Sinhala language

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For criticism see Criticism of Sinhala language
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සිංහල siṁhala

Region Flag of Sri Lanka.svg Sri Lanka
Native speakers
15.6 million[1]  (date missing)
Sinhala abugida (developed from the Brahmi)
Official status
Official language in
Flag of Sri Lanka.svg Sri Lanka
Language codes
ISO 639-1

  1. {{{iso1}}}
ISO 639-2

  1. {{#if:{{{iso2b|}}}{{{iso2t|}}}
  2. |[[ISO639-3:{{{iso2b|{{{iso2|–}}}}}}|{{{iso2b}}}]] (B)
  3. |{{#if:{{{signers|}}}{{#ifeq:{{Infobox language/family-color|{{{familycolor|}}}}}|silver|1}}
  4. |{{{iso2|sgn}}}
  5. |{{
  6. #if:{{{creator|}}}{{{setting|}}}{{#ifeq:{{Infobox language/family-color|{{{familycolor|}}}}}|black|1}}
  7. |{{{iso2|art}}}
  8. |[[ISO639-3:{{{iso2}}}|{{{iso2}}}]]}}}}}}
ISO 639-3

  1. [[ISO639-3:{{{iso3}}}|{{{iso3}}}]]

{{#invoke:Check for unknown parameters|check|unknown=

|name|altname|nativename|acceptance|pronunciation |states|state|region |latd|latm|latNS|longd|longm|longEW |ethnicity|speakers|speakers2|extinct|era|revived |date|dateprefix|ref |familycolor|fam1|fam2|fam3|fam4|fam5|fam6|fam7|fam8|fam9 |fam10|fam11|fam12|fam13|fam14|fam15|family |ancestor|ancestor2|ancestor3|ancestor4|ancestor5|protoname |creator|created|setting|posteriori |dialects|dia1|dia2|dia3|dia4|dia5|dia6|dia7|dia8|dia9|dia10 |dia11|dia12|dia13|dia14|dia15|dia16|dia17|dia18|dia19|dia20 |stand1|stand2|stand3|stand4|stand5|stand6|standards |script|sign |nation|minority|agency |iso1|iso2|iso2b|iso2t|iso3|iso2comment|iso3comment|isoexception|iso6|ietf |lc1|ld1|lc2|ld2|lc3|ld3|lc4|ld4|lc5|ld5|lc6|ld6|lc7|ld7|lc8|ld8|lc9|ld9|lc10|ld10 |lc11|ld11|lc12|ld12|lc13|ld13|lc14|ld14|lc15|ld15|lc16|ld16|lc17|ld17|lc18|ld18|lc19|ld19|lc20|ld20 |lc21|ld21|lc22|ld22|lc23|ld23|lc24|ld24|lc25|ld25|lc26|ld26|lc27|ld27|lc28|ld28|lc29|ld29|lc30|ld30 |linglist|lingname|linglist2|lingname2|linglist3|lingname3|linglist4|lingname4|linglist5|lingname5 |lingua|guthrie |aiatsis|aiatsis2|aiatsis3|aiatsis4|aiatsis5|aiatsis6 |aiatsisname|aiatsisname2|aiatsisname3|aiatsisname4|aiatsisname5|aiatsisname6 |glotto|glotto2|glotto3|glotto4|glotto5 |glottoname|glottoname2|glottoname3|glottoname4|glottoname5 |glottorefname|glottorefname2|glottorefname3|glottorefname4|glottorefname5 |glottofoot |image|imagesize|imagealt|imagecaption|imageheader |map|mapsize|mapalt|mapcaption|map2|mapalt2|mapcaption2|boxsize |notice|notice2 }} Sinhala (සිංහල, ISO 15919: siṁhala, pronounced Template:IPA-si, sometimes referred by alternative spelling Singhalese), also known as Helabasa. Sinhala is the mother tongue of the Sinhalese people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, numbering about 15 million. Sinhala is also spoken by other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, totalling about 3 million.[2] It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. Sinhala is the official and national language of Sri Lanka.

