Vedda language

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Native to Sri Lanka
Region Uva Province
Ethnicity 2,500 Vedda (2002)[1]
Native speakers
  • Vedda
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ved
Glottolog vedd1240[3]
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Vedda /væđđā/ is an endangered language which is used by the indigenous Vedda people of Sri Lanka. Additionally, communities such as Coast Veddas and Anuradhapura Veddas, that do not strictly identify themselves as Veddas also use words from the Vedda language in part for communication during hunting and or for religious chants, throughout the island.

When a systematic field study was conducted in 1959, the language was confined to the older generation of Veddas from Dambana. In 1990s self-identifying Veddas knew few words and phrases in Vedda, but there were individuals who knew the language comprehensively. Initially there was considerable debate amongst linguists as to whether Vedda is a dialect of Sinhalese or an independent language. Later studies indicate that the language spoken by today’s Veddas is a creole which evolved from ancient times, when the Veddas came into contact with the early Sinhalese, from whom they increasingly borrowed words and synthetic features, yielding the cumulative effect that Vedda resembles Sinhalese in many particulars, but its grammatical core remains intact.[4]

The parent Vedda language(s) is of unknown linguistic origins, while Sinhalese is part of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European language family. Phonologically, Vedda is distinguished from Sinhalese by the higher frequency of palatal sounds [c] and [ɟ]. The effect is also heightened by the addition of inanimate suffixes. Morphologically, the Vedda word classes are nouns, verbs and invariables, with unique gender distinctions in animate nouns. It has reduced and simplified many forms of Sinhalese such as second person pronouns and denotations of negative meanings. Instead of borrowing new words from Sinhalese or other languages, Vedda creates combinations of words from a limited lexical stock. Vedda also maintains many archaic Sinhalese terms from the 10th to 12th centuries, as a relict of its close contact with Sinhalese. Vedda also retains a number of unique words that cannot be derived from Sinhalese. Vedda has exerted a substratum influence in the formation of Sinhalese. This is evident by the presence of both lexical and structural elements in Sinhalese which cannot be traced to either Indo-Aryan or neighboring Dravidian languages.


It is unknown which languages were spoken in Sri Lanka before it was settled by Prakrit-speaking immigrants in the 5th century BCE. The term "Vedda" is a Dravidian word and stems from Tamil word Vēdu meaning hunting.[5][6][7] Cognate terms (Such as bedar, beda) are used throughout South India to describe hunter-gatherers.[8] Sri Lanka has had other hunter-gatherering peoples such as the Rodiya and Kinnaraya.[9][10]

The earliest account of Vedda was written by Ryklof Van Goens (1663–1675), who served as a Director General of the Dutch East India Company in Sri Lanka. He wrote that the Veddas' language was much closer to Sinhalese than to Tamil.[11] Robert Knox, an Englishman held captive by a Kandyan king, wrote in 1681 that the wild and settled Veddas spoke the language of the Sinhalese people. The Portuguese friar Fernão de Queiroz, who wrote a nuanced description of Vedda in 1686, reported that the language was not mutually intelligible with other native languages.[12] Robert Percival wrote in 1803 that the Veddas, although seemingly speaking a broken dialect of Sinhalese, amongst themselves spoke a language that was known only to them.[13] But John Davies in 1831 wrote that the Veddas spoke a language that was understood by the Sinhalese except for a few words. These discrepancies in observations were clarified by Charles Pridham, who wrote in 1848 that the Veddas knew a form of Sinhalese that they were able to use in talking to outsiders, but to themselves they spoke in a language that, although influenced by Sinhalese and Tamil, was understood only by them.[14]

