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DECLINE OF THE SINHALA LANGUAGE AND A PLAN OF ACTION TO REDRESS

Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe, Canberra, Australia

A number of recent contributions to Lankaweb commented on the apparent decline of the Sinhala language in Sri Lanka. Expressing such concern appears timely in view of the fact that this great language has faced degeneration since the 1960s without attracting intellectual debate leading to corrective measures. Unfortunately, the Sinhala language has declined over the last 25 to 30 years to a much diminished means of communication in both the written and spoken forms.

The Sinhala newspaper journalism has deteriorated to the use of a mixture of thoughtless, direct translations of words and expressions from English (the translation of 'intelligence' in the context of spying as 'buddhi' is a rather humorous example of this) and a mixture of other expressions one can only relate to the Prakrtis such as Aphabramsa. The spoken version appears to have degenerated into an awkward form that does not enable the speaker to express thoughts simply or confidently.

This transformation from the elegant and fluid Sinhala (of the kind written by writers such as Professor Saratchchandra and Mahagama Sekara), to a form virtually non-useable as a means of communication has been aptly described as 'vulgarisation' by the foremost linguist in the country, Prof J.B.Dissanayake.

Understanding this phenomenon of vulgarisation of the Sinhala language and more importantly, rectifying the situation needs to start with the study of the 'roots' of Sinhala and many influences that have fashioned it over the millennia. For these purposes, the Sinhala language needs to be viewed as arising from a rudimentary communication form that existed in the island, influenced first by Sanskrit following the landing of Vijaya (C. 543-250BC) and then by Pali (C.250BC-400AD) since the arrival of Buddhism. These formative influences were accompanied and followed by word borrowings from Tamil and the European languages (Portugese, Dutch and English) during the colonial period (15th to the 20th century).

The attempts to revive the language following the waning of European colonialism however, appears to have led to the introduction of changes arbitrarily (by various groups). Perhaps unintentionally, such changes in vocabulary and style appears to have resulted in a return to Aphambramsa!

Reversing this trend requires a systematic approach starting with education of the public of the formative influences that fashioned the language, its significant literary achievements and preferably a movement to return to those roots led by the academic community in Sri Lanka.

This essay is an attempt to present the development of the language schematically, to enable an understanding of the historical development of Sinhala from the language of Tambapanni to the present day Sri Lanka.

" Language in 'Tambapanni'

It is highly probable that at the time of Vijaya's arrival, a local vernacular would have existed amongst the Rakshasa tribes. However, a linguistic line that demarcates the introduction of the more sophisticated Indian vernacular can be drawn at this point in time (543 BC).

Vijaya and his entourage of 700 is believed to have originated predominantly from the North and North-East regions of India (Bengal, Magadha and Kalinga), and would have brought with them the Indo-Aryan vernaculars they spoke, collectively referred to as Prakrit (arising from the Sanskrit neuter singular noun of prakr?ta, meaning natural, vulgar, or vernacular). Prakrits are believed to have been in use as vernaculars in India by the 6th century BC, with oldest written records dating back only to the 3rd century BC. Though the academic debate about 'which came first' is unresolved, Prakrits are related to Sanskrit.

The obvious influence of Sanskrit on the Sinhala language (and close similarities between Sinhala and languages more closely related to Sanskrit such as Bangla) has been amply documented and its appropriate to briefly examine this most important heritage.

" Sanskrit and its influence on Sinhala

Linguists believe that the scholarly activity of the Vedic Brahmins led to the development of Sanskrit, based on the Prakrts of the common people. (Samskrta literally means the 'purified' 'polished', or grammatically correct language, contrasting it with Prakrts).
The development of Sanskrit which remained a spoken language until the early Christian era, was based on the transcendental status the Vedic culture attributed to speech, considered the means of reaching God and knowing the ultimate Truth. In the earliest Vedas, the hymn addressed to Brihaspati, the Lord of Prayer, describes Vac (speech) as an object of discovery related to the acquisition of true knowledge and spiritual insight. In Patanjali's Mahabhasya where the author refers to a story about a conflict between the gods and the demons (asuras), the loss of the demons is attributed to their mispronunciation of the word 'ari' (enemy), confusing the Sanskrit 'r' for an 'l', while summoning reinforcements.