Sinhala has its own writing system (see Sinhala alphabet) which is a member of the Brahmic family of scripts, and a descendant of the ancient Indian Brahmi script.

The oldest Sinhala inscriptions found are from the 6th century BCE, on pottery;[3] the oldest existing literary works date from the 9th century CE.

The closest relative of Sinhala is the language of the Maldives and Minicoy Island (India), Dhivehi.


Sinhala is actually a Sanskrit term; the corresponding Middle Indic word is Sīhala; the actual Sinhala term is Hela* (also Elu, Helu). The Sanskrit and the Middle Indic words have as their first element (siṃha and sīha) the word "lion" in the respective languages.


It is believed that about the 5th century BCE, settlers from North-Eastern India [4] reached the island of Sri Lanka. This group of settlers is referred to as prince Vijaya and his entourage in the chronicle Mahavamsa. These new settlers merged with the native Hela tribes known as Yakka, Naga who spoke Elu language, and a new nation called Sinhala came to exist.[5] In the following centuries, there was substantial immigration from Eastern India-Bengal (Kalinga, Magadha)[6] which led to an admixture of features of Eastern Prakrits.[cn]

Stages 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 the 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 intervocalic consonants (e.g. dānavā "to put" < damanavā) or in originally compound words.]
  • the simplification of consonant clusters and geminate consonants into geminates and single consonants respectively (e.g. Sanskrit viṣṭā "time" > Sinhala Prakrit viṭṭa > Modern Sinhala 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 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 makṣikā but stem from two regionally different Prakrit words macchiā and makkhikā (as in Pali).

Sri Lankan Politics


In 1956 Sinhala replaced English as the official language. This has historically been viewed by academics as a key point in the development of ethnic discontent between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. It was implemented by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party as one of its first acts in government and was perceived by the Tamils as a part of a strategy of placing "Sinhalese culture, language, and religion (Buddhism) to a position of dominance in the society." (Baxter, 2002, p. 354).[7]


Substratum influence in Sinhalese

According to Geiger, 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.[8] Sinhalese has many words that are only found in Sinhalese or it is shared between Sinhalese and Vedda language 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.[9] There are also high frequency words denoting body parts in Sinhalese such as Olluva for head, Kakula for leg, bella for neck and kalava for thighs that are derived from pre-Sinhalese languages of Sri Lanka.[10] The author of the oldest Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava, written in the 13th century ACE have recognized a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhalese. It lists naramba (to see) and kolamba (fort or harbor) as belonging to an indigenous source. Kolamba is the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.[11][12]

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 interactions between Dravidian speakers. Some of the features that may be traced to Dravidian influence are

ēka aluth kiyalā mama dannawā
it new having-said I know

"I know that it is new."

ēka aluth-da kiyalā mama dannē nähä
it new-? having-said I know not

"I do not know whether it is new."

Foreign influences

As a result of centuries of colonial rule, contemporary Sinhala contains many Portuguese, Dutch and English loanwords.

Influences on Other Languages

Macanese language or Macau Creole (known as Patuá to its speakers) is a creole language derived mainly from Malay, Sinhalese, Cantonese, and Portuguese, which was originally spoken by the Macanese community of the Portuguese colony of Macau. It is now spoken by a few families in Macau and in the Macanese diaspora

The language developed first mainly among the descendants of Portuguese settlers whom often married women from Malacca and Sri Lanka rather than from neighboring China, so the language had strong Malay and Sinhalese influence from the beginning.


