Sinhala language

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සිංහල siṁhala
Word Sinhala in Yasarath font.svg
RegionSri Lanka
Native speakers
16 million  (2007)[1]
Early forms
  • Sinhala
Vedda (perhaps a creole)
Sinhala alphabet (Brahmic)
Sinhala Braille (Bharati)
Official status
Official language in
 Sri Lanka
Language codes
ISO 639-1si
ISO 639-2sin
ISO 639-3sin
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සිංහල siṁhala
Word Sinhala in Yasarath font.svg
RegionSri Lanka
Native speakers
16 million  (2007)[1]
Early forms
  • Sinhala
Vedda (perhaps a creole)
Sinhala alphabet (Brahmic)
Sinhala Braille (Bharati)
Official status
Official language in
 Sri Lanka
Language codes
ISO 639-1si
ISO 639-2sin
ISO 639-3sin

Sinhala (සිංහල siṁhala [ˈsiŋɦələ]), also known as Sinhalese /sɪnəˈlz/,[3] is the native language of the Sinhalese people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, numbering about 16 million. Sinhala is also spoken, as a second language by other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, totalling about 3 million.[4] It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. Sinhala is one of the official and national languages of Sri Lanka. Sinhala, along with Pali, played a major role in the development of Theravada Buddhist literature.

Sinhala has its own writing system, the Sinhala alphabet, which is a member of the Brahmic family of scripts, and a descendant of the ancient Indian Brahmi script.

The oldest Sinhala Prakrit inscriptions found are from the 3rd to 2nd century BCE following the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka,[5] the oldest existing literary works date from the 9th century CE.The closest relative of Sinhala is the language of the Maldives and Minicoy Island (India), Dhivehi.


Sinhala (Siṃhāla) is a Sanskrit term; the corresponding Middle Indic word is Sīhala; the actual Sinhala term is heḷa or (h)eḷu. The Sanskrit and the Middle Indic words have as their first element (siṃha and sīha) the word "lion" in the respective languages.[6] According to legend, Sinhabahu or Sīhabāhu ("Lion-arms"), was the son of a princess of the Vanga Kingdom and a lion. He killed his father and became king of Vanga. His son, Prince Vijaya, would emigrate from Bengal to Lanka and become the progenitor of the Sinhala people. Taking into account linguistic and mythological evidence, we can assume that the first element of the name of the people means "lion".[7]

As for the second element la, local tradition connects it to the Sanskrit root lā- "to seize",[8] as to translate it "lion-seizer" or "lion-killer", or to Sanskrit loha/Sinhala "blood", to have it mean "lion blood". From a linguistic point of view, however, neither interpretation is convincing, so that we can only safely say that the word Sinhala is somehow connected to a term meaning "lion".


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)[9] which led to an admixture of features of Eastern Prakrits.[citation needed]

Stages of historical development[edit]

The development of the Sinhala language is divided into four periods:

Phonetic development[edit]

The most important phonetic developments of the Sinhala language include

Western vs. Eastern Prakrit features[edit]

An example for a Western feature in Sinhala is the retention of initial /v/ which developed into /b/ in the Eastern languages (e.g. Sanskrit viṃśati "twenty", Sinhala visi-, Hindi bīs). An example of an Eastern feature is the ending -e for masculine nominative singular (instead of Western -o) in Sinhala 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).


Substratum influence in Sinhala[edit]

According to Geiger, Sinhala 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.[10] Sinhala has many words that are only found in Sinhala, or shared between Sinhala and Vedda and not etymologically derivable from Middle or Old Indo-Aryan. Common examples are kola for leaf in Sinhala and Vedda, dola for pig in Vedda and offering in Sinhala. Other common words are rera for wild duck, and gala for stones (in toponyms used throughout the island).[11] There are also high frequency words denoting body parts in Sinhala, such as olluva for head, kakula for leg, bella for neck and kalava for thighs, that are derived from pre-Sinhala languages of Sri Lanka.[12] The author of the oldest Sinhala grammar, Sidatsangarava, written in the 13th century CE, recognized a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhala. The grammar lists naramba (to see) and kolamba (fort or harbor) as belonging to an indigenous source. Kolamba is the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.[13][14]

Affinities to neighbouring languages[edit]

In addition to many Tamil loanwords, several phonetic and grammatical features present in neighbouring Dravidian languages, setting today's spoken Sinhala apart from its Northern Indo-Aryan siblings, bear witness to the close interactions with Dravidian speakers. However, formal Sinhala is more similar to Pali and medieval Sinhala. Some of the features that may be traced to Dravidian influence are


"I know that it is new."


"I do not know whether it is new."

Foreign influences[edit]

As a result of centuries of colonial rule, contemporary Sinhala contains some Portuguese, Dutch and English loanwords.

Influences on other languages[edit]

Macanese language or Macau Creole (known as Patuá to its speakers) is a creole language derived mainly from Malay, Sinhala, Cantonese, and Portuguese, which was originally spoken by the Macanese community 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 neighboring China, so the language had strong Malay and Sinhala influence from the beginning.


