INSIGHT INTO SINHALESE LANGUAGE THROUGH BENGALI.
Posted on May 24th, 2018

By W. Pathirana. Retired Senior Lecturer, University of Colombo.

A couple of recent news paper articles on similarities between Sinhalese and Bengali languages prompted me to submit this article. During the years 1967 – 1975 as a university student in Kolkata, the writer’s interest in Bengali language grew more intense with time as surprising similarities were discovered between the two languages. Being a pharmacy professional I have limited linguistic ability to write a scholarly article on languages. However this article should stir up Sinhalese, Bengali and other language scholars to take a serious look at the Sinhala – Bengali linguistic and the other wider connections. It must be noted that Bengali is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world catering to a population of close to 300 million people.

On your first arrival in Kolkata with a linguistically blunt mind, you don’t hear clear spoken words as such but a haze of sounds in the busy crowded metropolis of 14 million people. You are struck by sharp quasi musical sounds such as Cha, Sha, Kha, Tha, etc. In comparison the Sinhalese language appeared somewhat toned down in the force of pronunciations.

Once during sessions, a lecturer pointing at a student with unkempt hair sarcastically said ‘Ki Chamathkar’? Another day during a lecture, an interlude was set aside for mimicking. The student seated next to me leaning his head on my shoulder said ‘Ami klantho’ mimicking a bout of fainting. It was clear what they said translated in to Sinhalese were ‘Ketharum Chamathkarada’ and ‘Mama Kalanthe Daanawa’ and that there should be a similarity between the two languages. During lectures now and then I could hear many words that you come across in Sinhala such as ‘Kanija padartha’, ‘Anka’, ‘Jhol’ (Jalaya), ‘Raktho’, ‘Prathima’ and ‘ Porikkha’ (Parikshanaya or examination). In between a close friend would describe to me his fiancée as ‘Ardhangani’.  On a visit to a friend of mine at his residence, on seeing me he said ‘Alpa maathro’ (Alpa Mathrayak), meaning to wait for a while and slipped back in to the house returning minutes later.

Here is a rare incidence that none has so far documented anything similar. At a Bengali friend’s house, I happened to see a calendar with a picture of a stately personality standing on a decorated ship. I asked my friend what this picture is all about. He replied, ah, there you are! It is portraying King Vijay Sing sailing to Lanka two thousand years back”. This immediately struck me with the fact that the arrival and departure of this legendary king is now connected and the well known historical event was confirmed from the other end from where the whole history began.  It was a sensation to realize our historical roots from where the story of the Sinhalese commenced. Time and again in Sri Lanka we talk about the arrival of King Vijay Sing and his 700 men. For once, I had the pleasure of experiencing in a small way the departure of King Vijay Sing from Bengal or the Vanga Deshaya to Sri Lanka.

A similar incident happened during a speech by a Sri Lankan student at a meeting in the Kolkata International Students Association chaired by a Bengali gentleman. The student casually said during his speech I reached Kolkata from Sri Lanka the other day”. The Bengali chairperson interrupted the student and said Do not say I have come to Kolkata” say that I have returned home” meaning that the student had returned to his home country from where his ancestors left to Lanka two thousand years ago. The Bengali people are aware of this historical event. However there is no formal study of the subject with the depth it deserves despite the fact that it has scope for several doctoral dissertations.

There are genetic studies that strongly support the North Eastern Indian (Bengali and Oriya) origin of the Sinhalese. There appear on a lesser scale to a similar connection to Western Indian (Gujarati and Punjabi) origin. Gujarat was known as Lala deshaya/rata and is home to Indian lions or Singha, literally connecting Sinhabahu to this branch of the origin of the Sinhalese. Due to close proximity, over millennia there is a degree of Dravidian admixture as well among Sinhalese in many spheres. It has come to light comparatively recently that the Dravidian population in Sri Lanka is a heterogeneous stock consisting of Tamil, Malayali, Theligu (Andra), Moor, Kafir and Chettiyars. Terms ‘Andara’ from Andra Pradesh and ‘Demala’ from Tamil were coined together by Sinhalese as ‘Andara-demala’.  Whenever the Sinhalese are in a difficulty in understanding any conversation they say it is like ‘Andara-demala’ based on the fact that they had a difficulty in understanding Dravidian languages. Interesting information could be found by referring to an article titled ‘Genetic Studies on Sinhalese’ at <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/genetic_studies_on_Sinhalese>.

