Sinhala (සිංහල) is the main language of Sri Lanka. About three fourths of Sri Lanka's population of ca. 21 million speak Sinhala as their mother tongue and many others in the country speak it as a second language. It is widely used in all the regions of the island except the north and east, where many people who speak Tamil as their first language may not be so good at speaking Sinhala.
Sinhala belongs to the indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. Though originally a language of the common man in Sri Labka, where scholars - mainly Buddhist monks - preferred Pali and Sanskrit for their writings, Sinhala inscriptions dating from the third or second century BCE have been found. The oldest extant Sinhala literary works date back to the ninth century CE. The alphabet employed is descended from the ancient Brahmi script of the Indian region. The language has been greatly enriched by its association with Buddhism, which was introduced to the island in the third century BCE. In addition to regional tongues like Tamil, languages from far away like Portuguese, Dutch and English have also influenced Sinhala due to European colonization.
A marked difference (diglossia) exists between the spoken and written forms of Sinhala. The simpler spoken variety is found even in informal writing like letters among friends. One is likely to hear the written form only in formal announcements and speeches - or in TV/radio newscasts.
The Sinhala alphabet consist of vowels, consonants and diacritics for consonants. If a vowel sound occurs at the beginning of a word, the corresponding vowel letter is used. Vowel sounds that come after a consonant sound are usually denoted by the consonant letter + the necessary diacritic/s. An attempt has been made below to transliterate the Sinhala vowels and consonants with reasonable accuracy using Roman characters and some other signs.
All stand-alone Sinhala consonant letters have the corresponding consonant sound + the inherent vowel sound ‘a’(see above) in them. However, in some syllables this inherent vowel sound is reduced to a schwa (i.e. the sound of 'a' in "about" or 'o' in “carrot”) and this transliteration will use the symbol 'ə' instead of 'a' to indicate this. When a consonant sound is followed by some other vowel sound – or when there is no vowel sound after it - marks called diacritics are added to the consonant letter to denote the combination. Here are some examples of how such diacritics are used.
අ - a
ආ - ā
ඇ - A
ඈ - Ā
ඉ - i
ඊ - ī
එ - e
ඒ - ē
ඔ - o
ඕ - ō
ඕ - ō
ඌ - ū
ඓ - ai
ඖ - au
ඍ - ru/ri
ඎ - rū/rī
අං - aNG
අඃ - aH
ම් - m
ම - ma / mə
මා - mā
මැ - mA
මෑ - mĀ
මි - mi
මී - mī
මෙ - me
මේ - mē
මො - mo
මෝ - mō
මු - mu
මූ - mū
මෛ - mai
මෞ - mau
මෘ - mru
මෲ - mrū
මං - maNG
මඃ - maH
ක් - k
ක - ka/kə
කා - kā
කැ - kA
කෑ - kĀ
කි - ki
කී - kī
කෙ - ke
කේ - kē
කො - ko
කෝ - kō
කු - ku
කූ - kū
කෛ - kai
කෞ - kau
කෘ - kru
කෲ - krū
කං - kaNG
කඃ - kaH
As can be seen above, the diacritics differ between these two letters when there is no attached vowel sound as ‘ම්’/'ක්'; as well as for the vowel sounds in ‘මු’/'කු' and ‘මූ’/'කූ'. The other letters also follow either of these two patterns.
Even when some words appear in writing with a long 'ā' sound at their end, it tends to be pronounced 'a' in everyday speech. For example, 'මිනිහා - minihā (man)' becomes 'මිනිහ - miniha' and 'දෙනවා - dhenəvā (give)' becomes 'දෙනව - dhenəva'. In the phrases below, the colloquial short style has mostly been followed.
There is a special letter that is used in some words to denote the sound ‘lu’: ළු - ‘lu’
The nasalized sound found in ‘මං’ or ‘කං’ occurs with other diacritics too, like in 'කෝං – kōNG or මුං - muNG.
A vowel or a consonant+diacritic can stand alone as a syllable; or they can combine with a consonant having no attached vowel sound to make up a syllable together: 'අම්මා - am-mā (mother)', 'බලාපොරොත්තුව - ba-lā-po-roth-thu-və (hope)'
As may be clear from the above point, when a double consonant occurs, each one of them has to be pronounced separately (i.e. it has to be geminated) since they belong to two separate syllables, like in ‘එන්න - en-nə’ (come).
Sinhala is a rhotic language, so the letter ‘r’ should be pronounced even when it stands alone as 'ර් - r'.
In some words, some consonant combinations coalesce into one character
For some letters like 'ක', the following diacritic can add the sound '-ra/-rə': 'ක්ර - kra/krə'. It can be combined with some other diacritics to denote the corresponding sounds: 'ක්රි - kri' , 'ක්රෝ - krō' etc. So the ‘Sri’ in Sri Lanka, which actually should be ‘Shri’ in really accurate pronunciation, is written ‘ශ්රී’.