Sinhala shares many features common to other Indo-European languages. Shared vocabulary includes the numbers up to ten:

1eka (එක)ēkékaenaunusumunueinsoneununoodinunoviensvienas
2deka (දෙක)dōndváutheoduodoisdoizweitwodeuxdosdvaduedividu
3thuna (තුන)tīntrayastreeatriatrêstreidreithreetroistrestritretrīstrys
4hathara (හතර)cārcatúrtésseraquattuorquatropatruvierfourquatrecuatrochetyrequattročetriketuri
5paha (පහ)pāncpáñcapéntequinquecincocincifünffivecinqcincopyat'cinquepiecipenki
6haya (හය)saṣaṣéxisexseisșasesechssixsixseisshest'seisešišeši
7hatha (හත)sātsaptáeptáseptemseteșaptesiebensevenseptsietesem'setteseptiņiseptyni
8aṭa (අට)āṭaṣṭáuoktóoctooitooptachteighthuitochovosem'ottoastoņiaštuoni
9nawaya (නවය)[note 1]ṇavnávaennéanovemnovenouăneunnineneufnuevedevyat'novedeviņidevyni
10dahaya (දහය)dhadáçathekadecemdezzecezehntendixdiezdesyat'diecidesmitdešimt

Accents and dialects[edit]

Sinhala spoken in the Southern province of Sri Lanka (Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts) uses several words that are not found elsewhere in the country; this is also the case for the Central province, North-Central province and south-eastern part (Uva & the surrounding area). For native speakers all dialects are mutually intelligible, and they might not even realize that the differences are significant.[15]

The language of the Veddah people resembles Sinhala to a great extent, although it has a large number of words which cannot be traced to another language. Rodiya people use another dialect of Sinhala.


In Sinhala 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 most important difference between the two varieties is the lack of inflected verb forms in the spoken language.

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.

Sinhala language also has diverse slang. Most slang were regarded as taboo and most was frowned upon as non-scholarly. However, nowadays Sinhalese slang, even the ones with sexual references are commonly used among younger Sri Lankans.

Writing system[edit]

The Sinhala alphabet, Sinhala hodiya, is based on ancient Brahmi, as are most Indo-Aryan scripts. In design, the Sinhala alphabet is what is called an "abugida" or "alphasyllabary", meaning that consonants are written with letters while 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 no diacritic is 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 , කැ , කෑ (after the consonant), කි ki, කී (above the consonant), කු ku, කූ (below the consonant), කෙ ke, කේ (before the consonant), කො ko, කෝ (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 54 letters, 18 for vowels and 36 for consonants. However, only 36 (12 vowels and 24 consonants) are required for writing colloquial spoken Sinhala (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.

Sinhala is written from left to right and the Sinhala character set (the Sinhala script) is only used for this one language.[citation needed] The alphabetic sequence is similar to those of other Brahmic scripts:

a/ā ä/ǟ i/ī u/ū [ŗ] e/ē [ai] o/ō [au] k [kh] g [g] ṅ c [ch] j [jh] [ñ] ṭ [ṭa] ṭ [ṭh] ḍ [ḍh] ṇ t [th] d [dh] n p [ph] b [bh] m y r l v [ś ṣ] s h ḷ f




Nominal morphology[edit]

The main features marked on Sinhala nouns are case, number, definiteness and animacy.


Sinhala 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 grammaticalization 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 sginanimate sganimate plinanimate pl
INSTRminiha(ː) atiŋpoteŋminissu(n) atiŋpotvəliŋ
LOCminiha(ː) laᵑgəpote(ː)minissu(n) laᵑgəpotvələ

Number marking[edit]

In Sinhala animate nouns, the plural is marked with -o(ː), a long consonant plus -u, or with -la(ː). Most of the inanimates mark the plural by subtractive morphology. Loan words from English mark the singular with ekə, and do not mark the plural. This can be interpreted as singulative.

SGammaːdeviyaːhoraːpothəreddəkanthoːruvəsathiyəbus ekəpaːrə

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.

Indefinite article[edit]

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.

Verbal morphology[edit]

Sinhala distinguishes three conjugation classes. Spoken Sinhala does not mark person, number or gender on the verb (literary Sinhala does). In other words there is no subject–verb agreement.

1st class2nd class3rd class
verbverbal adjectiveverbverbal adjectiveverbverbal adjective
present (future)kanəvaːkanəarinəvaːarinəpipenəvaːpipenə
simultaneouskanə kanə / ka kaa(spoken)/arinə arinə / æra æra(spoken)/pipenə pipenə/ pipi pipi(spoken)/
emphatic formkanneː/arinneː/pipenneː/



There is a four-way deictic system (which is rare): There are four demonstrative stems (see demonstrative pronouns) meː "here, close to the speaker", "there, close to the person addressed", arə "there, close to a third person, visible" and "there, close to a third person, not visible".


Sinhala 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 Sinhala if they can be inferred. In that sense, Sinhala can be called a "super pro-drop language", like Japanese.

Example: The sentence [koɦed̪ə ɡie], literally "where went", can mean "where did I/you/he/she/we... go".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ formal register; the contemporary spoken form is namaya (නමය)


  1. ^ Sinhala at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Sinhala". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ "Census of Population and Housing 2001". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  5. ^ Danesh Jain, George Cardona. Indo-Aryan Languages. Routledge. p. 847. 
  6. ^ Caldwell, Robert (1875). "A comparative grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages". London: Trübner & Co. , pt. 2 p. 86.
  7. ^ Geiger, Wilhelm: Culture of Ceylon in Mediaeval Times. 2nd edition, Stuttgart 1986. ISBN 3-515-04447-7. §21.
  8. ^ Carter, Charles: A Sinhalese-English Dictionary. Reprint, New Delhi 1996. ISBN 81-206-1174-8. p678.
  9. ^ "WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka : Sri Lanka: A Short History of Sinhala Language". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  10. ^ Gair 1998, p. 4
  11. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 230
  12. ^ Indrapala 2007, p. 45
  13. ^ Indrapala 2007, p. 70
  14. ^ Gair 1998, p. 5
  15. ^ "Sinhalese Language". American Language Services. Retrieved 20 August 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]