Sinhala belongs to the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. Also described as an Indo-Aryan language and sometimes called Sinhalese, the same name as the people, it was brought to Sri Lanka by the north Indian peoples that settled the island beginning in the fifth century B.C. Because of the relatively geographical isolation of these people from other Indo-Aryan tongues, Sinhala developed in a unique way. It has been strongly influenced by Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. To a lesser extent, it has also been influenced by Sanskrit. It also has borrowed words from Dravidian languages of southern India, mostly Tamil. Sinhalese is written in its own alphabet and script (abugida), which, like other South Indian writing systems, is derived from the ancient Southern Brahmi script. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures”, The Gale Group, Inc. 1999; D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 ]

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 “A Historical Relation of Ceylon’, (1681) Their language is copius, smooth, elegant, courtly, according as the people that speak it are. “

The first written Sinhala texts appeared in the third century B.C. The influence of Dravidian languages gave Sinhala a distinct character around the same time. After that it evolved in isolation from the northern Indian languages that evolved into Hindi and Urdu. Some Dravidian language speakers live in Pakistan and Sri Lanka but most are found in southern India. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Sinhalese and Indo-European Languages

Edward Perera (1898-1982, a Malaysian Sinhalese educator, wrote: Sinhalese language belongs to the Indo-Aryan group of languages. The Indo-Aryan group consists of languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Punjabi and Maldivian. These languages share common characteristics and the Indo-Aryan language which is closest to Sinhala is “Divehi” the language of the Maldive Islands, which is written in a script called “Tana”. Tana represents a mixture of both Indic and Semitic traditions. ‘Divehi’ is considered as an offshoot or a sister language of Sinhala. As modern European languages trace their ancestry to Greek and Latin, Sinhalese and other Indo-Aryan languages trace their origins to Sanskrit.” [Source: Edward Perera, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The Indo-European family of languages 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. Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lankan journalist and freelance writer, wrote: Words have evolved with time, passing through various phases before assuming their present form. Sinhala is no exception. [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

That the Sinhala language is an Aryan one and is related to other Indo-Aryan speeches such as Hindi and Bengali is generally well known. Less known, however, is the fact that Sinhala is distantly related to other major languages such as German, French, English, Russian, Persian and Lithuanian. The fact is that Sinhala is not only a member of the Aryan group of languages, but also of a larger linguistic group, the Indo-European family, which includes all the major languages of Europe, Iran and Southern Asia. The parent indo-European speech from which all these languages derive, was evidently spoken somewhere in Europe, probably Southern Russia, over 5000 years ago.”

Origins of Sinhala Language

The Sinhala language came to Sri Lanka with the original migrants from North India who are traditionally considered to be the founders of the Sinhala nation. They spoke Indo-Aryan vernaculars depending on the areas from which they migrated. The early migrants came from Bengal, Magadha and Kâlinga. The languages in all these areas were variants of Indo-Aryan, not too dissimilar to each other, and it is speculated that Sinhala is an amalgam of these languages. [Sources: "A Short History of Sinhalese Literature" by Newton Pinto (Colombo: M.D.Gunasena, 1954, no longer); "The Sinhalese" by Nandadeva Wijesekera (Colombo: Gunasena, 1990). Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Some scholars think that there was also an early migration from North-Western India from the region corresponding to modern Gujerat, and that the language spoken there, from which modern Gujerati is derived, too may have been blended to form the Sinhala language. Later on it came to be influenced by Pali which is the language in which the Buddhist canonical writings were preserved. The origin of Pali is something of a mystery some scholarly opinion considering it the dialect of the region of Ujjain, but like other Indo-Aryan languages related to Maghadhi which the Buddha would have used in his preaching. Both Sanskrit and Pali appear to have influenced the Sinhalese of the Anuradhapura period (377 B.C. to A.D. 1017. New sounds were added to the language as words were taken into Sinhalese both as derivatives and in the pure form. Verse however remained "Elu" or pure Sinhalese.

