Sinhalese language

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සිංහල sinhala
Word Sinhala in Yasarath font.svg
Region Sri Lanka
Native speakers
16 million (2007)[1]
2 million L2 speakers (1997)
Early forms
  • Sinhalese
Vedda (perhaps a creole)
Sinhala alphabet (Brahmic)
Sinhala Braille (Bharati)
Official status
Official language in
Sri Lanka
Language codes
ISO 639-1 si
ISO 639-2 sin
ISO 639-3 sin
Glottolog sinh1246[2]

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

The oldest Sinhalese 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 Sinhalese is the language of the Maldives and Minicoy Island (India), Dhivehi and Bengali.


Sinhala (Siṃhāla) is a Sanskrit term; the corresponding Middle Indic word is Sīhala; the actual Sinhalese 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 Kalinga Kingdom and a lion. He killed his father and became king of Singhapur of Kalinga ( near Jajpur of Odisha). His son, Prince Vijaya, would emigrate from Kalinga 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 presumably the word Sinhala is somehow connected to a term meaning "lion".[verification needed]


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 Sinhalese language is divided into four periods:

  • Sinhalese Prakrit (until 3rd century AD)
  • Proto-Sinhalese (3rd - 7th century AD)
  • Medieval Sinhalese (7th - 12th century AD)
  • Modern Sinhalese (12th century — present)

Phonetic development[edit]

The most important phonetic developments of the Sinhalese language include

  • the loss of the aspiration distinction in plosives (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 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[edit]

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[edit]

During the career of Dr Christopher Reynolds as a Sinhalese lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 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[10]


Substratum influence in Sinhalese[edit]

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.[11] 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 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).[12] 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-Sinhalese languages of Sri Lanka.[13] The author of the oldest Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava, written in the 13th century CE, recognised a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhala. 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.[14][15]

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 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

ēka aluth kiyalā mama dannawā
it new having-said I know

"I know that it is new."

ēka aluth-da kiyalā mama dannē nähä
it new-? having-said I know.emph not

"I do not know whether it is new."

Foreign influences[edit]

As a result of centuries of colonial rule, contemporary Sinhalese 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, 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 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.


Main article: Sinhala numerals

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

Numeral Sinhalese Sanskrit Persian Greek Latin Portuguese Romanian German English French Spanish Russian Italian Latvian Lithuanian
1 eka (එක) éka yek (یک) (h)éna (ἕνα) unus um unu eins one un uno odin uno viens vienas
2 deka (දෙක) dváu do (دو) dío (δύο) duo dois doi zwei two deux dos dva due divi du
3 thuna (තුන) trayas se (سه) tría (τρία) tria três trei drei three trois tres tri tre trīs trys
4 hathara (හතර) catúr chahar (چهار) téssera (τέσσερα) quattuor quatro patru vier four quatre cuatro chetyre quattro četri keturi
5 paha (පහ) páñca panj (پنج) pénte (πέντε) quinque cinco cinci fünf five cinq cinco pyat' cinque pieci penki
6 haya (හය) ṣaṣ sesh (شش) (h)éxi (ἕξι) sex seis șase sechs six six seis shest' sei seši šeši
7 hatha (හත) saptá haft (هفت) (h)eptá (ἑπτά) septem sete șapte sieben seven sept siete sem' sette septiņi septyni
8 aṭa (අට) aṣṭáu hasht (هشت) októ (ὀκτώ) octo oito opt acht eight huit ocho vosem' otto astoņi aštuoni
9 nawaya (නවය)[note 1] náva noh (نه) ennéa (ἐννέα) novem nove nouă neun nine neuf nueve devyat' nove deviņi devyni
10 dahaya (දහය) dáça dah (ده) déka (δέκα) decem dez zece zehn ten dix diez desyat' dieci desmit dešimt

Accents and dialects[edit]

Sinhalese 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 realise that the differences are significant.[16]

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 Sinhalese.


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 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.

Sinhalese 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. The Sinhala writing system is an "abugida" or "alphasyllabary", 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 , 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.

