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 Post subject: Yaka and Yako
 Post Posted: Thu Dec 25, 2008 6:50 pm 
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‘Yako’ and allied expressions in Sinhala: Some semantic explorations

by Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa
@ Sep 2007


Leonard Woolf, the British Civil Servant who having served as a local administrator in remote areas of the island produced a brilliant novel named "The Village in the Jungle" in 1913, which Kingsley Martin called "a powerful and deeply moving classic for all time". Woolf, a Cambridge graduate, learnt the local languages Sinhala and Tamil during the seven years he worked in "Ceylon." And we find that he had a deep understanding of the nuances of the native languages. Let me quote his use of "yako" in the text of The Village in the Jungle:

Page 162 (I am using Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne’s Edition, published by The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston NY, 2004)

"Where did you get these from yakko? he asked" Here the Korala,a headman of high rank, who had come to the village to inquire into a burglary, is questioning Babun when his servants discovered some of the burgled articles from inside the latter’s house.

Here Woolf adds a footnote to explain to his readers the meaning of the Sinhala word which he has used in the dialogue. He states: "yakko A term used by superiors to inferiors meaning something like ‘fellow."

Page 168 : The magistrate discharges Silindu as there was no evidence against him and the Interpreter tells him "You there, go away." What happens next is described by Woolf as follows: "Silindu, not knowing where he had to go, remained where he was. ‘Cant you hear, yakko?’ shouted the interpreter. ‘Clear out’ . The peon came up and pushed Silindu out on to the verandah"

p.200 : Silindu, having shot dead the village headman and Fernando comes in the night to the Ratemahatmaya, the native officer administering the district and surrenders himself. Silindu is so tired after the long journey by foot that he is seated on the ground.Woolf writes: "The Ratemahatmaya drew in a deep breath of relief.The beating of his heart became quieter. ‘Now, yakko!’ he said in a shrp angry tone, ‘Stand up’ "

The above quotations indicate how appropriately Woolf uses the Sinhala word "yako" in the dialogue. And in each case he knew that it meant something like the English "you fellow" which a superior would use in annoyance when addressing an inferior. Woolf knew that literally "yakka " means "the devil" For example, on p. 114 he writes, "There is also a yakka who who lives in the banian-trees in the jungle over there… This yakka has entered this man, and his life is going out of him."

Let us now examine the non literal usages of "yaka" which is our real concern. In my view nowadays the literal meaning is hardly utilised in employing this word and what we often find is the employment of its euphemistic or the non literal meaning. Professor J.B.Disanayake in his compendium of Sinhala folklore (Sinhala Janavahara) presents us with a rich collection of Sinhala expressions with the word "yaka". I am using his collection and interpretations as well as my own knowledge as a native speaker in the discussion below.

"Yakage kammala wage" (Lit. "Like the workshop of the devil") meaning a place which is in a great mess.

"Yaka bendagatta wage" (Lit. " Like having got the devil tied up") Being fully engaged in an activity without any time to rest.

"Yakunta baya nan sohone geval hadaida?" (Lit. "If one is afraid of the devils will one build houses in the cemetery?") Not being afraid of taking a risk

"Mage yaka avussanda epa" (Lit. "Do not arose my devil" ) Do not make me angry

"Yakata giyawe" (Lit. Let it go to the devil") Let anything happen to it

"Mata yakek kanda badaginiy" (Lit. "I am hungry enough to eat a devil") I am terribly hungry

"Yana yaka koraha bindagena giyawe" (Lit. "Let the departing devil break up the big clay vessel and go away" ) Do not consider the losses incurred in getting rid of an irksome problem

"Eka yakage wedak ne" (Lit. "That indeed is a work of the devil") This an expression of disbelief or of disapproval

"Mekaa yakek ne!" (Lit. "Isnt this fellow a devil!") Admiring a person who has accomplished an extremely difficult task.It needs be kept in mind that each of these expressions has its own speech rhythm and that is a key factor in unravelling its meaning.

Let us now consider our most immediate concern which is the use of the vocative case form "Yako" . Let us take some prominent examples. "Koheda yako giye?" (You devil where did you go?) is an expression of annoyance being made by a superior to an inferior when the latter finally tuns up after the former had been frantically searching for him. "Yako" here means something like "you rascal"

"Palayan yako yanda" ( Lit. "Go away you devil") Although it looks like an angry dismissal, it is often used among social equals (of any rank) during light banter, to mean "I don’t believe you fellow," or "I don’t take you fellow seriously" or "Don’t pretend" Semantically, the use of "yako" here is different from its use in the above expression. Unlike in the earlier case where it is a direct address the addressee here is oblique. It is an address in a lighter vein. Furthermore, the expressions given below are examples of a yet more different use of the vocative form "yako"

"Yako, balapallako" which literally means "Hey devils, look!" is an expression of surprise or disbelief. And there is no addresee here. The speaker is almost talking to himself or to the space.

Ane yako mehema wedak! ( Lit. "Alas devil, a work like this"!) An expression of disapproval/disbelief which again has a similar use of "yako"

Let us now come to the "Ay yako" expression which the Prime Minister used in his Horana speech. As a native speaker I read this sentence as stating emphatically that the suggestion to disarm only one armed group was wrong and unfair.The correct English rendering will be "Why on earth cant people see that the LTTE is also there!" Here as in the other instances given above, the vocative case form "Yako," is used without an addressee. No one is being called a devil. Conversely, if he said "Ay yako Holmes umbata penne nedda…" or even if there was no "Holmes" but only "umbata penne nedda? " it would have meant "Hey (Holmes) cant you see?" But here there is no direct reference to a person. It is a general statement of exasperation about not taking into account the atrocities of the LTTE. And, very importantly, what should be made very clear is that in the Sinhala language today "Ay yako" never is a literal expression. It is an idiomatic/euphemistic one. And the meaning of "yako" as Leonard Woolf very correctly saw many years ago, is "you fellow" not the literal "you devil."

Finally there is a moral in all this. Journalists should not rush into giving interpretations to things which they do not understand properly. If they are not native speakers of Sinhala or Tamil they should try to learn those languages as that Britisher did many years ago in colonial Ceylon. He realised as an honest official that if he was to be dealing with the people of this country it is his duty to know the medium in which the people expressed their thoughts and feelings. Seven years is a short time for mastering a foreign language if we consider the fact that there are people living in this country for years and years not knowing the language they hear all over the place. In my view the English language journalists can take a leaf out of that Britisher’s book if they are serious in being providers of information and makers of opinion in our country.


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