The first systematic attempt at studying the Vedda language was undertaken by Hugh Neville, an English civil servant in British Ceylon. He founded The Taprobanian, a quarterly journal devoted to the study of everything Ceylonese. He speculated, based on etymological studies, that Vedda is based on an Old Sinhalese form called Hela.[15] His views were followed by Henry Parker, another English civil servant and the author of Ancient Ceylon (1909), who wrote that most Vedda words were borrowed from Sinhalese, but he also noted words of unique origin, which he assigned to the original language of the Veddas.[16] The second most important study was made in 1935 by Wilhem Geiger, who also sounded the alarm that Vedda would be soon be extinct and needed to be studied in detail.[17] One of the linguists to heed that call was Manniku W. Sugathapala De Silva who did a comprehensive study of the language in 1959 as a PhD thesis, which he published as a book:[18] according to him, the language was restricted to the older generation of people from the Dambana region, with the younger generation shifting to Sinhalese, whereas Coast Veddas were speaking a dialect of Sri Lankan Tamil that is used in the region. During religious festivals, people who enter a trance or spirit possession sometimes use a mixed language that contains words from Vedda.[19][note 1] Veddas of the Anuradhapura region speak in Sinhalese, but use Vedda words to denote animals during hunting trips.[9][note 2]


Dialect of Sinhalese or independent language

Early linguists and observers of the language considered it to be either a separate language or a dialect of Sinhalese. The chief proponent of the dialect theory was Wilhelm Geiger, but he also contradicted himself by claiming that Vedda was a relexified aboriginal language.[17]

More recently, linguist John McWhorter contested the modern classification of Vedda as a creole, supporting instead the claim that Vedda is a dialect, "a kind of Sinhalese with Vedda decorations." According to McWhorter, this classification of Vedda as a creole came from older (now obsolete) methods of language taxonomy, resulting in an overextension of the definition of creole in order to account for the nature of Vedda's mixed grammar. [20]

Veddas consider the Vedda language to be distinct from Sinhalese and use it as an ethnic marker to differentiate them from Sinhalese people.[21]

Creole based on Sinhalese

The first comprehensive study of the language was undertaken by Manikku W. Sugathapala de Silva in 1959; he along with K. N. O Dharmadasa have put forward the view that Vedda is a Creole. According to De Silva, Vedda is a Creole based on the original Vedda language with Sinhalese as the second most important contributing factor which is supported by Geiger view that Vedda is a relexified aboriginal language.[17] De Silva concluded that although the Creole had borrowed profusely from Sinhalese vocabulary, its morphology was very distinct.[17] He also concluded that Vedda still contains in its vocabulary terms that were unknown to the Sinhalese. He wrote that grammatically Vedda remained still distinct from Sinhalese.[4] In 1990 K.N.O Dharmadasa wrote that irrespective claims about whether the Vedda form in use in the 1990s is an independent language or a Creole, the peculiarities of the language made it still a distinct linguistic form different from all varieties of Sinhalese. According to De Silva and Dharmadasa, when the colonization of island by various Indian settlers using common Prakrits in use in India began in the 5th century BCE, some elements of the Vedda coalesced with the settlers and lost their language through language replacement.[22] Where as more conservative elements maintaining a hunter gatherer lifestyle moved into the central highlands known in early literature as Malaya Rata. Most Indian settlers colonized the North, Northwestern, Eastern and South Eastern lowlands of the country specifically Rajarata and Ruhuna, leaving the heavily forested central high lands to the ancestors of Veddas.[22] With the collapse of the lowland dry zone civilization starting in the 9th century, descendants of the Indian settlers who had begun to speak Sinhalese moved in the central highlands. The trade and other connections made by the speakers of Sinhalese and the Vedda language's/languages' unknown genetic affinities gave rise to a period of use of a Pidgin of the languages.[22] Initial borrowing of terms was limited to trade purposes, but was eventually adopted by the Vedda elite and subsequently by the rest of the Veddas. The Veddas also seemed to have moved further way from Sinhalese contact by moving into inaccessible forests of Binttanne and now reforested former dry zone areas. This led to the arresting of the contact between the language communities thus allowing new Vedda language to stabilize and become an independent language. As a relict of this limited period of contact, Vedda maintains many archaic Sinhalese words that were in vogue during that period. These words have gone out of use in contemporary Sinhalese.


