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Historical Development of Sinhala and Scripts

Victor Gunasekara

I am responding to a post sent by LankaWeb in which I was asked to comment on an article entitled "Historical Development of Sinhala and Scripts". This article seems to deal only with scripts whereas what I had been talking about was the development of language. Scripting is a much later stage in linguistic development and most early languages did not have scripts and later adopted scripts from whatever source was available.

The article states that Sanskrit was the "first stage". In fact Sanskrit itself developed out of the Indic stream of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It was itself the heir to a linguistic heritage which had many parallel streams to itself.

The article deals only with the development of scripts in India and these all developed out of the proto-Brahmi script which itself is a development coming long after much literary material was composed in Sanskrit, Maghadi and other languages all maintained in an oral tradition. The earliest piece of Brahmi writing discovered does not date prior to the era of the Buddha. By this time many languages stemming from the Indic stream of the Indo-Iranian family were well established in India and had many compositions of a religious and literary kind.

Because the diagram attached to the article shows the Tamil script as having evolved from the original Brahmi writing it might give the misleading impression that Dravidian languages are also related to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. Even though the origin of the Dravidian language has not been established it is quite clear that Dravidian has no connection with Indo-Aryan and was an independent linguistic development. Some Tamils even claim that Dravidian is earlier than Sanskrit and Indo-European and even claim that that the Indus Valley civilization was Dravidian. A Tamil professor even traced Tamil writing back to Sumerian writing. This is however the usual Tamil hyperbole and no scholar of repute accepts these claims.

In fact the earliest Tamil texts are dated to the 1st Century of the Common Era (CE). The language has changed very little and it is said that even classics like Kurukkal can be understood by children learning the language today. The earliest script employed by Tamil was in the Southern branch of the Brahmi script called the Grantha script. The modern Tamil script came into vogue only in the 8th Century CE and was based on Brahmi and Sanskrit. Thus the Tamil alphabet was the same letter-order as the other Indian languages. But this does not make it part of the Indo-Aryan family of languages.

I hope the above comments address the principal issues which interest the LankaWeb writer.


Victor Gunasekara


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