Everything else.. Origins of the Sinhala Language: a Tale that Spans Millennia

Origins of the Sinhala Language: a Tale that Spans Millennia

2020 Sep 8

Sinhalese is a dynamic language endowed with a rich and colourful history. But, it has remained hidden from the gaze of many of us. So what really is the story of Sinhalese? I had a nagging desire to explore…

A member of the Indo-Aryan sub-group, within the Indo-European language family, Sinhalese is one of Sri Lanka’s official languages. It is used by over 16 million people as their first language. And another 4 million people speak Sinhalese as their second language.

In a discussion I had with Prof. M. A. Nimal Karunaratne of the University of Kelaniya, I became aware that Sinhalese, in its original form, was known as ‘Hela Basa’.  It then melded primarily with two sources; Sanskrit, and Prakrit, of which the best representation may be found in Pali. It is also intimately connected to the Dravidian linguistic family. 

As Sri Lanka was geographically separated from the rest of the Indian subcontinent, Sinhalese evolved differently from other Indo-Aryan languages. As an island language, Sinhalese sports a number of features that render it especially intriguing to the scholar of South Asian languages and their linguistic history.

Professor Geiger, in 1938, distinguishes four eras of the evolution of the Sinhala language:

Sinhala Prakrit (2nd century BCE – 5th century CE)

Proto-Sinhala (5th century CE – 8th century CE)

Medieval Sinhala (8th century CE – 13th century CE)

Modern Sinhala (13th century CE – 20th century CE)

Origins of the Sinhala language

The ‘Mahavamsa’ narrates that the Indian Prince Vijaya and his followers arrived in Sri Lanka in the 6th century BCE. The son of Singhabahu, prince Vijaya is believed to be the founder of the Sinhala race. It was him and his followers who introduced the Sinhala language to our island.

According to a research paper I stumbled upon, published by Prof. Sandagomi Coperahewa of the University of Colombo, the location of prince Vijaya’s original home, Singhapura, which translates to ‘Lion City’, remains a mystery. While some scholars identify his home as a region in Gujarat and conclude that he and his company came from Western India, other scholars identify this as a region in West Bengal and conclude that they arrived from Eastern India.

Referred to as the ‘Eastern and Western hypotheses’, these provide linguistic evidence of the similarities between old Sinhalese and the languages of North India.

There is also a strong belief that the location of Singhapura was Kalinga, now known as Oshida, the language of which is ‘Odia’. During the Polonnaruwa period (12th century CE), a rock inscription made by King Nissankamalla claims that he is of the Kalinga dynasty and a descendant of the race of Prince Vijaya. It is believed that his origins can be traced to Singhapura.

Sinhalese script
The first migrants from Singhapura brought to our island the Brahmi script. The Mahavamsa chronicles that King Vijaya communicated with Indian kings to arrange marriages, among other things. This substantiates the use of a common language and script between the nations.

More research into Sinhalese script led me to the news of an exciting discovery; recent excavations in the Inner City of Anuradhapura have unearthed conclusive evidence that we possessed a writing script as far back as the 6th century BCE!

Prior to this evidence being discovered, historians had discovered rock carvings that were believed to showcase the first use of Sinhalese. These carvings only dated back to the 2nd century BCE. It is based on these inscriptions that Professor Geiger has classed the language of the 2nd century BCE up to the 5th Century CE as the Prakrit age. Vowel endings characterise this incarnation of the language.

“upasaka asaha lene

taladara nagaha puta devaha lene agana anagata catudisa sagasa”

(Epigraphia Zeylanica)

This refers to the names and donors of caves. A later inscription made by Queen Uttiya (207 – 197 BCE) reads:

“damarakita terasa agata anagata catudisa

sagasa anikata sona pitaha bariya

upasita tisaya lene”

The translation of which is, “cave of Tissa Anikata Sona’s father’s wife [gifted] to Thera Dhammarakkhita [and] to Sangha who have come or will come from the four quarters.” These writings bear a stunning resemblance to the later, and even modern, Sinhalese. However, according to Britannica, it was around 1250 that the literary Sinhalese language that has continued unto today was established.