By and by with these incidences in the back ground, I started to probe deeper in to the relationship between the two languages. A book on Bengali alphabet was purchased. It was a great surprise to find that the two alphabets were almost the same with ‘ka, kha, ga, gha, na’ and ‘ya, ra, la, wa, sa, listed in the same sequence. Though Bengali letters were comparatively simple, one could make out the similarities between these and the Sinhalese letters. One can discern the similarities especially in the letters ka, ja, na, dha, pa, la and sa’.  The horizontal lines running at the upper part of Bengali as well as Hindi letters have all but disappeared from Sinhalese letters except a rudimentary line in few of the Sinhalese letters, Eh, Cha, Da, Bha and Sa. (www.omniglot.com/writing/bengali/ntm). It has been said that the Sinhalese letters are the most roundish of all languages. For instance the letter ‘Ka’ takes as much as parts of six circles and one full circle, all in all seven. An engineering drawing would have to use seven radii of curvature to construct the letter ‘Ka’.

The pronouncing of the numerals is even closer between the two, starting with ‘Sunya’ for zero in Bengali. In the ascending order in Bengali they are Ek, Dho, Theen, Chaar, Paach, Shoi, Saath, Aart, Noi and Dosh which are self- explanatory. These pronunciation seems to have remained as they were, ever since the arrival of Sinhalese over 2000 years back. It may be that the numerals are not susceptible to changes unlike the language. By nature, numerals stand firm in what they intend to convey and meant to resist changes. Incidentally the numeral sounds of Sinhalese have no relation what so ever to Dravidian numerals such as Ondu, Rendu, Moolu etc except in the case of ‘Ettu’, (Aart, Ata or Eight). Here is a rarely appreciated dichotomy between Dravidian and the Sinhalese languages that needs serious attention by the scholars.

Given below is a gist of similarities between the two languages. The mini-dictionary is set in the sequence English – Bengali – Sinhalese where necessary. A small explanation is given where it warrants. The sound ‘Ba’ in Bengali must be substituted with ‘Va’ in Sinhalese.

Anatomical parts- Most similarities of the words are obvious and needs no elaboration. Kesh – Kess, Naak – Nasaya, Akshi – As, Mukh – Mukaya, Jeev – Diva, Daath – Dath, Rhidoi – Hardaya, Hand- Haath – Atha, Angul – Angili, Lap- Kule – Ukule, Paad – Paada, Linga – Linga, Ladies- Naari- Naari, Short man – Beti Manush – Beti minisa, Tall man – Lomba – Tall as a Lambayak.  Also Raktho means red and refer to blood.

Fruits- Mango – Aamb – Amba, Bale fruit – Bale – Beli, Guava – Perah – Pera, Sugar cane – Aak – Uk, Pineapple – Annas – Annasi, Banana – Kola – Kesel. Here two of the Bengali consonants appear among three Sinhalese consonants and the writer took many years to realize the hidden similarity as the sound kola diverts you to leaves or green. Star fruit – Kabranka – Kaabaranka . This was accidental, when I heard a pavement hawker in Kolkata calling ‘Kabranka, Kabranka’. It was a great surprise to find this non- commercial somewhat rare fruit being called by a Sinhalese word.

Food- Rice – Bhaath – Bath, Eat – Kaben- Kanna, Water – Jhol – Jalaya, Red pepper – Morich – Miris, Roti – Roti, Gingili balls – Thila Guli – Thala Guli, Bitter – Thetho – Thiththa, Liquor – Sharaa – Raa, Potatoes – Alu – Ala, again is a relationship that took a long time, over five years to comprehend since the sound of Bengali word ‘alu’ is associated in Sinhalese with ‘ash’. Incidentally the example Fire – Agni – Gini shows that the similarities between the two languages may not be obvious at once but becomes clear once you sift through them.