The sound '-ya/yə' is sometimes combined with a consonant: 'ව්ය - vya/vyə', 'ද්ය - dhya/dhyə' etc. Some other diacritics can also be added to this combination, like 'ව්යූ - ‘vyū'.
Some consonant letters are written in an attached manner in some words, like 'ක්ෂ - ksha'.
The written Sinhala language, having an age-old literary tradition, has fine distinctions of verb conjugation, case inflection and so on. The study of all that is exclusively for the scholar. Even too much detail about the much simpler spoken form is not worthwhile for the casual visitor. However, a basic understanding of the structure of spoken Sinhala might help.
The word order of the Sinhala sentence is ‘noun-object verb’.
මම තේ බොනව. (mamə thē bonəva.) - I tea drink. (I drink tea.)
There are no articles. The basic form of a noun is used in the definite sense. To render the indefinite sense, the noun ending is changed to ‘-ek’ in masculine nouns and ‘-ak’ in feminine or inanimate ones. Plural formation can be rather erratic but, once formed, it stands for both definite and indefinite senses.
මිනිහ (miniha) - the man
මිනිහෙක් (minihek) - a man
මිනිස්සු (minissu) - (the) men
වඳුර (vaNDHura) - the monkey
වඳුරෙක් (vaNDHurek) - a monkey
වඳුරො (vaNDHuro - (the) monkeys
නිළිය (niliyə) - the actress
නිළියක් (niliyak) - an actress
නිළියො (niliyo) - (the) actresses
පොත (pothə) - the book
පොතක් (pothak) - a book
පොත් (poth) - (the) books
To give an indefinite sense to uncountable nouns, the word ‘…ටිකක් (tikak)’ can be added.
තේ ටිකක් (thē tikak) - some tea
Instead of prepositions, there are postpositions.
මිනිහට (minihatə )- to the man
මිනිහගෙන් (minihagen) - from the man
In spoken Sinhala the verbs change form only between the present, past and future. Within a certain tense group they remain the same for all pronouns and nouns, singular or plural.
මම කනව. (mamə kanəva.) – I eat. / I’m eating.
අපි කනව. (api kanəva.) – We eat. / We’re eating.
මිනිහා කෑව. (miniha kĀva.) – The man ate.
මිනිස්සු කෑව. (minissu kĀva.) – The men ate.
The ending ‘-ද (-dhə)’ is added to the relevant word to turn a statement into a question.
එයා ආව. (eyā āva.) – He/She came.
එයා ආවද? (eyā āvadhə?) – Did he/she come.
When making a request, the expression for ‘please’ is almost always left out in everyday speech by turning the request into a polite question.
මට වතුර ටිකක් දෙනවද? (matə vathurə tikak dhenəvadhə?) – “Will you give me some water?” instead of “Give me some water, please.”
The Sinhala pronouns are as follows.
They (nearby - animate)
They (away - animate)
They (nearby - inanimate)
They (away - inanimate)
As Sri Lanka was a British colony for over 100 years, English still remains a language of prestige and most people know at least some words of it. While speaking Sinlala, many Sri Lankans tend to intersperse their speech with English words, though this practice is frowned upon by language purists. The visitor can happily benefit from this as follows:
It is possible to use an English noun + ’එක (ekə)’ to mean something definite or an English noun + ’එකක් (ekak)’ to mean something indefinite. ‘bus එක’ – the bus ‘bus එකක්’ – a bus
When it comes to a person, the English noun used alone has the definite sense while ‘කෙනෙක් (kenek)’ can be added to make it indefinite. 'driver’ – the driver ‘driver කෙනෙක්’ – a driver
An English verb or adjective + ’වෙනවා (venəva)’ is taken for intransitive use and an English verb or adjective + ’කරනවා (kərənəva)’ for transitive use.
‘worry වෙනව’ – to worry ‘disturb වෙනව’ – to get disturbed ‘disturb කරනව’ – to disturb ‘cool වෙනව’ – to get cool ‘cool කරනව’ – to cool (something)
Though quite convenient, it is better not to overdo this.
Sri Lankans wobble their head when they want to express agreement in a neutral or somewhat non-committal way. Though the visitor does not need to imitate this, it is important to understand its meaning. Do not confuse it with the ordinary head shake, which means 'no' here too. Nodding the head is used to express agreement in a more committed or enthusiastic manner and one can safely use it to say 'yes' in all situations.
Addressing Buddhist monks
Unlike lay people, Buddhist monks are not addressed as 'ඔයා - oyā (singular you)' or 'ඔයාල - oyāla (plural you)'. The more formal 'ඔබ වහන්සෙ - obə vahanse' is the usual form of address.
Local fare available at typical Sri Lankan restaurants can be quite spicy. To have it not so hot, one may have to say 'සැර අඩුවට (sArə aduvətə)'. 'Tea' in such places may mean white tea with a lot of sugar in and black tea has to be ordered as 'plain tea', which also contains a lot of sugar. To have tea of either sort with less sugar, one must mention 'අඩු සීනි - adu sīni'. More modern places, on the other hand, ask the customers about their taste when taking the order.