Monday, September 30, 2013

Language Profile: Sinhala

Way back in January we looked at Tamil, a member of the Dravidian language family that is an official language of Sri Lanka. Today we'll be looking at Sri Lanka's other official language, Sinhala, also known as Sinhalese.

Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by the Sinhalese people, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. The name of the language has an interesting etymology, as it is thought to be related to the Sanskrit term simha, meaning "lion". There is quite a bit of debate as to what the whole term means, with ideas ranging from "lion-killer" to "lion blood". 

The Avukana Buddha statue in Sri Lanka.
In terms of lexicon, Sinhala has drawn from other regional languages, especially Tamil. Unlike other Indo-Aryan languages, it has also taken on various phonetic and grammatical characteristics from Dravidian languages. It also contains many loanwords from Portuguese, English, and Dutch due to periods of colonial rule in Sri Lanka.

It is also interesting to note that the literary and spoken dialects of Sinhalese are very different. The literary form contains more vocabulary of Sanskrit origin, while the spoken language has no inflected verb forms. In fact, the two are so distinct that children are taught the written language in school almost as if it were a foreign language.

The language is written using the Sinhala alphabet, an abugida that is related to the scripts used to write Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi. While the alphabet has a total of 54 letters, only 36 are necessary in order to write the spoken form of the language.