|Native to||Sri Lanka|
|17.0 million (2012)
3 million L2 speakers (2012)
Official language in
The oldest Sinhalese Prakrit inscriptions found are from the third to second century BCE following the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the oldest extant literary works date from the ninth century. The closest relative of Sinhalese is the Maldivian language.
Sinhalese is of two main varieties – written and spoken. Spoken Sinhalese is easier to learn because it has lost the rigidity and formality of grammar.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 History
- 3 Ecology
- 4 Accents and dialects
- 5 Diglossia
- 6 Writing system
- 7 Phonology
- 8 Morphology
- 9 Syntax
- 10 Semantics
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Bibliography
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
Sinhala (Siṃhāla) is a Sanskrit term; the corresponding Middle Indo-Aryan (Eḷu) word is Sīhala.
The name is a derivation from siṃha, the Sanskrit word for “lion”
Siṃhāla is attested as a Sanskrit name of the island of in the Bhagavata Purana. The name is sometimes glossed as “abode of lions”, and attributed to a supposed former abundance of lions on the island.
According to the chronicle Mahavamsa, written in Pali, Prince Vijaya and his entourage merged with two exotic tribes of ancient India present in Lanka, the Yakkha and Naga peoples. In the following centuries, there was substantial immigration from Eastern India (Kalinga, Magadha) which led to an admixture of features of Eastern Prakrits.
Stages of historical development
The development of the Sinhalese language is divided into four periods:
- Sinhalese Prakrit (until 3rd century CE)
- Proto-Sinhalese (3rd–7th century CE)
- Medieval Sinhalese (7th–12th century CE)
- Modern Sinhalese (12th century – present)
The most important phonetic developments of the Sinhalese language include
- the loss of the aspiration distinction (e.g. kanavā “to eat” corresponds to Sanskrit khādati, Hindi khānā)
- the loss of a vowel length distinction; long vowels in the modern language are due to loanwords (e.g. vibāgaya “exam” < Sanskrit vibhāga) and sandhi, either after elision of Intervocalic consonants (e.g. dānavā “to put” < damanavā) or in originally compound words.
- the simplification of consonant clusters and geminate consonants into geminates and single consonants respectively (e.g. Sanskrit viṣṭā “time” > Sinhalese Prakrit viṭṭa > Modern Sinhalese viṭa)
- development of /j/ to /d/ (e.g. däla “web” corresponds to Sanskrit jāla)
Western vs. Eastern Prakrit features
An example for a Western feature in Sinhalese is the retention of initial /v/ which developed into /b/ in the Eastern languages (e.g. Sanskrit viṃśati “twenty”, Sinhalese visi-, Hindi bīs). An example of an Eastern feature is the ending -e for masculine nominative singular (instead of Western -o) in Sinhalese Prakrit. There are several cases of vocabulary doublets, e.g. the words mässā (“fly”) and mäkkā (“flea”), which both correspond to Sanskrit makṣikā but stem from two regionally different Prakrit words macchiā and makkhikā (as in Pali).
Pre-1815 Sinhalese literature
During the career of Christopher Reynolds as a Sinhalese lecturer at the SOAS, University of London, he extensively researched the Sinhalese language and its pre-1815 literature: the Sri Lankan government awarded him the Sri Lanka Ranjana medal for this. He wrote the 377-page An anthology of Sinhalese literature up to 1815, selected by the UNESCO National Commission of Ceylon
Substratum influence in Sinhalese
According to Geiger, Sinhalese has features that set it apart from other Indo-Aryan languages. Some of the differences can be explained by the substrate influence of the parent stock of the Vedda language. Sinhalese has many words that are only found in Sinhalese, or shared between Sinhalese and Vedda and not etymologically derivable from Middle or Old Indo-Aryan. Common examples are kola for leaf in Sinhalese and Vedda, dola for pig in Vedda and offering in Sinhalese. Other common words are rera for wild duck, and gala for stones (in toponyms used throughout the island). There are also high frequency words denoting body parts in Sinhalese, such as olluva for head, kakula for leg, bella for neck and kalava for thighs, that are derived from pre-Sinhalese languages of Sri Lanka. The author of the oldest Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava, written in the 13th century CE, recognised a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhalese. The grammar lists naramba (to see) and kolamba (fort or harbour) as belonging to an indigenous source. Kolamba is the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.