The refuge of the Vedda language(s) in Malaya Rata or Central Highlands until the fall of Dry zone civilization starting in the 9th century, also the crucible of later Vedda Creole development from 10th to 12th century.[23]

In Sinhalese, indicative sentences are negated by adding a negative particle to the emphatic form of the verb, whereas in Vedda, the negative particle is added to the infinitive. In Sinhalese, all indicative sentences whether negative or affirmative, exhibits two tenses – past and non past, but in Vedda a three-term tense system is used in affirmative sentences, but not in negative. Sinhalese pronouns have number distinction, but Vedda does not have number distinction. The Vedda verbal and nominal inflexions are similar to Sinhalese but are not identical. Vedda also exhibits a gender classification in inanimate and animate nouns.[4]


Although in phonemic inventory Vedda is very similar to Sinhalese, in phonotactics it is very dissimilar to Sinhalese. The usage of palatal affricates ([c] sounds similar to "ch" in church, and [ɟ] sounds similar to "j" in "judge") is very high in Vedda. Some comparisons:[24]

English Sinhalese Vedda
earlier issara iccara

This effect is heightened by the addition of inanimate suffixes such as pojja, gejja or raacca. These suffixes are used in tandem with borrowings from Sinhalese.[24]

English Sinhalese Vedda
weight bara barapojja
eye asa ajjejja
head isa ijjejja
water watura/diya diyaracca

These transformations are very similar to what we see in other Creole languages like Melanesian Pidgin English and Jamaican English Creole.[21] The preponderance of the palatal affricates is explained as a remainder from days when the original Vedda language had a high frequency of such phonemes.[25]


Formerly distinct Vedda nouns have two types of suffixes, one for animate and another for inanimate.

Animate nouns[edit]

The animate suffixes are –atto for personal pronouns and –laatto for all other animate nouns and – pojja and -raaccaa for personified nouns. Examples are

  • deyyalaato (god)
  • pannilaatto (worm)
  • meeatto (I or we)
  • irapojja (sun)
  • giniraaccaa (fire)

These suffixes are also used in singular and plural meaning based from the verbal and non verbal context.

  1. botakandaa nam puccakaduvaa huura meeatto (Sir, I killed the elephant though)
  2. meeattanne kiriamilaatto kalaapojjen mangaccana kota eeattanne badapojje kakulek randaala indatibaala tibenava (When our great grandmother was walking in the forest there was a child conceived in that one’s womb.)

The dependence on verbal (and non verbal) context for semantic specification, which is accomplished by inflectional devices by natural languages is an indication of a contact language.

Certain words that appear to be from original Vedda language do not have these suffixes, also animate nouns also have gender distinctions, with small animals treated as feminine (i marker) and larger ones masculine (a marker).

  • botakanda (elephant)
  • kankunaa (deer)
  • karia (bear)
  • hatera (bear)
  • okma (buffalo)
  • kandaarni (bee)
  • mundi (monitor lizard)
  • potti (bee)
  • makini (spider)
  • ikini (louse)[4]

Inanimate nouns[edit]

Inanimate nouns use suffixes such as –rukula and –danda with nouns denoting body parts and other suffixes such as -pojja, -tana, and -gejja. Suffixes are used when the words are borrowed from Sinhalese.

  • ayrukula (eye)
  • ugurudanda (throat)
  • veedipojja (street)
  • kirigejja (coconut)
  • kavitana (verse)
  • giniracca (fire)[26]

There are number of forms that are from the original Vedda language that don't have suffixes such as

  • galrakki (axe)
  • caalava (pot)
  • bucca (bush)[4]

Vedda inanimate nouns are formed by borrowing Sinhalese adjectives and adding a suffix. Kavi is Sinhalese adjective for Kaviya the noun but where as Vedda noun is kavi-tana, where tana is a suffix.


Examples of pronouns are meeatto (I), topan (you), eyaba (there), koyba (where?). Compared to Sinhalese which requires five forms to address people based on status, Vedda uses one (topan) irrespective of status. These pronouns are also used in both singular and plural denotations.