Calander/Time- Four seasons are termed Grishmo – Greeshma, Shorot – Sarath, Sheeth – Sheetha and Bosonto – Wasantha. Bengali names of the days in the week end in ‘bar’. Sound ‘Ba’ must be substituted with ‘Wa’ for Sinhalese equivalent so that ‘bar’ is ‘var’ or ‘waraya’ or the ‘turn’. Day names starting from Monday are – Robibar – Ravigewaraya, Sombar, Mongalbar – Mangalawaraya, Budhbar – Badaada, Brihospathibar – Brahaspathinda, Shukrobar – Sikurada and Shonibar – Senasuradha.  Both these list of names refer to certain planets. A.M, P. M. – Shokale,Vikale. Night – Rathri – Rathree, Good night – Shuba Rathri – Suba Rathriyak.

Place names- Following place names are from Metropolitan Kolkata. Plain of gems – Maniktala – Manik thalawa, Plain of Dharma – Dharmatala – Dharmatalawa, Salt lake – Noone pokur – Lunu Pokuna, Nation Lovers Park – Deshappriyo Park – Deshappriya Park. The similarities of Sinhalese equivalents of the two astonishing place names Sealda and Goriahath are described later.

It was a never ending fascination to see a bus plying in Kolkata city with the name board ‘Kolyan-Madyamgram’. By then I had the skills to unlock sounds, with the ability to assemble metamorphosed sound changes from Bengali in to Sinhalese. Kolyan stands for Kalyan or Kelaniya. Madyamgram stands for Madyama+grama or central village or Medagama. In Sri Lanka it would be a bus plying between Kelaniya and Medagama. Incidentally, Medamoolana village in southern Sri Lanka is much in news these days. Here ‘meda’ means central. ‘Mool’ is leader (Moolikaya) or basic (Mooladharma) or root (Mool). Medamoolana means a place for central leadership.

Relationship to Sinhalese of the name of one of the long distance railway stations ‘Sealda’ (Siyalda) in Kolkata is an interesting one. When first heard it did not bring out any similarity. I requested a Bengali friend to explain. Then only the language connection became apparent. ‘Seal’ is for Sival/Sivala/Nariya and Da or Dha is a form of salutation, in this instant to a fox. In summery name Sealda stands for Exalted Fox-Sealda-Sival da or simply the ‘Great Fox Railway Station’.

For years I have been travelling in a tram car with the name board of a strange sounding name ‘Goriahath’ not imagining that there could be even a remote possibility of a similarity with Sinhalese. Again a friend analyzed it for me, Gori or Geri is Cattle or Gonaa and Haath is Atha/hand. So the name of this tramcar terminal is Cattle limb – Goriahath – Geri Atha. By splitting words in this manner one can even understand many Sinhalese words to a greater depth.

Personal names- Many names are connected to Buddhism – Thathagatho, Gauthum, Moithri, Siddhartha and Buddho. Names of males are Arun, Uday, Durlav, Lahiri, Mihir, Mukul, Predeep and female names are Purnima, Soft hair – Romaa – Roma, Heat – Thapothi – Thaapa, Thought – Chittho – Chintha, Cool – Sheethol – Seethala (not in use).

Politics- There are many Sinhala sounding slogans. People’s fight will continue – Janathara Sangram Cholche Cholbe – Janatha sangramaya chalanayawe, People with two different rules – Dunithi parayan – Nithideke parayan, Bound to motherland – Bande Matharum – Mathrubumiyata bandhee sitimi, Contraversy – Aandolan – Aandolanaya. Pradhan manthri and Mukya manthri are two obvious terms.

Numbers- The Bengali sounds of the numbers are obvious, Ek, Dho, Theen, Char, Paach, Shoi, Saath, Aart, Noi, Dosh. Thirty three – Theth thiris – thiss thuna. Incidentally the sound of English thirty three rhymes well with the other two sounds. Ten million – Koti – Kotiya. I travelled to campus in a bus with route number 8B – Aart B – Ata B.