Asgar Hussein, a Sri Lankan poet, wrote in the Sunday Leader: The fact is that the Sanskrit language in which the vedas were composed, had been in existence in north western India ever since 2000 B.C. This is borne out both by the internal evidence of the Rigveda and the science of comparative philology. The origin of the Sinhala language has been the subject of much controversy, and has lately provoked much debate. The Hela Havula movement's claim that Sinhala developed independently on Sri Lankan soil, sans any foreign influences, is not tenable considering the available philological evidence. Indeed, there hardly exists any modern language that has not evolved from an older source. [Sources: Asgar Hussein, Sunday Leader Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“It is widely accepted that all modern Indo-Aryan vernaculars including Hindi, Bengali and Sinhala have undergone two main stages before reaching their present state, viz. the old Indo-Aryan stage and the middle Indo-Aryan stage. The old Indo-Aryan speeches which were spoken in India during 2000-800 B.C. were evidently similar to one another. All these have been conveniently designated as Sanskrit. The term Sanskrit literally means 'refined', 'polished' and was first employed sometime between 7th-4th century B.C. to denote the Old Indo-Aryan speech in contra-distinction to the Prakritic or crude natural speech that evolved from it.

“It cannot be denied that Sinhala is ultimately derived from an old Indo-Aryan speech largely represented by the Sanskrit of the Madya Desha (central India) via a middle Indo-Aryan speech largely represented by Pali. It is therefore not incorrect to employ Sanskrit and Pali terms in representing the prototypes of modern Aryan speeches. For instance, the Hindi Kaam (work) has evolved from the old Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit) karman via the middle Indo-Aryan (pali) kamma. The same could be said of the Sinhala kam as in Kamhala (workshop). Other examples include the Sinhala tena 'place' (Pali, thana, Sanskrit, sthana) the Sinhala mega 'path' (Pali, megga, Sanskrit marga) and the Sinhala eta 'bone' as in eta-sekilla (Pali, atthi, Sanskrit, ashthi).”

Earliest Sinhala Writing

The original migrants to Sri Lanka from northern India also brought with them the Brahmi script. The Mahâvamsa says that King Vijaya communicated with kings in India to arrange marriages, etc. and this could only have been done with a commonly understood language and script. The Brahmi script of the early inscriptions had five short vowels (a, i, u, e o), their long versions ( â etc.) and 32 consonants all of which are preserved in the modern sinhala. [Sources: "A Short History of Sinhalese Literature" by Newton Pinto (Colombo: M.D.Gunasena, 1954, no longer); "The Sinhalese" by Nandadeva Wijesekera (Colombo: Gunasena, 1990). Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The earliest examples of Sinhala writing are contained in inscriptions found in caves. Prof. Geiger classes the language of the 2nd Century B.C. up to the 5th Century CE. as the Prakrit age, basing his evidence on the inscriptions. Vowel endings characterize the language. (1, upasaka asaha lene, 2) taladara nagaha puta devaha lene agana anagata catudisa sagasa, Epigraphia Zeylanica)

A later inscription said to have been made by Queen Uttiya (207 - 197 B.C.) reads as follows: damarakita terasa agata anagata catudisa, sagasa anikata sona pitaha bariya, upasita tisaya lene [Cave of Tissâ Anikata Sona's father's wife (gifted) to Thera Dhammarakkhita (and) to Sangha who have come or will come from the four quarters]

In this inscription the similarity to the later (even modern) Sinhala is quite evident. It may, not however, be necessarily inferred that the language of the inscriptions was that spoken or read at this time. The perishable nature of the writing material used, as well as the fewness of the copies of works may also be reckoned as factors that may have caused their disappearance.

Roots of Sinhala in 6,000-Year-Old Proto Indo-European Languages

Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lankan journalist and freelance writer, wrote: “ It would seem surprising to many that the origins of the Sinhala language could be traced back to 6,000 years ago. Surprising but true. Linguistic research pioneered by nineteenth century German linguists like Franz Bopp and August Schleicher have made it possible to connect Sinhala words to words occurring in a good many European, Iranian and Indian languages belonging to what is known as the Indo-European family of languages and to trace them to their earliest forms. [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“This science known as comparative linguistics aims at establishing the close relationship that exists between such languages as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Lithuanian, German, French, English, Russian, Persian, Hindi and Sinhala as well as attempting to reconstruct the parent speech of all these related languages which are believed to have shared a common origin in the distant past.

The close connection between these languages is not very apparent at first glance due to the sound changes they have been subjected to throughout the centuries before assuming their present forms. However a closer examination will reveal that all these languages go back to a parent language which German scholars prefer to call the Ursprache or 'Early Speech'. This Proto- Indo-European language was evidently spoken in Southern Russia around 4500 - 3500 B.C. before its speakers dispersed to the outlying areas of Europe and Asia, taking with them their language, which with time became broken up into dialects, and ultimately distinct languages. The German Linguist August Schleicher was the first scholar to attempt the reconstruction of this Proto-Indo-European language in his epoch-making work, “Compendium der Vergleichenden Grammatik der Indogermanischen” published in 1861. Schleicher's method was simple. What he did was to gather around him many of the then known extinct and extant Indo-European languages from which he deduced how the oldest forms would have sounded like.