Sin Singular Sin Plural Vedda Singular/Plural[27][28]
obavahansee obavahaseelaa topan
ohee oheelaa topan
tamusee tamuseelaa topan
oyaa oyallaa topan
umba umballa topan
thoo thopi topan


These are found in definite and indefinite forms. ekama one (def.) and ekamak once (indef.) They count ekamay, dekamay and tunamay. Vedda also reduces the number formations found in Sinhalese.

English Sinhalese Vedda[29]
two persons dennek dekamak
two things dekak dekamak
twice deparak dekamak


Another example of simplification in Vedda is minimisations of negative meanings found in Sinhalese:[30]

Sinhalese Vedda
naa koduy
epaa koduy
baa koduy
nemee koduy
nattaN koduy
bari koduy


Many of the Vedda words are directly borrowed from Sinhalese or Tamil via Sinhalese while maintaining words that are not derivable from Sinhalese or its cognate languages from the Indo-Aryan language group. Vedda also exhibits a propensity for paraphrases and it coins words from its limited lexical stock rather than to borrow words from other languages including Sinhalese. For example:[31]

Sinhalese Vedda English
nava maadiyanganalle dandDukacca (vehicle of the ocean) ship
vassa uDatanin mandovena diyaracca (water falling from above) rain
tuvakkuva (loan from Turkish) puccakazDana yamake (shooting thing) gun
upadinava baDapojjen mangaccanvaa (come from the belly) to be born
padura vaterena yamake (sleeping thing) bed
pansala (loan from English) kurukurugaccana ulpojja (spike making kuru kuru sound) pencil

Archaic terms[edit]

Vedda maintains in its lexicon Archaic Sinhalese words that are no longer in daily usage. These archaic words are attested from classical Sinhalese prose from the 10th century until the 13th century, the purported period of close contact between the original Vedda language(s) and Old Sinhala leading to the development of the Creole. Some examples are

  • devla in Vedda means Sky but a 10th-century Sinhalese exegetical work called Dhampia Atuva Getapadaya, it is used in the meaning of cloud.
  • diyamaccca in Vedda meaning fish is similar to diyamas found in a 10th-century monastic work called Sikhavalanda.
  • manda in Vedda means near or with. This word is attested in the 12th century eulogy called Butsarana.
  • koomantana meaning wearing apparel is similar to the Sinhalese word konama found in the 13th century work Ummagga Jatakaya alternatively komanam in Tamil is a loincloth, a cloth worn by early Veddas.[32]

According to research at the turn of the 20th century by British anthropologists Charles and Brenda Seligman, the use of archaic Sinhalese words in Vedda may have arisen from the need to communicate freely in the presence of Sinhalese speakers without being understood. They claimed that this need encouraged the development of a code internal to the Vedda language that included archaic Sinhalese words (as well as mispronounced and invented words) in order to intentionally obfuscate meaning.[33]

Substratum influence in Sinhalese[edit]

According to Geiger and Gair, Sinhalese language has features that set it apart from other Indo-Aryan languages. Some of the differences can be explained by the substrate influence of parent stock of the Vedda language.[34] Sinhalese has many words that are only found in Sinhalese or it is shared between Sinhalese and Vedda 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.[35] There are also high frequency words denoting body parts in Sinhalese such as Oluva for head, Kakula for leg, bella for neck and kalava for thighs that are derived from pre-Sinhalese languages of Sri Lanka.[36] The author of the oldest Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava, written in the 13th century have recognized a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhalese. It lists naramba (to see) and kolamba (ford or harbour) as belonging to an indigenous source. Kolamba is the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.[37][38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vedars or Coast Veddas consider themselves and are considered by the Sri Lankan Tamils as a caste (kulam or jati in Tamil), rather than an ethnic group. Nevertheless there is considerable debate amongst Vedars and their Tamil neighbors to their status within the caste system, Vedars claiming very high status and their neighbors assigning somewhat lower status. Vedars use the Sri Lankan Tamil dialect peculiar to that region called Batticaloa Tamil dialect in their day to day conversations. Vedar children also study in that language in schools. But during religious (Sadangu in Tamil) ceremonies, those who are possessed by spirits speak in a mixed language that they call Vedar Sinkalam(Vedar Sinhala") or Vedar Bhasai ("Vedar language") which is Vedda language of the interior Vedas. Vedar Sinkalam is mixed with many Tamil words, as people no longer know the language. At some point in the past that the people were bilingual in Vedda and Tamil, but that is no longer the case.
  2. ^ In the late 1800s, Veddas of Anuradhapura did not identify themselves as Veddas to Parker and other British ethnologists. They self identified themselves as Vanniyas or people of the forest. But to James Brow an anthropologists who studied them in the 1970s they readily identified themselves as Veddas. Parker recorded number of hunting terms used by the Vanniyas that were similar to what the Veddas of Bintanne region used.