Sinhala shares many features common to other Indo-European languages. Shared vocabulary includes the numbers up to ten:

Numeral Sinhala Konkani Sanskrit Greek Latin Portuguese German English French Russian
1 eka (එක) eka éka heis unus um eins one un odin
2 deka (දෙක) don dvá dúo duo dois zwei two deux dva
3 thuna (තුන) theen trí treis tres três drei three trois tri
4 hathara (හතර) chaar chatúr téttares quattuor quatro vier four quatre chetyre
5 paha (පහ) panch páñca pénte quinque cinco fünf five cinq pyat'
6 haya (හය) sa shat héx sex seis sechs six six shest'
7 hatha (හත) saath saptá heptá septem sete sieben seven sept sem'
8 ata (අට) aat aṣṭá októ octo oito acht eight huit vosem'
9 navaya (නවය) nav náva ennéa novem nove neun nine neuf devyat'
10 dahaya (දහය) dha dáça déka decem dez zehn ten dix desyat'

Accents and Dialects

Sinhalese spoken in the Southern province of Sri Lanka (Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts) uses several words that are not found elsewhere in the country; this is also the case for the Central part, north-central region and south eastern part (uva & surrounding area). For native speakers all dialects are mutually intelligible, and they might not even realize that the differences are significant.

The language of the Veddah people resembles Sinhala to a great extent, although it has a large number of words which cannot be traced to another language. Rodiya people use another dialect of Sinhala.


In Sinhala there is distinctive diglossia, as in many languages of South Asia. The literary language and the spoken language differ from each other in many aspects. The written language is used for all forms of literary texts but also orally at formal occasions (public speeches, TV and radio news broadcasts, etc.), whereas the spoken language is used as the language of communication in everyday life (see also Sinhala slang and colloquialism). As a rule the literary language uses more Sanskrit-based words.

The most important difference between the two varieties is the lack of inflected verb forms in the spoken language.

The situation is analogous to one where Middle or even Old English would be the written language in Great Britain. The children are taught the written language at school almost like a foreign language.

Sinhala language also has diverse slang. Some is regarded as taboo and most is frowned upon as non-scholarly.[cn]

Writing system


The Sinhalese writing system, Sinhala Hodiya, is based - as all other surviving Indo-aryan language scripts - on ancient Brahmi. The Sinhala script can be considered semi-syllabic, sometimes referred to as abugida or alphasyllabic, meaning that a basic letter such as ක represents a syllable with a default vowel, in this case ka ([kə]). This inherent vowel may be changed by adding so called pilla, vowel marks (diacritics), around the syllabic character, producing syllables such as කා kā, කැ kä, කෑ kǟ, කි ki, කී kī, කු ku, කූ kū, කෙ ke, කේ kē, කො ko, කෝ kō. Pili may appear above, below, to the left, to the right, or around the consonant. Sinhala also knows hal kirama and uses two differing virama symbols depending on the basic grapheme to explicitly indicate the lack of a vowel.

The complete writing system, Elu Hodiya, consist of 54 basic characters. It includes 18 vowel characters and 36 consonant characters. Only 36 characters (12 vowel and 24 consonant symbols) are required for writing spoken Sinhala in Suddha Sinhala. The remaining symbols for sounds that have gotten lost in the course of linguistic change, such as aspirates, are required to write Sanskrit and Pali loan words.

Sinhala is written from left to right and the Sinhala character set is only used for this singular Indo-Aryan language. The alphabetic sequence is similar to those of other Brahmic scripts: a/ā ä/ǟ i/ī u/ū [ŗ] e/ē [ai] o/ō [au] k [kh] g [g] ṅ c [ch] j [jh] [ñ] ṭ [ṭa] ṭ [ṭh] ḍ [ḍh] ṇ t [th] d [dh] n p [ph] b [bh] m y r l v [ś ṣ] s h ḷ f


  • The presence of so-called prenasalized stops. A very short homorganic nasal is added before a voiced stop. The nasal is syllabified with the onset of the following syllable, which means that the moraic weight of the preceding syllable is left unchanged.
  • The pronunciation of unstressed short a as schwa ə, which otherwise has no written symbol.
Labial Dental/
Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m ɳ ɲ ŋ
Stop voiceless p ʈ k
voiced b ɖ ɡ
prenasalized ᵐb ⁿ̪d̪ ᶯɖ ᵑɡ
Fricative (f) s (ʃ) h
Rhotic r
Approximant ʋ l j
Front Central Back
long short long short long short
Close i u
Mid e (ə) o
Open æː æ a


Nominal morphology

The main features marked on Sinhala nouns are case, number, definiteness and animacy.