Connection with other languages of the world

Nestled in a geographically significant location on the world map, Sri Lanka has remained a melting pot of diverse influences, and the Sinhala language has been no exception. It has evolved substantially with the amalgamation of foreign languages.

As we see below, constant exposure to the wide belt of Dravidian languages in South India, among which is Tamil, has enriched the everyday Sinhala language with a plethora of loanwords.

As Sanskrit shares a common ancestor language with Greek and Latin, a fascinating similarity could also be observed between Sinhalese and Romance languages.

Moreover, the impact of colonisation on the language is unmistakable, and Portuguese, Dutch and English words have become an integral aspect of everyday Sinhalese.

 

Sinhala literature

Sinhalese has seeped into myriad forms of literature that have augmented the flavour of the language. 

As I discovered, ‘Siyabaslakara’ is the earliest extant volume of poetry found in Sri Lanka. It dates back to the 9th century BC, and is a work of king Shilamegasena. It closely follows the ‘Kaavyadarsa’ written by the Sanskrit poet Daadin. As academics emphasise, a writing of this calibre could not have been composed without exposure to the works of virtuoso poets before him. 

Another literary tradition that caught my attention began with the translation of the Pali commentaries into Sinhalese. These came to be known as ‘Helatuvā’, or ‘Sinhala commentaries’. These translations remain a monumental contribution to knowledge and culture.

Our literature also took the fashion of historical records. ‘Mahavaṃsa’ (meaning the ‘Great Chronicle’) and ‘Cūlavaṃsa’ (meaning the ‘Lesser Chronicle’) are the epitome of this form of literature.

Alongside this, the Anuradhapura period witnessed the blossoming of another peculiar form of literature. Referred to as ‘Kurutu Gee’, this genre comprises hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of poetry and prose. Scrawled by ancient travellers who visited Sigiriya, on the ‘mirror wall’, known in the vernacular as the ‘Kadapath Pawura’, these works encapsulate their ponderings and experiences, as well as their admiration of the Sigiri frescoes. One romantic scribbling reads:

“as mî dun hasun – hasun seyin vil duta

mulâlama sänahî – pul puyuman seyi bamara duta”

This translates to, “like swans who have seen a lake, I listened to the message given (by her), like a bee who has seen full-blown lotuses, the bewildered heart of mine was consoled.”

Modern era Sinhala language

Researching the history of Sinhalese inevitably made me stop and question, so what makes the modern-day Sinhala language unique? This made me uncover a few integral features that mould our language into what it is.

Traditional Sinhala language, known as ‘Shuddha Sinhala’ or ‘Elu Hodiya’, consists of 14 vowel sounds, seven of which are short sounds and seven are prolonged. Among them are two unique vowels that are not found in any other Indo-Aryan or Dravidian languages. Of the 26 consonants included in traditional Sinhalese, four are prenasalised consonants. Neither are these four sounds found in any other South Asian language, with the exception of Maldivian, which intriguingly is a dialect of Sinhalese. 

In addition to the letters of the Elu Hodiya, the modern Sinhalese script incorporates ‘Mishra Sinhala’, meaning ‘mixed Sinhala’, which encompasses another 18 characters. These letters are used to write words of Sanskrit and Pali origin. 

A phonetic language, in Sinhalese, each sound has a direct correspondence with a specific letter of the alphabet. Sinhalese alphabet is also an ‘abugida’; this means that its consonants are pronounced with an inherent vowel sound.

When compared to English, which follows a subject-verb-object sentence structure, Sinhala language follows a pattern of subject-object-verb. Adding more colour to the language, Sinhalese has progressed as two concurrent versions; colloquial or everyday Sinhalese and the literary language. Clearly distinguishable differences exist in grammar as well as vocabulary between these two variants.

As Sinhalese is inextricably interwoven to the identity of our nation, we invite you to explore the depth and breadth of this magnificent language and the captivating stories surrounding its origins and evolution.