  1. ^ Vedda language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger". Retrieved 2017-12-25.
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Veddah". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ a b c d e Van Driem 2002, p. 229–230
  5. ^ "Vedda facts, information, pictures | articles about Vedda". Retrieved 2017-09-18.
  6. ^ "வேடன் | அகராதி | Tamil Dictionary". University of Madras Lexicon. Retrieved 2017-09-18.
  7. ^ Boyle, Richard (2004). Knox's Words: A Study of the Words of Sri Lankan Origin Or Association First Used in English Literature by Robert Knox and Recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Visidunu Publication. ISBN 9789559170679.
  8. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 217
  9. ^ a b Van Driem 2002, p. 242
  10. ^ International Labour Office 1953, p. 190
  11. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 218
  12. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 222
  13. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 219
  14. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 223
  15. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 225
  16. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 226
  17. ^ a b c d Van Driem 2002, p. 227
  18. ^ Van Driem 2002, pp. 227–228
  19. ^ Samarasinghe 1990, p. 73
  20. ^ McWhorter, John (2011). What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be). New York: Gotham Publishing. p. 183.
  21. ^ a b Dharmadasa 1974, p. 81
  22. ^ a b c Dharmadasa 1974, p. 74
  23. ^ Dharmadasa 1974, p. 96
  24. ^ a b Samarasinghe 1990, p. 87
  25. ^ Dharmadasa 1974, p. 82
  26. ^ Samarasinghe 1990, p. 88
  27. ^ Samarasinghe 1990, p. 89
  28. ^ Samarasinghe 1990, p. 94
  29. ^ Samarasinghe 1990, p. 92
  30. ^ Dharmadasa 1974, p. 88
  31. ^ Samarasinghe 1990, p. 96
  32. ^ Dharmadasa 1974, pp. 92–93
  33. ^ Seligman, C.G. and Brenda Z. (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge University Press. pp. 384–385.
  34. ^ Gair 1998, p. 4
  35. ^ Van Driem 2002, p. 230
  36. ^ Indrapala 2007, p. 45
  37. ^ Indrapala 2007, p. 70
  38. ^ Gair 1998, p. 5

Cited literature[edit]

International Labour Office (1953). Indigenous peoples: living and working conditions of aboriginal populations. Geneva: International Labour Office. LCCN l54000004.
Dharmadasa, K.N.O (February 1974). "The Creolization of an Aboriginal language:The case of Vedda in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)". Anthropological Linguistics. Indiana University. 16 (2): 79–106.
Samarasinghe, S. W. R. de A (1990). The Vanishing aborigines : Sri Lanka's Veddas in transition. International Centre for Ethnic Studies in association with NORAD and Vikas Pub. House. ISBN 978-0-7069-5298-8.
Gair, James (1998). Studies in South Asian Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509521-9.
Van Driem, George (Jan 15, 2002). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-10390-2.
Blundell, David (2006). "Revisiting cultural heritage in Sri Lanka: The Vedda (Vanniyaletto)". Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. Australian National University. 26: 163–167. doi:10.7152/bippa.v26i0.12006.
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.