Linguistic research pioneered by nineteenth century by Bopp and Schleicher has made it possible to connect Sinhala words to words occurring in European, Iranian and North Indian languages. Such resemblances are however not very apparent due to the sound or phonetic changes they have been subjected to throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, many forms could be shown to be connected. For instance, the Sinhala word hata (seven) could clearly be shown to be related to the Hindi sat, Sanskrit sapta, Greek hepta, Latin septem, French September and Persian haft.

Now let us consider kinship terminology which is another very important aspect of a people's vocabulary. Sinhala mava 'mother' we know derives from the Sanskritic matr. Here too we find cognate forms such as Latin mater, Greek meter, Russian matu, Lithuanian motina, Persian madar, Dutch moeder, French mere and Hindi ma.” Then there’s “terms denoting body parts. Take for instance the Sinhala term data 'tooth' which derives from the Sanskritic danta and is related to such forms as Latin dentis, Lithuanian dantis, French dent, Hindi dat, Dutch tand and German zahn.

Now let us consider some common words which figure in our day to day speech. Take for example the Sinhala term dora 'door' which derives from the Sanskritic dvara and is therefore connected to the Gothic daura, Lithuanian durys, Russian dver and Dutch deur. Also consider the Sinhala term ginna 'fire' which has no doubt derived from the Sanskritic agni and is therefore related to such forms as the Latin ignis, Lithuanian ugnis and Slavonic ogni. Finally, let us take the case of the Sinhala taruva 'star' which we know derives from the Sanskritic str and is related to such forms as the Greek aster, Latin stella, Gothic stairno, German stern, Dutch ster and Persian sitara.

Early Sinhalese and Forms of the Sinhala Language

Asiff Hussein wrote: Sanskrit, Pali and other modern-day Aryan speeches such as Hindi and Bengali shows the closest resemblance to that Sinhala . This corroborates the story related in the Sinhalese chronicle, the Mahavamsa (5th century ) which traces the origin of the Vijayan or early Sinhalese settlers to the Lala country (West Bengal). [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The foundation of the Sinhalese nation is traditionally assigned to the 6th century B.C, when the legendary 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 “Mahawansa’, 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, being an Aryan speech has undergone two significant phases before assuming its present form, viz. the Old-Indo-Aryan stage represented by Sanskrit (C.2000-800 B.C.) and the Middle-Indo-Aryan stage represented by Prakrit(C. 800 B.C.-400) whose best representative is Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures.

Evolution of the Sinhala Language

Asgar Hussein wrote in Sunday Leader: Epigraphic evidence from Sinhala inscriptions may be cited to show how a language can evolve. For instance, a 4th century Sinhala inscription gives the form chada (moon) which evolved from the pali chanda and the Sanskrit chandra, while we find sada occurring in a 15th century inscription. This form in turn became the modern Sinhala handa by aspiration of the 's; and introduction of a semi-nasal before the intervocallic 'd'. [Sources: Asgar Hussein, Sunday Leader Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Asiff Hussein wrote: Unlike other North Indian languages, the evolution of Sinhala from the Prakritic stage (3rd century B.C. - 4th century ) onwards could be traced without much difficulty. The island’s numerous cave and rock inscriptions (3rd century B.C. - 12th century ) 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. [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Sinhala has evolved in stages. We have the old Indo-Aryan stage largely represented by the Sanskrit speech introduced by the Aryan invaders of India around 2800-2500 B.C. Then we have the later Middle-Indo-Aryan or Prakritic stage, largely represented by Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures. Thus, Sanskrit and Pali forms may generally be taken as furnishing the early- or proto-types of modern Sinhala forms. These Sinhala forms have not evolved arbitrarily, but have come about as a result of phonetic changes through specific laws.

For instance, the sound r is a common feature in Sanskrit words. Not so in Prakrit which had a tendency to eliminate this sound. The Prakrit forms in turn possessed a high proportion of double consonants, a feature that was eliminated in Sinhala. Another major feature of Sinhala is the de-aspiration of the aspirated consonants of Old-and Middle-Indo-Aryan. Yet another salient feature is the dropping of the nasals of Old-and Middle-Indo-Aryan.

