Posted on March 16th, 2018


Sinhala had started modernizing in the 19th century, long before ‘Sinhala Only’. Hundreds of Sinhala newspapers were published in the 19th century, not always in good Sinhala, said K.N.O. Dharmadasa. However, this helped the language to modernize.

Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala and Ratmalane Dhammarama and lay scholars such as W.F .Gunawardhana and Kumaratunga Munidasa were able by their teaching and writing to set high standards for Sinhala. There was also a highly active pirivena education to which the lead was given by Vidyodaya (1873) and Vidyalankara. (1875). the high standard of written Sinhala in the first half of the 20th century was due to this.

This tradition of Sinhala scholarship, nurtured in the pirivena was transferred to the Sinhala department of the University. The first two lecturers in Sinhala in University College in the 1940s were Ven. Suriyagoda Sumangala and Ven. Rambukwelle Siddhartha, both from the Pirivena tradition.

Sinhala has always had reformers pouncing on wrong grammar and spelling, but Munidasa Kumaratunga (1887-1944) and his Hela Havula went further. In the 1930s and 1940s they attempted a radical reform of the Sinhala vocabulary and usage. This met with resistance. Kumaratunga’s suggestions went against the grain.  The words he suggested were uncomfortable.

Even when the words he suggested were better than the words that had been coined, Kumaratunga was ignored. Kumaratunga observed that ‘Guvan viduli sevaya,’ for ‘radio broadcasting’ was not suitable, because ‘guvan viduli’ means ‘electricity in the atmosphere’, usually lightening. He    suggested ‘redevkaru’. This has not had any takers. It is still ‘guvan viduli’. However, Kumaratunga’s word ‘hediya’ has replaced the earlier ‘nurse nona.’

Arisen Ahubudu (1920 – 2011)   on the other hand contributed successfully to the growth of Sinhala. He gave meaningful names for the projects in the country such as Gama neguma, Maga neguma and Sisu seriya. The names he gave children were unique and were full of meaning. We can identify the names which have been innovated by him, said Kesaralal Gunasekera.

Aelian de Silva, (d. 2015) an electrical engineer in the Department of Government Electrical Undertakings, was asked to translate the 1951 annual report of the Department.  Aelian, who was a linguist, found that some of the terms in use were not suitable. ‘Bramana chakra yanthraya’, the term used for ‘turbine’ could be applied to a bicycle also since it meant ‘machine with rotating wheels.’ So he had to coin accurate technical terms before he could translate.

Aelian coined the words ‘piripahaduwa’ for refinery, ‘pirithel (petroleum), ‘supirithel’ (super petrol) ‘thekala’ (three phases). The word in use for ‘reservoir’ was ‘jalashaya’ which meant that ‘oil reservoir’ must be ‘thel jalashaya’. So he coined ‘rasyuruva.’ The glossary of Sinhala technical terms prepared by Aelian in 1954   for the CEB has been in use ever since.

Aelian de Silva tried thereafter to make a radical contribution to the modernizing of Sinhala. He was partially successful. His translating exercise brought into use some new Sinhala technical terms which are in day to day use.

He spent a great deal of time in coining meaningful Sinhala terms when he realized that  the Official Languages Department was issuing Sanskrit terms which did not convey the actual meaning.  We, on the ‘Dinamina’ at the time, fully supported Aelian’s effort but he did not get the backing of the Official Language Commissioner and his staff, said one critic.

Aelian compiled a comprehensive list of technical terms in Sinhala, published in 2002 as ‘Sinhalayen Sipyuru Vadan/Technical terms in Sinhala’. The publication comprised two books, one in Sinhala and the other in English under the same cover.

This work showed how to produce technological terms using the existing Sinhala. Aelian gave over 3000 new words in their different forms as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs.   He showed the consistent manner in which words have been formed in Sinhala and how new words could be derived using the same technique. He showed how verbs can be conjugated. One critic noted that the words provided in his book are ‘rational, pleasant sounding, and acceptable.’

Aelian de Silva pointed out that the Sinhala language has been used for centuries to generate technical terms that met ‘the needs of unsurpassed technical development, such as steel manufacture and irrigation works.’  Biso kotuwa comes from biswana kotuwa. If we could invent a good vocabulary in the ancient period, how we get paralyzed now, he asked. A nation should have a language which can generate new ideas.’

We must create technical terms which can effectively, unambiguously and precisely express technological concepts, he said.  The new tem should be as short as possible and  it should have an inbuilt mnemonic to help recall. It should, if possible, be based on a Sinhala verbal root.  The Sinhala verb can be conjugated , giving it a high degree of flexibility,  with the additional advantage that the manner in which this is to be done is pre-determined. Aelian disagrees with the view that the number of verbal roots in Sinhala were limited and therefore cannot be used to modernize the vocabulary.

Any word borrowed from another language, functions only as a noun. It loses flexibility and needs a further Sinhala word to complete the meaning, Aelian said. If the word ‘computer’ is ‘Sinhalized”, we cannot obtain single terms for the derivatives, however, from ‘pirigana’ we can get ‘piriganurayi’ for computerize, and ‘piriginiyaki’ for computable.

Here are some of the words suggested by Aelian de Silva.  The Sinhala equivalents offered by him are much shorter than the Sanskritized words we use today. But no one seems to be interested in using them.