Sanskrit at this stage was a spoken language only and phonetic harmony and the need for recitation of the Vedas with attention to pitch and tone of sounds and concepts such as shabda, nada (sound), and dhvani (echo) led to the development of a language with phonetic harmony as its prime feature. (In Sanskrits, words are often changed within a sentence in order to maintain phonetic harmony). Sanskrit is considered the oldest, systematically developed language in the world with a range of sophisticated phonetic rules developed to befit its use for sacred purposes. These rules influenced and even today, characterises the modern languages including Sinhala. The rules include:

" 48 phonemes (speech sounds) consisting of vowels, (starting in the back of the mouth and moving forward), nasals and sibilants to make speech intelligibale and chanting possible;
" A set of elaborate phonological rules called 'sandhi' and samaas which are designed to prevent the blurring that occurs at word-boundaries in combining sounds in spoken language;
" Elaborate pronunciation rules based on places of articulation, displaying an amazingly advanced knowledge of human sound production (phonation) process for the time (thounsands of years BC.); and
" Pronunciation of letters based on its position on a scale of level of consciousness in which the vowels represent the highest levels of consciousness, semivowels ignorance and consonants a lower level of consciousness.

In 4th century BC, Panini (at Takshila university) analysed and codified the grammatical structure, phonology and morphology of Sanskrit in 4000 sutras in Ashtadhyayi. The language codified by Panini is referred to as 'Classical' Sanskrit.

" Rise of Buddhism & the decline of Sanskrit

Classical Sanskrit became the language of the elite Brahmin "shishtas" and later of the governing class with Prakrits remaining the language of the lower social classes. The Brahmins considered the non-Sanskrit speakers non-refined and uneducated, and were referred to by derogatory terms such as: mleccha (people who speak incomprehensibly; da_sa or asura). Brahminic social code encouraged the study of grammar so that they may not become mlecchas. From a Sociological point of view, Sanskrit served as a barrier that set the Brahmin apart from the barbarian. Evidence for this hierarchical use of language is found in Sanskrit literary works, with the characters of higher castes speaking Sanskrit and others speaking Prakrit.

The arrival of Vijaya and his entourage in the island needs to be viewed against this background: He left India during this 'great' period of classical Sanskrit, most probably, bringing with him a linguistic mixture of Sanskrit and Prakrits between himself and his entourage. This mix of spoken sounds would have served as a Lingua Franca during his encounters with the Rakshasas, forming the basis of future linguistic developments in the island.

The sixth century BC India was a hotbed of extraordinarily rich spiritual and intellectual activity with Buddha achieving enlightenment and becoming a preacher of the Dharma round 15 years after Vijaya's departure. (The suggestion that Vijaya's arrival coincides with Buddha's parinibbhana cannot be supported chronologically).

Buddha rejected the Brahminic dominance based on knowledge about a creator God and the exclusive rights to access to that God and he chose Magadhi, a Prakrit spoken by the non-elite, to preach. He refrained from insisting on the use of Sanskrit alone for preaching and as a result, the Tripitaka has been preserved in Sanskrit (by the Tibetan Sarvasti-vadis) Prakrit (by the Mahasanghikas) Aphabramsa (by the Mahasammaitis) and in Paishachi by the Sthaviras.

Pali, a direct continuation of Magadhi and ardha-Magadhi, the Prakrit chosen by Buddha's contemporary Mahavira to preach Jainism in the mean time had risen in prominence in India and the Brahmi script used in the earliest historical inscriptions in India, the Dhammalipi of king Ashoka became the mother of all subsequent varieties of writing. These monumental social developments signified the dislodgement of Sanskrit from its dominant position.

However, historically, there has been exchange between Pali and Sanskrit. Post-Canonical Pali demonstrates some direct adoptions of technical vocabulary from Sanskrit. Similarly, the argumentation and the use of the language in post-Buddhist philosophical treatises such as Vedanta have been directly influenced both by Buddhist Philosophy and the Pali language. The language of the Bodhivamsa by Upatissa, (composed in the last quarter of the 10th century) has been described as 'Sanskritised' Pali. The Pali Scholar Ashvaghosa became the first author of the Sanskrit kavya genre of poetry.

" The influence of Pali on Sinhala

At the time of the introduction of Buddhism to Sri lanka in 247 BC, the native language of the island is referred to as Dipa Bhasa, simply the language of the island. Available evidence in the form of numerous inscriptions including those attributed to Queen Uttiya (207-197 BC) suggests that the Dipa Bhasa was an advanced language which bears resemblance to the later, more sophisticated Sinhala.

Ven. Mahinda is known to have used the Pali language to preach to the people, but used the native language for the purpose of commenting on suttas (which later became known as the Sinhala-atthakatha). The canon was transmitted orally for the next 200 years (until the reign of Vattagamani (1st century BC when it was inscribed in Brahmi script).