The Sanskritic cluster -ksh- became -chch- in Prakrit which in turn was changed to s in Sinhala. Thus: Sanskrit Pali Sinhala akshi achchi esa (eye) kukshi kuchchi kusa (womb). The change of ch to s is an extremely common one. The sibilant obtained thus has often been aspirated in the modern language as is borne out by Sinhala words such as handa 'moon' which has evolved from sanda (P.chanda, Skt.chandra) and hatara 'four' which has developed from satara (P.chattaro, Skt.chatvarah). As for those Sinhala words which have developed from Old- and Middle-Indo Aryan forms containing a sibilant, we find that these too have undergone aspiration in their passage to Sinhala.

“Yet others have been de-aspirated in modern day speech as is borne out by Sinhala ira 'sun' from hira (P.suriya, Skt.surya) and inguru 'ginger' from hinguru (P.singivera, Skt.shrngavera). The Sanskritic cluster -dy- became -jj- in Prakrit which in turn was changed to -d- in Sinhala. The change of j to d is a widespread one as is borne out by such common words as diva 'tongue' (P.jivha, Skt.jihva) and della 'flame' (P.jalita, Skt.jvalita).

Yet another notable phonetic change in Sinhala is the softening of the Old-and Middle-Indo-Aryan p to v in cases where the p is found to occur between vowels. 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.

Other sound changes include the change of ch to s, which took place during the 8th century . and became regular by the 10th century. The change of p to v which occured between the 1st-2nd centuries . The change of j to d, which first took place in the 4th century . and became regular by the 9th century. 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 .

Foreign Influences and Evolution of the Sinhala Language

Asiff Hussein wrote: 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 latter’s 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. [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

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.

Portuguese, Dutch and English Influences on Sinhala

Asiff Hussein wrote: 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. [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

We find Portuguese words referring to institutions: 1) Sinhala ispiritale (hospital, from Port. espertal) iskola (school, from Port. escole); 2) To household furniture: almariya (cupboard, Port. almario). mesa (table, Port. mesa); 3) To articles of dress: kamisa (shirt, Port. camisa), saya (skirt, Port. saia); 4) To items of food: pan (bread, Port. pao), dosi (sweetmeat, Port. doce); 5) 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. 1) 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). Works by European writers contain a good deal of information on the Sinhala language as it was understood when the works were written. These include Robert Knox's Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), Rev. B. Clough's Sinhalese-English Dictionary (1892) and H.W. Codrington's Glossary of native, foreign and anglicized words (1924).

Sanskrit Loan Words and Sanskritization of Sinhala

Asiff Hussein wrote: “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) [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

All these manifold borrowings have further contributed to making Sinhala, the rich, lucid, mellifluous and highly cultivated language it is today. Among the Sanskritic loans in modern Sinhala may be included such common terms as praja-tantra (democracy), shalya-karma (surgery), chaya-rupa (photograph), surya-balaya (solar energy), trasta-vadaya (terrorism), harda-spandana (heart-beat), vag-vidya (linguistics) and rupa-vahini (television). Although there can be little doubt that such loans are justifiable and even necessary, one also feels that Sanskritic terms very often tend to be employed unnecessarily even where there exist alternative Helu or pure Sinhala terms which convey the meaning as much as or even better than their Sanskritic equivalents.

Among the Sanskritic loans in modern Sinhala may be included such common terms as praja-tantra (democracy), shalya-karma (surgery), chaya-rupa (photograph), surya-balaya (solar energy), trasta-vadaya (terrorism), harda-spandana (heart-beat), vag-vidya (linguistics) and rupa-vahini (television). Although there can be little doubt that such loans are justifiable and even necessary, one also feels that Sanskritic terms very often tend to be employed unnecessarily even where there exist alternative Helu or pure Sinhala terms which convey the meaning as much as or even better than their Sanskritic equivalents.

This unhealthy trend is especially pronounced in contemporary Sinhala scientific, medical and technological literature including school textbooks where one finds innumerable Sanskritisms being employed even in cases where there exist alternative Sinhala terms. For instance take asthi-panjaraya (skeleton) instead of eta-sekilla, shata-varsha (century) instead of siya-vasa, dirgha-shirsha (dolicocephalic) instead of digu-siras, shila-lekhana (inscription) instead of sel-lipi, patha-shala (school) instead of pasala, arogya-shala (hospital) instead of rohala and karmanta-shala (factory) instead of kam-hala.