University- There was a number of words sounding similar to Sinhalese that make you feel at home in the university environment. They include, University- Bishvavidyala – Vishvavidyala, Examination – Porikka – Parikshana, Sums- Anko – Anka/Ganithaya, to write – Lekho-Lekana/Liyana, Center – Kendra – Kendra, Prospects – Unnathi – Unnathiya, Sishyo – Sishya, Teacher – Guru – Guruthuma, New/novel – Nothun – Noothana, Put to use – Bavahar – Viyawaharaya.

Day to day activities– There were several minor staff members attached to the Salvation Army hostel, Kolkata, where I was boarded. Once in awhile one of them was missing for some length of time. On seeing him back I enquired as to where he was all this while. The first person said ‘Ami mulluk gelo’. The second and the third also said ‘Ami mulluk gelo’. When I asked a fried how is that all of them are from the same town ‘Mulluk’, my friend said that ‘mulluk is not a village and what they meant was that they visited their ‘home town’ on vacation.  ‘Ami mulluk gelo’ in Sinhalese would be ‘Mama mulgam giya’. This struck me with the fact that the equivalent of ‘mulluk’ in Sinhalese is ‘mulla’. The sound however conveys the meaning of a ‘corner’ but analyzing from Bengali connection it means ‘moolya’ or ‘mul’ or ‘roots’ or the original village of a person. There are many towns in Sri Lanka with names ending in ‘mulla’ such as Udahamulla, Yakkalamulla, Battaramulla and Bemmulla. Before getting exposed to Bengali language I thought these were some kind of ‘remote corners’. Udahamulla would actually means Uda or upper village. Yakkalamulla should be the village of devils. Ududumbara (Uda Dum Bara) in Bengali would mean Udu – oot/ud+Dum – Dhoom (smoak)+bara – bora – weight. So Ududumbara is a highland village laden with heavy smoke, meaning mist.

During conversation, the Bengalese very often says ‘ebarr’. For example ‘I went to post office’, ‘Ebarr, I went to the vegetable market’. I was told ‘ebarr’ means ‘next turn’ or turn by turn. In Sinhalese when b is substituted with v ‘ebarr’ reads ‘evaar’ or ‘ema vaaraye’ or ‘eelanga vaaraye’. In conversation among Sinhalese, in place of Bengali context ‘ebarr’, we say ‘epaara’. All my childhood I thought it meant ‘first this road, next another road etc and the events in the conversation were changing from road to road.  Now I know the Sinhalese ‘epaara’ means a corrupt form of ‘evaar’, ‘vaarayen vaaraya’ or turn by turn. In both these although the sounds have changed with time the context and consonant base have remained similar.

Others instances of similarities are listed here. Gaan koro – Gayanaya karanna, Snaan koro – Snanaya karana – take a bath, Thaak – Thabanna, Bandukoro – Bandanaya karanna – to stop, alok bandukoro – alokaya bendadamanna/niva damanna – Switch off lights, a difficult catch – Darun catch. When you visit someone else, the host says ‘Ashun’ meaning ‘Aasana’/to sit down. To go out – Bahire gelo- Baahirata Giya/Bayrak Giya. Patiye dawo – Pitakara damanna/send out/to post a letter.

Arts and culture- In the early seventies on returning from a holiday in Sri Lanka I took a copy of a broacher of Professor Sarathchanga’s famous drama ‘Maname’. It is no exaggeration to say that the pictures and the contents appeared as if it is a Bengali production.  Except for few words, the Bengali friends could understand word by word of the song ‘Premayen Mana Ranjitha Way Nandhitha Way, Pushpayen Wana Sundara Way Lankrutha Way ……aalayen, …..latha, mandapayen, chandaa,  thapa etc’. In the land of Rabindranath Thagore and Shanthi Nikethan it was a surprise for them to find Sinhalese language almost on par with the Bengali compositions linguistically. One small adjustment here is that ‘wa’ of Wana must be substituted with ‘ba’ in Bengali. This brings to mind the world famous ‘Sundarban’ – Sundar+ban/wan/wana or the ‘beautiful forest’ or in Sinhalese ‘Sundara Wanaya’, the well known habitat of Bengal Tigers. If you interpose Lanka with Vanga Desh for a moment, you begin to wonder if ‘Maname’ drama belongs to which one of these two places.