Influences from neighbouring languages
In addition to many Tamil loanwords, several phonetic and grammatical features present in neighbouring Dravidian languages, setting today’s spoken Sinhalese apart from its Northern Indo-Aryan siblings, bear witness to the close interactions with Dravidian speakers. However, formal Sinhalese is more similar to Pali and medieval Sinhalese. Some of the features that may be traced to Dravidian influence are –
- the distinction between short e, o and long ē, ō
- the loss of aspiration
- left-branching syntax
- the use of the attributive verb of kiyana “to say” as a subordinating conjunction with the meanings “that” and “if”, e.g.:
“I know that it is new.”
“I do not know whether it is new.”
Influences on other languages
Macanese Patois or Macau Creole (known as Patuá to its speakers) is a creole language derived mainly from Malay, Sinhalese, Cantonese, and Portuguese, which was originally spoken by the Macanese people of the Portuguese colony of Macau. It is now spoken by a few families in Macau and in the Macanese diaspora.
The language developed first mainly among the descendants of Portuguese settlers who often married women from Malacca and Sri Lanka rather than from neighbouring China, so the language had strong Malay and Sinhalese influence from the beginning.
Sinhalese shares many features common to other Indo-European languages. Shared vocabulary includes the numbers up to ten.
Accents and dialects
Sinhalese spoken in the Southern Province (Galle, Matara, Hambantota District and (Puttlam)etc.. uses several words that are not found elsewhere in the country; this is also the case for the Central and North-Central Provinces and south-eastern region (Uva Province and the surrounding area). For native speakers all dialects are mutually intelligible, and they might not even realise that the differences are significant.
The language of the Vedda people resembles Sinhalese to a great extent, although it has a large number of words which cannot be traced to another language. The Rodiya use another dialect of Sinhalese. Rodiya used to be a caste in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka no longer recognizes castes.
In Sinhalese there is distinctive diglossia, as in many languages of South Asia. The literary language and the spoken language differ from each other in many aspects. The written language is used for all forms of literary texts but also orally at formal occasions (public speeches, TV and radio news broadcasts, etc.), whereas the spoken language is used as the language of communication in everyday life (see also Sinhala slang and colloquialism). As a rule the literary language uses more Sanskrit-based words.
The situation is analogous to one where Middle or even Old English would be the written language in Great Britain. The children are taught the written language at school almost like a foreign language.
Sinhalese also has diverse slang. Most slang words and terms were regarded as taboo and most were frowned upon as non-scholarly. However, nowadays Sinhalese slang words and terms, even the ones with sexual references, are commonly used among younger Sri Lankans.
The Sinhalese script, Sinhala hodiya, is based on the ancient Brahmi script, as are most Indian scripts. The Sinhalese alphabet is closely related to South Indian Grantha alphabet and Khmer alphabet taken the elements from the related Kadamba alphabet.
The Sinhalese writing system is an abugida, where the consonants are written with letters while the vowels are indicated with diacritics (pilla) on those consonants, unlike English where both consonants and vowels are full letters, or Urdu where vowels need not be written at all. Also, when a diacritic is not used, an “inherent vowel”, either /a/ or /ə/, is understood, depending on the position of the consonant within the word. For example, the letter ක k on its own indicates ka, either /ka/ or /kə/. The various vowels are written කා kā, කැ kä, කෑ kǟ (after the consonant), කි ki, කී kī (above the consonant), කු ku, කූ kū (below the consonant), කෙ ke, කේ kē (before the consonant), කො ko, කෝ kō (surrounding the consonant). There are also a few diacritics for consonants, such as r. For simple /k/ without a vowel, a vowel-cancelling diacritic (virama) called hal kirīma is used: ක් k. Several of these diacritics occur in two forms, which depend on the shape of the consonant letter. Vowels also have independent letters but these are only used at the beginning of words where there is no preceding consonant to add a diacritic to.
The complete alphabet consist of 60 letters, 18 for vowels and 42 for consonants. However, only 57 (16 vowels and 41 consonants) are required for writing colloquial spoken Sinhalese (suddha Sinhala). The rest indicate sounds that have gotten lost in the course of linguistic change, such as the aspirates, are restricted to Sanskrit and Pali loan words.
Sinhalese is written from left to right and the Sinhalese character set (the Sinhalese script) is only used for this one language. The alphabetic sequence is similar to those of other Brahmic scripts:
Sinhalese has so-called prenasalized consonants, or ‘half nasal’ consonants. A short homorganic nasal occurs before a voiced stop,, it is shorter than a sequence of nasal plus stop. The nasal is syllabified with the onset of the following syllable, which means that the moraic weight of the preceding syllable is left unchanged. For example, tam̆ba ‘copper’ contrasts with tamba ‘boil’.
f and ʃ are restricted to loans, typically English or Sanskrit. They are commonly replaced by p and s is colloquial speech.
