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About Sinhalese Language

Sinhala (සිංහල, ISO 15919: siṁhala, pronounced [ˈsiŋɦələ], sometimes referred by alternative spelling Singhalese) and also known as Helabasa is the native language of the island Sri Lanka, and the language of the Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group of Sri Lanka. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages.

Sinhala is the mother tongue of about the 15 million Sinhalese totalling about 19 million, and is spoken by other groups in Sri Lanka as a second language. It is one of the official languages of Sri Lanka, along with Tamil and English. Sinhala has its own writing system (see Sinhala alphabet) which is an offspring of the Indian Brahmi script.

The oldest Sinhala inscriptions found are from the 3rd or 2nd centuries BCE; the oldest existing literary works date from the 9th century CE.

The closest relative of Sinhala is the language of the Maldives, Dhivehi.


Sinhala is actually a Sanskrit term; the corresponding Middle Indic word is Sīhala; the actual Sinhala term is Hela (also Elu, Helu). The Sanskrit and the Middle Indic words have as their first element (siṃha and sīha) the word "lion" in the respective languages.


In the pre-historic period the island was mainly inhabited by indigenous Hela people known as Yakka & Naga people who spoke Elu language (An ancient form of Sinhala). About the 5th century BCE, settlers from North-Eastern India reached the island of Sri Lanka. This group of settlers is referred to as prince Vijaya and his entourage in the chronicle Mahavamsa. These new settlers merged with the native Hela tribes known as Yakka, Naga and a new nation called Sinhala came to exist. In the following centuries, there was substantial immigration from Eastern India-Bengal (Kalinga, Magadha) which led to an admixture of features of Eastern Prakrits.

Stages of historical development

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

  • Sinhala Prakrit (until 3rd century CE)
  • Proto-Sinhala (3rd - 7th century CE)
  • Medieval Sinhala (7th - 12th century CE)
  • Modern Sinhala (12th century - present)

Phonetic development

The most important phonetic developments of the Sinhala language include:

  • the loss of the aspiration distinction in stops (e.g. kanavā "to eat" corresponds to Sanskrit khādati, Hindi khānā)
  • the shortening of all long vowels (compare example above) [Long vowels in the modern language are due to borrowings (e.g. vibāgaya "exam" < Sanskrit vibhāga) and sandhi phenomena 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 or single consonants respectively (e.g. Sanskrit viṣṭā "time" > Sinhala Prakrit viṭṭa > Modern Sinhala 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 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).

Sri Lankan Politics

In 1956 Sinhala replaced English as the national language. This has historically been viewed by academics as a key point in the development of ethnic discontent between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. It was implemented by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party as one of its first acts in government and was perceived by the Tamils as a part of a strategy of placing "Sinhalese culture, language, and religion (Buddhism) to a position of dominance in the society." (Baxter, 2002, p.354).


Substratum influence in Sinhalese - According to Geiger, Sinhalese language has features that set’s apart from other Indo-Aryan languages. Some of the differences can be explained by the substrate influence of parent stock of the Vedda language. Sinhalese has many words that are only found in Sinhalese or it is shared between Sinhalese and Vedda language and cannot be etymologically derived from Middle or Old Indo-Aryan. Common examples are Kola in Sinhalese and Vedda for leaf, Dola in Sinhalese for Pig and offering in Vedda. Other common words are Rera for wild duck and Gala for stones in Toponyms found 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 ACE have recognized a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhalese. It lists naramba (to see) and kolamba (ford or harbor) as belonging to an indigenous source. Kolamba is the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.

Affinities to neighbouring languages

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 coexistence of the two groups of speakers. 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 verbal adjective of kiyanavā "to say" as a subordinating conjunction with the meanings "that" and "if".

Foreign influences

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

Influences on Other Languages

Macanese language 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 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 whom often married women from Malacca and Sri Lanka rather than from neighboring China, so the language had strong Malay and Sinhalese influence from the beginning.


Sinhala shares many features common to other Indo-European languages.


Sinhalese spoken in the Southern province of Sri Lanka (Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts) uses several words that are not found else where in the country; this is also the case for the Central part, and north-central region. For native speakers all dialects are mutually intelligible, and they might not even realize that the differences are significant.

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. Some is regarded as taboo and most is frowned upon as non-scholarly.

Writing System

The Sinhalese writing system, Sinhala Hodiya, is based - as all other surviving Indo-aryan language scripts - on ancient Brahmi. The Sinhala script can be considered semi-syllabic, sometimes referred to as abugida or alphasyllabic, meaning that a basic letter such as ක represents a syllable with a default vowel, in this case ka ([kə]). This inherent vowel may be changed by adding so called pilla, vowel marks (diacritics), around the syllabic character, producing syllables such as කා kā, කැ kä, කෑ kǟ, කි ki, කී kī, කු ku, කූ kū, කෙ ke, කේ kē, කො ko, කෝ kō. Pili may appear above, below, to the left, to the right, or around the consonant. Sinhala also knows hal kirama and uses two differing virama symbols depending on the basic grapheme to explicitly indicate the lack of a vowel.

The complete writing system, Elu Hodiya, consist of 54 basic characters. It includes 18 vowel characters and 36 consonant characters. Only 36 characters (12 vowel and 24 consonant symbols) are required for writing spoken Sinhala in Suddha Sinhala. The remaining symbols for sounds that have gotten lost in the course of linguistic change, such as aspirates, are required to write Sanskrit and Pali loan words. ̹ Sinhala is written from left to right and the Sinhala character set is only used for this singular Indo-Aryan language. As with all Indo-Aryan languages the alphabet follows a sorting rule different from other Indo-European languages:

  • 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


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