Sinhala distinguishes several cases. Next to the cross-linguistically rather common nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative, there are also less common cases like the instrumental. The exact number of these cases depends on the exact definition of cases one wishes to employ. For instance, the endings for the animate instrumental and locative cases, atiŋ and laᵑgə, are also independent words meaning "with the hand" and "near" respectively, which is why they are not regarded to be actual case endings by some scholars. Depending on how far an independent word has progressed on a grammaticalization path, scholars will see it as a case marker or not.

The brackets with most of the vowel length symbols indicate the optional shortening of long vowels in certain unstressed syllables.

animate sg inanimate sg animate pl inanimate pl
NOM miniha(ː) potə minissu pot
ACC miniha(ː)və potə minissu(nvə) pot
INSTR miniha(ː) atiŋ poteŋ minissu(n) atiŋ potvəliŋ
DAT miniha(ː)ʈə potəʈə minissu(ɳ)ʈə potvələʈə
ABL miniha(ː)geŋ poteŋ minissu(n)geŋ potvaliŋ
GEN miniha(ː)ge(ː) pote(ː) minissu(ŋ)ge(ː) potvələ
LOC miniha(ː) laᵑgə pote(ː) minissu(n) laᵑgə potvələ
VOC miniho(ː) - minissuneː -
Gloss man book men books

Number marking

In Sinhala animate nouns, the plural is marked with -o(ː), a long consonant plus -u, or with -la(ː). Most of the inanimates mark the plural by subtractive morphology. Loan words from English mark the singular with ekə, and do not mark the plural. This can be interpreted as singulative.

SG ammaː deviyaː horaː potə reddə kantoːruvə satiyə bas ekə paːrə
PL amməla(ː) deviyo(ː) horu pot redi kantoːru sati bas paːrəval
Gloss mother(s) god(s) thief(ves) book(s) cloth(es) office(s) week(s) bus(ses) street(s)

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.

1st class 2nd class 3rd class
verb verbal adjective verb verbal adjective verb verbal adjective
present (future) kanəvaː kanə arinəvaː arinə pipenəvaː pipenə
past kæːvaː kæːvə æriyaː æriyə pipunaː pipunə
anterior kaːlaː kaːpu ærəlaː ærəpu pipilaː pipicca
simultaneous kanə kanə / arinə arinə / pipenə pipenə /
infinitive kannə/kanḍə / arinnə/arinḍə / pipennə/pipenḍə /
emphatic form kanneː / arinneː / pipenneː /
gloss eat / open / blossom /


  • 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 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 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 pot̪ə yaʈə, literally "book under".
  • Sinhala has no copula: "I am rich" translates to 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) meː "here, close to the speaker", "there, close to the person addressed", arə "there, close to a third person, visible" and "there, close to a third person, not visible".


  • Sinhala is a pro-drop language; that is, 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", like Japanese.

Example: The sentence Template:IPA-si, literally "where went", can mean "where did I/you/he/she/we... go".

See also


  1. Lewis, M. Paul (2009). "Statistical Summaries". Ethnologue: Languages of the World. SIL International. Retrieved 22 March 2010. 
  5. The story of prince Pandukabhaya
  7. Baxter, Craig, Yogendra K. Malik, Charles H. Kennedy, Robert C. Oberst (eds.), (2002), Government and Politics in South Africa, Westview Press, USA.
  8. Gair 1998
  9. Van Driem 2002
  10. Indrapala 2007
  11. Indrapala 2007
  12. Gair 1998


  • 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.
  • 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 900-410-390-2. 
  • 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. 

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