Sinhala Language

Evolution of the Sinhala Language  

by Asiff Hussein

The foundation of the Sinhalese nation is traditionally assigned to the 6th century B.C, when the leg endary Prince Vijaya of Singhapura (a city in the Lala Country of North-East India, present-day West Bengal) and his 700 compatriots landed upon the shores of Sri Lanka.
Although this legend, which occurs in the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty known as the ÔMahawansaÕ, is obscured in much myth and fanciful tales, it nevertheless contains a germ of truth. There remains a possibility that great Aryan immigration from Bengal did take place in the 4th or 5th century B.C.
This is borne out by philological evidence which shows that Sinhala, the language of Sinhalese, is ultimately derived from old Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit) through middle Indo-Aryan or Prakrit (whose best representative is Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures).
The Sinhala language is therefore a member of the Aryan family of languages, which is a member of a still larger family of languages known as Indo-European.
The Indo-European family of languages, which is by far the largest and the most widely distributed linguistic group in the world, includes such modern languages as German, French, English, Persian and Hindi. The parent Indo-European speech, which is the source of all these languages is believed to have flourished about 5000 years ago in central or eastern Europe.
By linguistic research, it has been possible to connect a number of Sinhala words to words occuring in European, Iranian and North Indian languages. Such resemblances are however not very apparent due to the profound sound changes they have undergone throughout the centuries. For example, Sinhala hatha (seven) is related not only to the Hindi sat and the Sanskrit Sapta, but also to the Persian haft, French sept, Greek hepta, and Latin septem.
The old Sinhala la and the modern Sinhala hada (heart) are related to the Sanskrit hardayah, but also to the Persian dil, French coeur, German herz, Greek kardia, Gothic hairto and Latin cor. Likewise, the Sinhala duva (daughter) maybe connected to the Sanskrit duhitar, Bengali duhita, Bohemian dugte, German tochter and Persian dokhtar. Unlike other North Indian languages, the evolution of Sinhala from the Prakritic stage (3rd century B.C. – 4th century A.C.) onwards could be traced without much difficulty. The islandÕs numerous cave and rock inscriptions (3rd century B.C. – 12th century A.C.) the Sigiri graffiti (8th-10th centuries) and the earliest extant Sinhala literature (9th century onwards) furnish us with the necessary material to undertake the detailed survey of the language right from its very beginnings. The earlier stages are provided by Pali (a Prakritic language of northern India which flourished during the 3rd and 5th centuries B. C.) and Sanskrit (the language of the Veddhas, written around 1500 B.C.). The evolution of Sinhala from Sanskrit and Prakrit (which is best represented by the conservative Pali) maybe explained on the basis of sound change through specific laws.
For example, in Sanskrit, the sound r takes more prominence, appearing in many words. This is not so in Prakrit (Pali) which has a tendency to eliminate this sound. In turn Pali words possessed a high proportion of double consonants, a feature that was eliminated in Sinhala. This had taken place by the 3rd century B.C. as borne out by the earliest cave inscriptions.
Sanskrit        Pali            Sinhala
karman          kamma       kam  (work)
marga           magga           maga  (path )

Other sound changes include the change of ch to s, which took place during the 8th century A.C. and became regular by the 10th century.

Pali            Sinhala
gachach         gasa (tree)
kuchchi kusa (womb)

The change of p to v which occured between the 1st-2nd centuries A.C.

Pali            Sinhala
rupa            ruva  (form)
papa            pau  (sin)

The change of j to d, which first took place in the 4th century A.C. and became regular by
the 9th century.

Pali            Sinhala
vejja           vedha (physician)
ajja            adha (today)

and the change of t to l, which as the renowned German philologist, Wilhelm Geiger has noted, took place through an intermediate d. This occured sometime between the 6th-10th centuries A.C.