Bengalese will be able to understand most words in early gramophone record Sinhalese songs. For instance in the song ‘Handapane Welitalaa Surakumariyo Malsala, Mihiri Lalitha Gee Gaya, Natathi Me Raye’ except the words Handapane and Malsala others are same as Bengali. Handa is a toned down word for Chandra and Weli (Sand) in Bengali is Beli. By the way ‘dust’ in Bengali is Doolo and in Sinhala Doovili. Same is the case with the song ‘Asey Madhura Jeevanaye Geetha Naamu Ama Dahare’ and many other early songs.

A piece of Bengali poetry reads ‘Jala Bora Meghe’. In Sinhalese it means ‘Jalayen Barawoo Meghayak/Walakulak. Once I went for a film show titled ‘Pada Thick’. The meaning of it was analyzed to be ‘Paada Thaba’ in Sinhalese.

 

Analyzing selected Sinhalese words- From the view point of Bengali language, some of the Sinhalese words/names taken for granted could be analyzed as follows.

‘Udara’ can be split in to U+Dara. The sound Oo, U, Uda or Up stands for something held above or high. Dara is Daragena or to be held. Udara would mean a thing/person held in high esteem.

‘Mathaka’ is Ma+thak. Ma referes to Mind/Manasa. As described earlier Thak is to keep. Mathaka would mean to keep in mind or to remember. To say ‘Mathaka thabaganna’ is a wasteful repetition of the second word.

‘Kasada’ is Ka+sada/Sadhi. Ka or Kay means who? Sadhi is to marry. Kasada means whom are you marrying? In usage it refers simply to marrying.

‘Bandanagara’ is Bandana+Gara or Ghor or Gruhaya or House. Bandana means bound. Bandanagaraya is a place one is bound to. In other words it means the prison. All the other ‘garayas’ you come across in Sinhalese refers to various such houses. Eg: Kauthukagaraya, Shalyagaraya.

Matara is Mata+ra. Mata stands for Matha or mother. Ra is to add respect. Matara means respected mother.

Once a friend said ‘Your Prime Minister has a strange name’. I said ‘how is that, she has a beautiful name Sirimavo’, that time prime minister. He replied Sirimavo means Sri+Ma or Sri+Mother. Sri refers to male and Srimathi referesto female form of salutations. Therefore he said Mister Mother sounds strange. Once a Gujarathi gentleman by the name Arun met a Sri Lankan by the name Karunapala. The former said his name is inside latter’s name. We could not understand what he meant. He said the second to fifth letters read Arun.

Finally during election days you often come across two terms Gahenu/Genu and Pirimi. Genu is a corruption for ganika. Appropriate words for these two terms would be Sthree and Purusha.

Chances of interaction between the two sister languages Sinhalese and the Bengali is limited due to geography of Bengali speaking population located in north eastern India, in the State of West Bengal and in Bangladesh. Even the few Sri Lankans that trickle in to these areas are on hurried business assignments or on religious package tours. There are no interactive language centers as such. It is the responsibility of appropriate government or private agencies and individuals to revive and foster the cultural interaction between the two languages for the mutual benefit. Understanding the essence of these two languages is bound to open up the comprehension of many more languages such as Hindi, Gujarathi, Sanskrit and remotely even some English words that has a Sanskrit base. For instance, Mother – Maatha – Mawa and Peter – Peethru – Peethru/Piyaa. There will be no end to such a study that will lead to a long process of Genesis – Janmo – Janma of linguistic acumen.

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11 Responses to “INSIGHT INTO SINHALESE LANGUAGE THROUGH BENGALI.”