A definite influence of Pali on Sinhala becomes apparent throughout the Anuradhapura period (until 11 AD) with Pali words being used in both pure form and modified with Sinhalese inflexions. Cave inscriptions from this period indicate that the script was undergoing change.

However, the writers of the Polonnaruwa period (11-13th centuries) showed greater inclination to promote the study of Sanskrit and Pali, the scholarly study intensifying with Moggallana's Moggallana Vyakarana (modelled on Chandragomin's Chandra Vyakarana) and Sariputta's works in Pali literature as well as Sanskrit grammar and linguistics.

The dawn of a vibrant Pali literary era can be linked to the arrival of the most outstanding author in the history of Pali literature, Buddhagosa, in the island during the reign of King Mahanama (409-31 AD). Buddhagosa, a Brahmin who converted to Buddhism, probably played a major role in establishing a Pali 'movement' in the island. He translated the atthakathas into Pali and wrote Visuddhimagga. Buddhagosa helped establish Pali as the language of the entire Buddhist world and his work Samantapasadika, a commentary on the Vinaya Pitaka was translated into Chinese in 489 AD.

" The development of a 'modern' Sinhala language

It appears that by 10th century AD, the language of the island had developed into an extremely sophisticated form. Treatises such as Siyabaslakara, (the oldest written work on prosody compiled during the reign of Sena I, C. 848 AD) and Dhampiya-atuvâ Gätapadaya, (a glossarial commentary is a work of Kasyapa V (908-918 AD) show considerable linguistic sophistication, pointing to earlier training and influence.

An impressive body of literary works, based mainly on the Jataka stories was in existence by the 14th century. These include: Sasadavata, Muvadevdavata (12th century), prose workss Sulu Kalingu da vata (12 century), Ummagga Jatakaya, Saddharmaratnavalyia (13th century) and Guttila kavyaya, (14th century). The reign of Parakramabahu 1348-60 witnessed the appearance of the first sandesa-kavyas modelled after Kalidasa's Meghaduta. The Polonnaruwa era also produced such great works as Butsarana, Amawathura, Kausilumina and Dahamsarana. Books published during the Dhambadeniya era include Pujawaliya, Sadharmaratnawaliya and Kuveni Asna.
The 500 year period between the 9th and 14th centuries can be considered the 'Golden Age' of Sinhala literary achievement.

" Effect of Colonialism and the journey back

Like all other aspects of the advances Sinhalese civilisation, the language was adversely affected by the European invasions beginning in the early 16th century. This particular wave of invasions and their impact on culture differed from the earlier interruptions caused by the Chola invasion of 1017, Kalinga invasion of 1214, and the Pandyan invasion of 1284 due to the completely 'alien' nature of their influence.

They hampered the development of the language through the twin effects of disturbing the peace and intellectual activity in the island and the direct attempts to introduce new languages and religion. The colonisers promoted religious conversion to Catholicism and later to other forms of Christianity and foreign language training was provided to the selected locals, in preparation for lower level administrative jobs. This coupled with the parallel process of 'colonisation of the mind' continued with the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British periods spanning nearly 450 years, resulting in the demeaning of the local culture including the language.

The long journey back towards a national identity started following the so-called political 'independence' secured in 1948. (However, the minds of the majority of the local Sahibs and the educated classes remained colonised). The helabasa movement led by Munidasa Kumaratunga, and the rise of an important newspaper culture with contributions from particularly lucid writers such as Martin Wickremasinghe, Sri Chandraratna Manawasinghe, David Karunanratne, Meemana Prematilake (to name a few) later in the century are particularly worth mentioning. This generation of Sri Lankans virtually continued the tradition of reclaiming the Sinhala language started by the Venerable Walivita Saranankara and Thotagamuve Sri Rahula.

The beginnings of the current phenomenon of the development of a 'vulgar' form of Sinhala probably goes back to the 1960s and it coincides with the demise of this generation of erudite Sinhala writers and academics. It also signifies the re-emergence of stronger foreign influence in all spheres of life in the island. Despite the so-called 'independence', the current generation of Sri Lankans appear to be more subservient to the western culture and language, much more than their colonial forefathers. A degree of apparent confusion in language usage, (probably arising from an 'unsystematic' approach to recovering the language) is also seenreflected in the development of vocabulary and spoken language, especially among the journalists.

Rectifying the problem of vulgarisation needs to start urgently, based on government initiatives aimed at improving the education system from the primary school level and more urgently, by providing a decent Sinhala language education including its history, to the journalists.



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