kakula "leg", kalava" thigh", which cannot be traced to Sanskrit or Tamil.
No serious inquiry has been made into these so-called indigenous words.[/b]


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 Post subject:
 Post Posted: Sat Apr 30, 2005 2:23 pm 
P.S

It would be interesting to untertake a semantic study of a small but high-frquency segment of the Sinhalese vocabulary,especially words for parts of the body and the like:e.g bada "belly", bella "neck," oluva "head", kakula "leg", kalava" thigh", which cannot be traced to Sanskrit or Tamil.
No serious inquiry has been made into these so-called indigenous words.[/b]


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