One indeed wonders why our academics and educationists should have preferred these complex jaw-breaking Sanskritisms to the far more simpler and pleasant sounding Helu terms, especially when compiling textbooks meant for schoolchildren. Euphony, brevity and practicality have been overlooked by our pundits here in their rush to join the Sanskritic bandwagon which has made rapid inroads into Indian media and academia ever since the 1950s. Not only are these jaw-breaking Sanskritisms hard to pronounce and require more effort, but may also serve to create a bad impression of high Sinhala among youth. Indeed, this is a matter to which our lexicographers should give serious consideration.

Sinhalese Nationalism and the Sinhala Language

The Hela Havula movement is a nationalist group in Sri Lanka intent on purging Sankrit loan words and other foreign words from Sinhala. Asgar Hussein, the poet, wrote in the Sunday Leader: That language constitutes an important aspect of a people's cultural heritage cannot be denied. It represents a good part of a nation's intellectual attainments and reflects to a large extent its weltaanschauung or view of the world. It is therefore not surprising why a nation's intellectuals should be so concerned about preserving their language for posterity, some even to the point of advocating a policy of 'linguistic purity' that seeks to purge the language of all foreign influences. The fact however is that linguistic purity is more often than not a fallacy in most major languages save for a few like Icelandic whose speakers have made a conscious effort to resist external linguistic influences, even in the case of modern-day technological terminology. [Sources: Asgar Hussein,Sunday Leader Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The Hela Havula movement's claim that Sinhala developed independently on Sri Lankan soil, sans any foreign influences, is not tenable considering the available philological evidence. This view has unfortunately not appealed to certain academics. In fact, a well-known linguist, Aelian de Silva has gone so far as to suggest that Sanskrit was 'created' by Rishi Panini around the 4th century B.C.

“It must however be conceded that Aelian de Silva's attempts at coining a modern Sinhala technological terminology are commendable, for it is imperative today that the younger generation be equipped with a rich scientific vocabulary as they step into the 21st century. Indeed, his contention that the Sinhala professors are replacing certain elu (pure Sinhala) forms with jaw-breaking Sanskrit terms, is not unreasonable. He has cited the case of the simple Sinhala eta-sekilla (skeleton) being superceded by the cumbersome Sanskrit term ashthipanjaraya. Many young children find such words not only hard to pronounce, but also difficult to remember.

“However, at the same time, the Hela Havula's campaign to completely rid the Sinhala vocabulary of Sanskrit terms is also unjustified. There do exist very many simple Sanskrit terms that have been assimilated into the language, such as rupa (form), basha (language), desha (country), dharma (religion), shri (fortune) and sundara (beautiful). Deleting such words which have gained wide currency in everyday usage is impractical. Further, ridding the language of Sanskrit loans will deprive it of pleasant sounds such as sha and ja.

“Besides, there is nothing wrong in allowing the elu terms and their Sanskritic equivalents to exist side by side in the language as synonyms. The existence of synonymous terms in any given language is an indicator of its richness. It is imperative that extremist tendencies of any nature should be discouraged. What has made Hindi the rich language it is today is its resistance to extremist moves at linguistic purity. Indeed, one dreads to think what would have happened to this rich and mellifluous language if the views of the Nagary Pracharini Sabha (which advocated the replacement of perso-Arabic loans with Sanskrit terms) won out. In such as eventuality, Hindi would have been deprived of such common words as asman (sky), dunya (world), zindagi (life), mohabbat (love), dil (heart) and insan (man).

There may also be instances where the Helu equivalent of a Sanskritic term used today may have quite a different meaning. For instance, the Helu equivalent of the Sansritic term yantra which is used to refer to a 'machine' is yatura meaning 'key'.

In conclusion, it should be stated that although there exists a need for employing more Helu-based terms in education and academia, even to the extent of coining new ones, due consideration should be given to the brevity and euphony of those Sanskritic terms marked for supersession. Striking a balance between the two is perhaps the best alternative we could think of.

What is of more concern today is not the Sanskrit loans that have been assimilated into the language, but rather the usage of English words where native terms will suffice. If this disturbing trend is not arrested, we will probably see the degeneration of Sinhala into a creolized language comprising an English - Sinhala vocabulary.

Asiff Hussein wrote: It is indeed unfortunate that the linguistic puritan Hela Havula movement which advocates the purging of all Sanskritic loans from Sinhala should have largely confined its activities to prose literature such as novels instead of venturing into the more challenging task of coining scientific terms for Sinhala scholarship. This should certainly be a worthwhile exercise and should receive the support of all persons genuinely interested in the perpetuation of the Sinhala language.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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