Sinhalese 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


  • The presence of so-called prenasalised consonants. A very short homorganic nasal is added before a voiced plosive. The nasal is syllabified with the onset of the following syllable, which means that the moraic weight of the preceding syllable is left unchanged.
  • The pronunciation of unstressed short /a/, which is not written in Sinhala orthography except when initial, is a schwa [ə].
Labial Dental/
Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m ɳ ɲ ŋ
Plosive voiceless p ʈ k
voiced b ɖ ɡ
prenasalised ᵐb ⁿ̪d̪ ᶯɖ ᵑɡ
Fricative (f) s (ʃ) h
Rhotic r
Approximant ʋ l j
Front Central Back
long short long short long short
Close i u
Mid e (ə) o
Open æː æ a


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 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
NOM miniha(ː) potə minissu pot
ACC miniha(ː)və potə minissu(nvə) pot
INSTR miniha(ː) atiŋ poteŋ minissu(n) atiŋ potvəliŋ
DAT miniha(ː)ʈə potəʈə minissu(ɳ)ʈə potvələʈə
ABL miniha(ː)geŋ poteŋ minissu(n)geŋ potvaliŋ
GEN miniha(ː)ge(ː) pote(ː) minissu(ŋ)ge(ː) potvələ
LOC miniha(ː) laᵑgə pote(ː) minissu(n) laᵑgə potvələ
VOC miniho(ː) - minissuneː -
Gloss man book men books

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.

SG ammaː deviyaː horaː pothə reddə kanthoːruvə sathiyə bus ekə paːrə
PL amməla(ː) deviyo(ː) horu poth redi kanthoːru sathi bus paːrəval
Gloss mother(s) god(s) thief(ves) book(s) cloth(es) office(s) week(s) bus(ses) street(s)

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 class 2nd class 3rd class
verb verbal adjective verb verbal adjective verb verbal adjective
present (future) kanəvaː kanə arinəvaː arinə pipenəvaː pipenə
past kæːvaː kæːvə æriyaː æriyə pipunaː pipunə
anterior kaːlaː kaːpu ærəlaː ærəpu pipilaː pipicca
simultaneous kanə kanə / ka kaa(spoken) / arinə arinə / æra æra(spoken) / pipenə pipenə/ pipi pipi(spoken) /
infinitive kannə/kanḍə / arinnə/arinḍə / pipennə/pipenḍə /
emphatic form kanneː / arinneː / pipenneː /
gloss eat / open / blossom /


  • Left-branching language (see branching), which means that determining elements are usually put in front of what they determine (see example below).
  • SOV (subject–object–verb) word order, common to most left-branching languages.
  • As a left-branching language, there are no prepositions, only postpositions (see Adposition). Example: "under the book" translates to pot̪ə yaʈə, literally "book under".
  • 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 pot̪ liənə miniha, literally "books writing man".
  • An exception to this is statements of quantity which usually stand behind what they define. Example: "the four flowers" translates to mal hat̪ərə, 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"
  • Sinhala has no copula: "I am rich" translates to mamə poːsat̪, 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 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. ^ Sinhalese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Sinhala". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ "Census of Population and Housing 2001" (PDF). Retrieved 16 November 2013. 
  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 16 November 2013. 
  10. ^ UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, Sinhalese Series, George Allen and Unwin Limited, London 1970
  11. ^ Gair 1998, p. 4
  12. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 230
  13. ^ Indrapala 2007, p. 45
  14. ^ Indrapala 2007, p. 70
  15. ^ Gair 1998, p. 5
  16. ^ "Sinhalese Language". American Language Services. Retrieved 20 August 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gair, James: Sinhala and Other South Asian Languages, New York 1998.
  • Gair, James and Paolillo, John C.: Sinhala, München, Newcastle 1997.
  • Geiger, Wilhelm: A Grammar of the Sinhalese Language, Colombo 1938.
  • Karunatillake, W.S.: An Introduction to Spoken Sinhala, Colombo 1992 [several new editions].
  • Clough, B.: Sinhala English Dictionary, 2nd new & enlarged edition, New Delhi, Asian Educational Services, 1997.
  • Gair, James (1998). Studies in South Asian Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509521-9. 
  • Van Driem, George (15 Jan 2002). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-10390-2. 
  • Indrapala, Karthigesu (2007). The evolution of an ethnic identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka C. 300 BCE to C. 1200 CE. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa. ISBN 978-955-1266-72-1. 

External links[edit]