Since recycle is ‘prathichakrikaranaya kereema’, for ‘recycled paper’ we have to say ‘prathichakreeya karanaya karana lada kadadasi.’  If instead we use ‘sisirayi’ for recycle, which means ‘to go round’ we could devise ‘pilisisarayi’ for ‘recycling, said Aelian. ‘Golaya’ means ‘ball’ so ‘goliyakaranaya’ means ‘to make balls’.  Aelian suggests      ‘diyathurava.’ which includes the idea of ‘to spread‘.

‘Thakshana’, used for technology, actually   means carpentry. He suggests ‘siplaku’ instead. Aelian suggests ‘dumdara’ for ‘dendro.’ From ‘gathi’ we  can get  sugathi ( welcome) ‘piliganithi’ ( receive)  ‘ugathi’ ( learn), Some of  the current terms  lead to unwieldy usage, he observed. e.g. ‘peopolise’ is ‘janatha karanaya karanawa,’ therefore ‘non-peopolise’ will have to be ‘janatha karanaya no kereema,’

There has been a tussle between Sanskrit, English and Sinhala in the modernizing of Sinhala. Aelian de Silva has openly opposed the use of Sanskrit when creating new Sinhala words. “Sanskrit was never used for practical technological processes in India. Further, Sanskrit was not the mother language of Sinhala. Sanskrit was a vernacular which was turned into a classical language. Since the English had borrowed frorm Latin, the Sinhalese thought that they must borrow form Sanskrit, he observed.

In Sri Lanka even the existing Sinhala terms, which were simple and accurate, were removed to make room for ‘weird Sanskrit monstrosities.’ we are given ‘pariksha karayi’ while Sinhala provides ‘piriksayi.’ He notes that we have substituted elaborate words for the simpler Sinhala words such as sunakaya for balla, sukaraya for ura.

Sanskrit terms are much longer than the Sinhala ones e.g.   puvatha, (Sin)/pravurthiya (San), pasala (Sin)/patashalava, (San),   diriya (Sin/ Dhairiya (San).  If the Sanskrit word ‘sampreshanaya’ is used for transmission, then the verb will have to be ‘sampreshanaya karanawa’. According to the authorities this long word is automatically understood but the Sinhala term ‘tharaharuma’ is considered unusable, complained Aelian.

DCA of Unawatuna”  writing to the Island  newspaper, said that there is nothing wrong in using ‘subha pathanawa’ as congratulations, regardless of any other meaning it may convey. Aelian de Silva replied that pathanawa is in the future tense, so it cannot be used for congratulations.  He suggested as substitute, ‘ piripasasuwa’ .DCA   responded that Aelian’s word is not in use,  therefore the solution is worse than the problem.  Aelian replied, in that case no new words can be introduced to a language. Another reader joined in, saying wrong usage impairs clarity in communication and Sinhala is a very precise language.

The creation of Sinhala terms for ICT indicates how the process works. The officials concerned genuinely tried to get correct terms.   CINTEC established a committee for the purpose of finding the Sinhala equivalents associated with the English technical terms for ICT.  University of Colombo,    School of Computing placed an advertisement in the newspapers asking the public to forward any     Sinhala technical terms they knew, which were relevant to computers. The response was poor.

CINTEC issued a Glossary of Technical Terms in Computer Science. This was heavily criticized by Aelian de Silva. The specific task of the committee was to create technical terms in Sinhala and not in English or in Sanskrit, said Aelian, but, among the 4000 odd terms suggested by the committee there is not a single technical term newly created by using the Sinhala language.

The committee had decided that there were no Sinhala roots for the subject, probably on the grounds that computers were such a new subject. CINTEC   borrowed technical terms for computer science from English and Sanskrit.  They either had transliterations of the English technical term itself or used Sanskrit words, complained Aelian. CINTEC has simply taken the English word so we get bit= bituwa, loop = loopaya. If this is acceptable, we can create the Sinhala equivalents of all the English technical terms within a few hours, he said. However, he admitted that with these terms, when the students start working in English they will recognize the word instantly.

The committee should have first studied the word formation in Sinhala said the highly critical Aelian de Silva. If the word ‘computer’ is ‘Sinhalized”, we cannot obtain single terms for the derivatives, it will have to be ‘Pariganaka karanawa’, or ‘yediya haki,’ instead Aelian offers ‘pirigani,’ and ‘piriginiya.’ From ‘pirigana’ we can get ‘piriganurayi’ for ‘computerize,’ and ‘piriginiyaki’ for ‘computable’.

Aelian was not the only person who  saw mistakes and blunders in contemporary Sinhala. There were many other Sinhala scholars who also saw mistakes and omissions. But their efforts at improving Sinhala and  keeping it pure were not, in my view ,  at all successful. Popular Sinhala and Official Sinhala disregarded the purists, igored their howls, eagerly  adopted any sanskritised, anglicized vocabulary offered to them, and went happily forward  into the 21 century . (Continued)


  1. Christie Says:

    වහර නු සරෙන් සපයා” මට තුවක්කුවක් (ගිනි අවියක් `ගිනි පෙල්ලක් වෙන්න ඇති”) තිබුනනම් ඔය සින්හල අපිට සින්හල කවපු උන් පරලොව යවනව.

    අද රට විරු විරුවියන් පිටරට ගෙදර දොරේ වැඩකරල පනමක් එවනව. ඉන්ග්‍රිසි ඉගෙනගෙන තිබුනනම් පවුමක්නෙ කක්කුස්සි බලාගන්නෙ නැතුව.

    ඔන්න ඕකයි කෙරුවාව.

    බන්ඩගෙ උන්ට ඉන්ග්‍රිසි පොඩි එකී එන්ගලන්තෙ.

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