Sinhalese language

Sinhalese language

Infobox Language
nativename=සිංහල "IAST|siṁhala"
region=Sri Lanka
speakers=19 million
fam4=Insular Indo-Aryan
script=Sinhala abugida (developed from the Brahmi)
nation=Sri Lanka


Sinhalese or Sinhala (සිංහල, ISO 15919: Unicode|siṁhala, pronounced|ˈsiŋhələ, earlier referred to as "Singhalese") is the language of the Sinhalese, the largest ethnic group of Sri Lanka. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages.

Sinhala is spoken by about 19 million people in Sri Lanka, about 16 million of whom are native speakers. It is one of the constitutionally-recognised official languages of Sri Lanka, along with Tamil. Sinhala has its own writing system (see Sinhala alphabet) which is an offspring of the Brahmi script.

The oldest Sinhala inscriptions were written in the 3rd and 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" (actually Sanskrit) and the corresponding Middle Indic term "Sīhala" have as their first element ("siṃha"/"sīha") the word "lion" in the respective languages. According to legend, Sinhabahu or Sīhabāhu ("Lion-arms"), was the son of a Vanga princess and a lion. He killed his father and became king of Vanga. His son Vijaya would emigrate to Lankā 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". [Geiger, Wilhelm: "Culture of Ceylon in Mediaeval Times". 2nd edition, Stuttgart 1986. ISBN 3-515-04447-7. §21.]

As for the second element "la", local tradition connects it to the Sanskrit root "lā-" "to seize", [Carter, Charles: "A Sinhalese-English Dictionary". Reprint, New Delhi 1996. ISBN 81-206-1174-8. p678.] as to translate it "lion-seizer" or "lion-killer", or to Sanskrit "loha"/Sinhala "lē" "blood", to have it mean "lion blood". From a linguistic point of view however, neither interpretation is convincing Fact|date=April 2007, so that we can only safely say that the word "Sinhala" is somehow connected to a term meaning "lion".


About the 5th century BCE, settlers from North-Western India reached the island of Sri Lanka, bringing with them an Indo-Aryan language. (This first group of settlers is referred to as prince Vijaya and his entourage in the chronicle Mahavamsa.) In the following centuries, there was substantial immigration from North-Eastern India (Kalinga, Magadha) which led to an admixture of features of Eastern Prakrits.

tages 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 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 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 Unicode|"viṣṭā" "time" > Sinhala Prakrit Unicode|"viṭṭa" > Modern Sinhala Unicode|"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 Unicode|"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 Unicode|"makṣikā" but stem from two regionally different Prakrit words "macchiā" and "makkhikā" (as in Pali).


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", e.g.:

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

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

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.


*SOV (Subject Object Verb) word order.
*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 "IPA|pot̪ liənə miniha", literally "books writing man".
*It is a left-branching language (see branching), which means that determining elements are usually put in front of what they determine (see example above).
*An exception to this is statements of quantity which usually stand behind what they define. Example: "the four flowers" translates to "IPA|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"
*There are no prepositions, only postpositions (see Adposition). Example: "under the book" translates to "IPA|pot̪ə yaʈə", literally "book under".
* Sinhala has no copula: "I am rich" translates to "IPA|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) "IPA|meː" "here, close to the speaker", "IPA|oː" "there, close to the person addressed", "IPA|arə" "there, close to a third person, visible" and "IPA|eː" "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".

Example: The sentence "IPA|kohed̪ə gie", literally "where went", can mean "where did I/you/he/she/we... go".



*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.

External links

* [ Guide to Sinhala language & Culture]
* [ Let's Speak Sinhala - online lessons]
* [ Online dictionary (Beta)]
* [ Kapruka Sinhala dictionary]
* [ Madhura Sinhala English Dictionary]
* [ Sinhala dictionary (Beta)]
* [ Sinhala books/novels]
* [ Sinhala Slang]

ee also

* Elu
* Sinhala slang

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