Pali            Sinhala
putavi          polova (earth)
mata            mala (dead)
There also exist a number of other sound changes that characterize Sinhala and distinguish it from its North Indian sister languages. The change of Sanskrit s to h and the latterÕs eventual disappearance is unique to Sinhala amongst Aryan languages, although such changes have occured in other Indo-European languages such as Greek and Armenian. We know from ancient Sinhalese inscriptions that the Sanskrit surya (sun) had become hir by the 9th century and hira by the end of the 12th century. This in turn became the present day ira by the 15th century. Owing to its geographical isolation, Sinhala has also preserved a number of old Aryan archaisms not found in any of the North Indian vernaculars. For example, whereas Sinhala, like Pali, has preserved the initial y of old Indo-Aryan, this has been changed to j in all the modern North Indian languages derived from Sanskrit.
Sanskrit yati (go), Hindi jana, Bengali jay, Sinhala yanna. Some Sinhala words have however died out and been replaced by Pali or Sanskrit. For example, the old sinhala la (heart) occuring the Sigiri graffiti (8th-10 centuries) as la-kol hellambuyun (heart shattering fair damsels) is today extinct and has been replaced by the Pali hada. Similarly, the old Sinhala ag (fire) has been replaced by the Pali gini. The old Sinhala term for horse, as today exists only in compound terms such as as-val (horse-hair), as-hala (stable) and as-govva (horse-keeper) and has been superseded by the Sanskrit ashva.
Such old Sinhala words like dana (people), rada (king), and pungul (person) have to all, intents and purposes ceased to exist, and have been superseded by their respective Sanskrit equivalents, jana, raja and pudgala. But by no means is pure Sinhala or Elu(as it is known in literary circles) confined to Sri Lanka. The speech of the Maldivian islanders, Divehi bas, is in fact a dialect of Sinhala, which branched off from the parent language sometime between the 4th-8th centuries.
Due to its strategic position in the waterways of the east, the Sinhala language has been susceptible to manifold foreign linguistic influences. This has come mainly from Tamil, the Dravidian language spoken by the Tamils of neighbouring South India.
Tamil influence was particularly felt after the 11th century, following the great cholan invasion of the island. Such words as padakkam (medal), kulappu (agitation), kappam (tribute), sellam (play), mattam (level), salli (money), padi (wages), kodi (flag), oppu (proof), ottu (espionage) in common parlance in Sinhala, are infact Tamil loans.
Sinhala has also been considerably influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch and English, the languages of the three colonial powers that came to the island in quest of conquest.
Of these three languages, Portuguese, which was first introduced by the Lusitanian conquistadors during the 16th century, has by far, had the greatest impact on Sinhala.
We find Portuguese words referring to institutions:
Sinhala ispiritale (hospital, from Port. espertal)
iskola (school, from Port. escole)
To household furniture:
almariya (cupboard, Port. almario)
mesa (table, Port. mesa)
To articles of dress:
kamisa (shirt, Port. camisa)
saya (skirt, Port. saia)
To items of food:
pan (bread, Port. pao)
dosi (sweetmeat, Port. doce)
And to professionals:
minidoru (surveyor, Port. medidor)
alugosuwa (executioner, Port. algoz)
Terms of address also became popular. The Sinhala nona (lady), which is corruption of Portuguese dona, to this date denotes mistress and wife. The greatest legacy the Hollanders bestowed upon the country was the Roman-Dutch law, which survives to this day as the common law of the land. Hence we find that a great deal of Sinhala legal terms are borrowed from the Dutch language.
Sinhala advakat (advocate, Dutch. advokaat)
notaris (notary, Dutch. notaris)
English too has had a considerable influence on Sinhala, especially in matters pertaining to government and administration.
Sinhala parlimentu-va (parliament)
departementu-va (department)
Since of late, Sinhala, like Hindi, has freely borrowed Sanskrit words into its vocabulary, thus enriching the language considerably.
Such common words as prema (love), bhasha (language), sundara (beautiful), mahila (lady), svarupa (form), viplava (revolution), trupti (satisfaction), sankalpa (concept) are in fact pure Sanskrit loans.
Words coined from Sanskrit have also found expression in more complex terminology.
For example
stana-nama (place-name)
shila-lipi (rock-inscriptions)
shalya-karma (surgical operations)
bhumi-kampa (earthquake)
All these manifold borrowings have further contributed to making Sinhala, the rich, lucid, mellifluous and highly cultivated language it is today. Robert Knox, an English captive who spent almost 20 years (1660-1679) in the Kandyan highlands, paid a fitting tribute to the Sinhala language and its speakers when he noted in his work ÔA Historical Relation of CeylonÕ, (1681) ÒTheir language is copius, smooth, elegant, courtly, according as the people that speak it are.   @ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka


Asiff Hussein is a Sri Lankan journalist and freelance writer. He is the author of a number of publications in the fields of Ethnology,Sociology and Linguistics. He currently serves as Editorial Director of Sailan Muslim, a Sri Lankan website, overseeing the Finance, Culture & Heritage and Publications pages

Hussein served as a Journalist at the Business Desk of The Sunday Times before joining the Sunday Observer where he served in the Business and Features Desks.He has written many articles on various topics which have been published in newspapers and on the Internet. He has also contributed to Business Today, Explore Sri Lanka, the Souvenirs of the Moors Islamic Cultural Home and Hamdard Islamicus Journal of Studies and Research in Islam. He also served as the editor of Islamic Finance Today, a magazine which promotes ethical interest-free banking and finance.

Hussein holds a B.A. Degree in Social Sciences from the Open University of Sri Lanka, a Post-graduate Diploma in Archaeology from the University of Kelaniya and a Diploma in Journalism from the Aquinas College of Higher Studies, Sri Lanka. He is also among the Sri Lankan Alumni of the International Visitor Leadership Programme organised by the US State Department, having participated in an IVLP Programme on Religion and Social Justice in America on a tour that covered Washington, Huntsville, Birmingham, Santa Fe and San Francisco from June 28 to July 16, 2010.

Hussein is the author of a number of publications including The Lion and the Sword. An Ethnological Study of Sri Lanka. Vols.1 and 2 (2001/2008); The Origins of the Sinhala Language’. A Lexical Reconstruction of Sinhala Vocables to their Earliest Known Proto-Indo-European Forms (2002); Sarandib. An Ethnological Study of the Muslims of Sri Lanka (Feb & July 2007 and September 2011) Ivilly Pevilly. The Gastronome’s Guide to the Culinary History & Heritage of Sri Lanka (2012),Tolerance in Islam (2012) and Caste in Sri Lanka. From Ancient Times to the Present Day (2013) and Zeylanica, a Study of the Peoples and Languages of Sri Lanka (2009). He has also co-authored Memons of Sri Lanka. Men, Memoirs, Milestones with Hameed Kareem (2006) and co-edited The Muslim Heritage of Eastern Sri Lanka with S.H.M. Jameel (2011).

Hussein’s book Sarandib, an Ethnological Study of the Muslims of Sri Lanka is a study of Sri Lankan Muslim society.In 2013 it was in its third expanded edition. It is a collection of scholarly and anecdotal information about the society and culture of the country’s major Muslim groups, the Moors, Malays, Memons and Muslims of Indian origin who though of different ethnic origins, share the common faith of Islam. The work is contains detailed information on aspects like ethnic origins, language, settlements, customs and traditions, dress and ornamentation, culinary fare, medical remedies, names and titles, occupations, social organization, ceremonial observances and religious and folk beliefs.