Long /əː/ is restricted to English loans.
The main features marked on Sinhalese nouns are case, number, definiteness and animacy.
Sinhalese distinguishes several cases. Next to the cross-linguistically rather common nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative, there are also less common cases like the instrumental. The exact number of these cases depends on the exact definition of cases one wishes to employ. For instance, the endings for the animate instrumental and locative cases, atiŋ and laᵑgə, are also independent words meaning “with the hand” and “near” respectively, which is why they are not regarded to be actual case endings by some scholars. Depending on how far an independent word has progressed on a grammaticalisation path, scholars will see it as a case marker or not.
The brackets with most of the vowel length symbols indicate the optional shortening of long vowels in certain unstressed syllables.
|animate sg||inanimate sg||animate pl||inanimate pl|
|INSTR||miniha(ː) atiŋ||poteŋ||minissu(n) atiŋ||potvəliŋ|
|LOC||miniha(ː) laᵑgə||pote(ː)||minissu(n) laᵑgə||potvələ|
In Sinhalese animate nouns, the plural is marked with -o(ː), a long consonant plus -u, or with -la(ː). Most inanimates mark the plural through disfix. Loanwords from English mark the singular with ekə, and do not mark the plural. This can be interpreted as a singulative number.
On the left hand side of the table, plurals are longer than singulars. On the right hand side, it is the other way round, with the exception of paːrə “street”. Note that [+animate] lexemes are mostly in the classes on the left-hand side, while [-animate] lexemes are most often in the classes on the right hand.
The indefinite article is -ek for animates and -ak for inanimates. The indefinite article exists only in the singular, where its absence marks definiteness. In the plural, (in)definiteness does not receive special marking.
Sinhalese distinguishes three conjugation classes.
Spoken Sinhalese does not mark person, number or gender on the verb (literary Sinhalese does). In other words, there is no subject–verb agreement.
|1st class||2nd class||3rd class|
|verb||verbal adjective||verb||verbal adjective||verb||verbal adjective|
|simultaneous||kanə kanə / ka kaa(spoken)||/||arinə arinə / æra æra(spoken)||/||pipenə pipenə/ pipi pipi(spoken)||/|
- Left-branching language (see branching), which means that determining elements are usually put in front of what they determine (see example below).
- An exception to this is formed by statements of quantity which usually stand behind what they define. Example: “the four flowers” translates to මල් හතර /mal hatərə/, literally “flowers four”. On the other hand, it can be argued that the numeral is the head in this construction, and the flowers the modifier, so that a better English rendering would be “a floral foursome”
- SOV (subject–object–verb) word order, common to most left-branching languages.
- As is common in left-branching languages, it has no prepositions, only postpositions (see Adposition). Example: “under the book” translates to පොත යට /potə jaʈə/, literally “book under”.
- Sinhalese has no copula: “I am rich” translates to මම පොහොසත් /mamə poːsat/, literally “I rich”. There are two existential verbs, which are used for locative predications, but these verbs are not used for predications of class-membership or property-assignment, unlike English is.
- There are almost no conjunctions as English that or whether, but only non-finite clauses that are formed by the means of participles and verbal adjectives. Example: “The man who writes books” translates to පොත් ලියන මිනිසා /pot liənə miniha/, literally “books writing man”.
There is a four-way deictic system (which is rare): There are four demonstrative stems (see demonstrative pronouns) මේ /meː/ “here, close to the speaker”, ඕ /oː/ “there, close to the person addressed”, අර /arə/ “there, close to a third person, visible” and ඒ /eː/ “there, close to a third person, not visible”.
Sinhalese is a pro-drop language: Arguments of a sentence can be omitted when they can be inferred from context. This is true for subject—as in Italian, for instance—but also objects and other parts of the sentence can be “dropped” in Sinhalese if they can be inferred. In that sense, Sinhalese can be called a “super pro-drop language”, like Japanese.
Example: The sentence කොහෙද ගියේ [koɦedə ɡie], literally “where went”, can mean “where did I/you/he/she/we… go”.
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- Zubair, Cala Ann (2015). “Sexual violence and the creation of an empowered female voice”. Gender and Language. 9 (2): 279–317. doi:10.1558/genl.v9i2.17909. (Article on the use of slang amongst Sinhalese Raggers.)
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