  1. Christie Says:

    Thanks

    We share other thigs with Bengalis.

    Sinhala New Year is celebrated by Bengalis though they are Muslims now.

    It is called “Bakshi Mela” by Bengalis and “Bak Maha Ulela” by Sinbhalese: based on a Star event.

  2. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    Very interesting article. There are so many connections according to the article. What is missing is Bengalis not showing
    any support for their so called relatives across the waters while tamils in south india want to break up Sri Lanka to
    have their drealam kingdom to share with their brethren which they can’t get in india.

  3. Lionel Says:

    Very interesting. I think we have common things with Bangladesh (Bengalis) people as well. I haven’t been to Kolkata yet, but have many Bangladeshi friends from Bangladesh. They are the people with features closest to us I have ever come across.

  4. Dilrook Says:

    Two major linguistic groups exist in the region. Sinhala belongs to the majority (about 80% of South Asians speak a similar language). These links must be re-established. Although South India is geographically close, we hardly had good relations with South India and we were poles apart in language family, religion, culture, etc.

    No wonder north Indian cultural artefacts are popular among Sri Lanka’s majority but south Indian cultural artefacts are popular among Sri Lanka’s minority.

  5. nilwala Says:

    As far back as circa 1968, when the then CAAS (now SLAAS) held its annual sessions, a keynote address by one of the Chief Guests was a member of the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta (now Kolkata) who presented apaper on the Genetic connections between the Bengali and Sinhalese peoples based on physiognomy and facial features etc., and concluded that there was a close genetic connection. If any members of the old CAAS can bring more info on this it would help trace this paper.

    In a more recent article in the Indian Express titled “Yes, the Sinhalese have their origins in Bengal, Odisha”, the author,A. Roychowdhury states in connection with the Prince Vijaya lore:”….it is not just mythology that reflects upon this connection. In his study titled “Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan Populations”, Gautam Kumar Kshatriya found that 25.41 per cent of the genetic make up on the Sinhalese population was contributed by the Bengalis. Linguistically too, scholars have for long remarked upon the Indo-Aryan origins of the Sinhalese speech.”. He goes on to say “… the genetic, cultural and linguistic relation that the Sinhalese population shares with the Bengalis and Odiyas, though of scholarly interest, has remained largely ignored by the popular masses.”
    WHY and HOW this has come to be so is a good question!!

  6. nilwala Says:

    URL of the article by Roychowdhury cited above :
    http://indianexpress.com/article/research/yes-the-sinhalese-have-their-origins-in-bengal-odisha/
    Tx

  7. Ananda-USA Says:

    Recently I watched a movie having 45 parts called BUDDHA. It relates the entire story from the birth of Prince Siddartha to his enlightenment as the Lord Buddha to his parinirvana.

    I was so impressed with this movie that I bought 2 copies of it on Amazon.com for $99 each, one for me to keep in the USA and the other to give my family members in Sri Lanka.

    I was struck dumb by the fact that I could understand the conversations (presumably in Hindi) with my Sinhala knowledge; I did not really need the English sub-titles! The shared origin of Hindi and Sinhala and the connections to literary Sanskrit and Buddhist Pali were clearly the reasons for the ease with which I could understand the conversations.

  8. Ananda-USA Says:

    I also agree with Lionel; Bengalis (and people from Orissa) look very much like Sinhalese.

  9. Dilrook Says:

    That is true Ananda. English subtitles are a distraction in that case. Try Oriya; same thing. Very similar to Sinhala. Bengali language when spoken is a bit difficult to understand though.

  10. nilwala Says:

    Re. the Indian movie on the Life of the Buddha, titled “BUDDHA”, It is quite beautifully done and is available to watch on Netflix. Up to
    ~Segment 34 it deals with the pre-Enlightenment phase….the rest deals with the Buddha’s preachings and philosophy as well.

  11. samaraweera Says:

    I watched this movie “Buddha” on Netflix thrice because it is so touching and it is done so well. It is a great piece of work. No question.

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