Sri Lanka’s linguistic makeup is complex and diverse. Several languages are spoken within this Southeast Asian country, but only two of them are granted official status: Sinhala and Tamil.
Due to the nation’s colonial past, as well as to commercial convenience, English is also widely spoken. 2012 estimations point that approximately 23.8% of Sri Lankans speak the local English dialect, referred to as Ceylonese English or “Singlish”.
If we’re looking to communicate with a Sri Lankan business partner or colleague – or even with a Sri Lankan audience, we might have doubts regarding which language we should speak. Will Tamil translation services do the trick, or should we look for a language services provider experienced in Sinhala?
An Introduction to Sri Lanka Language Diversity
The Sinhala language (also known as Sinhalese) is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by the country’s Sinhalese people. Tamil, on its part, is a Dravidian language spoken by the Tamil people.
The Sinhala people make up the country’s largest ethnic group, making Sinhala a majority language. Approximately 75% of the Sri Lankan population speaks Sinhala.
Sinhalese disembarked into Sri Lanka in the 5th century BCE, with a migration wave from Northeast India. Sinhalese is one of the foundational languages of Theravāda, the oldest extant branch of Buddhism. It’s rooted in Sanskrit, and it was deeply influenced by Pāli, the sacred tongue of the Sri Lankan Buddhists. Some of the oldest Sinhalese inscriptions found to date from the second and third centuries BCE. Examining written records from the 1200s, we can perceive a fully-formed literary language that has experienced little variation to the present day.
Scholars argue that Sinhalese was derived from Sanskrit in the same way in which the Romance languages were derived from Latin. Consequently, since there’s a linguistic nexus between Sanskrit and Latin, there’s a linguistic nexus between Sinhalese and the Romance languages. Parallels were also found between Sinhalese and Slavic, Baltic and Germanic languages.
Ethnologue estimates that there are a little under 18 million Sinhala speakers on a global scale. Almost 16 million of them speak Cingalese as their mother tongue, and approximately two million people have adopted it as their second language.
The Tamil language, on the other hand, is the second-most-spoken language, with the Tamil people being the largest Sri Lankan ethnic minority. Tamil is one of the most-spoken and oldest Dravidian languages. In fact, some scholars argue that it might be the oldest language on earth.
For instance, R. Mathivanan, scholar and former Chief Editor of the Tamil Etymological Dictionary Project of the Government of Tamil Nadu, claims that the Tamil language originated around 200,000 BC. Diverse and conflicting theories on the origin and evolution of Tamil abound.
Learning the exact origin of language is rather difficult, and the older the language the more difficult it is. And, aside from that, dating Tamil’s first written registries can be especially difficult due to the material of the manuscripts, which is palm leaf. But, while direct dating is impossible, linguistic and contextual evidence suggests that the oldest extant works were probably composed in the 2nd Century CE. The earliest epigraphic rock carvings made in Tamil date from the 3rd Century CE.
No language is a monolith. Especially, when it’s spoken as widely as Tamil, an official language in India and Singapore, as well as a recognized minority language throughout the ASEAN region. Linguistic differences can be seen across religions, locales, and castes.
Throughout its history, Tamil didn’t close itself to influence from other tongues. For instance, the Tamil spoken in the Indian region of Kerala borrows heavily from Malayalam, another Dravidian language. This dialect isn’t just characterized by loanwords from Malayalam, but also by a certain syntax and accent directly derived from Malayalam.
On the other hand, Sri Lankan Tamil borrows vocabulary from Portuguese, Dutch, and English, while keeping a rather conservative syntax.
Aside from dialects, we can recognize three codified lects:
- Sankattamiḻ, a classical literary style that’s very close to Old Tamil.
- Centamiḻ, a modernized but very formal style.
- Koṭuntamiḻ, the colloquial form of Tamil.
Codified lects are varieties of a language that are used by speakers in certain settings. Languages in which speakers have to perform code-switching are said to be in a state of “diglossia”.
These forms of Tamil exist within a continuum, and through the last few years, general public speech has shown a growing tendency towards colloquialism. This can be observed in popular media, as well as in political discourse.
With over 81 million speakers, Tamil is currently the 19th most-spoken language on earth. Some scholars argue that its prevalence is being threatened by extreme diglossia, combined with a growing preference towards English among speakers. For the latter, some cite economic and cultural reasons, while others focus on the idea that diglossia and linguistic differences between dialects are so severe that English often operates as a lingua franca between groups of Tamil speakers.