Posted on August 7th, 2018


REVISED 7.8.18

Sinhala has been in use for two and a half millennia, the language has a continuous recorded history of 2300 years. It has today entered the world of information technology with its own UNICODE, said J.B.Disanayake in his book ‘Encyclopedia of Sinhala language and culture’ (2 Ed 2017). The Sinhalese could achieve artistic and technological heights only because they were able to create a language that could express their thoughts with precision, efficiency, and imagination, he added.

There is linguistic creativity in Sinhala, continued J.B.Disanayaka. There are several remarkable linguistic features in Sinhala, which make Sinhala a unique indo Aryan language. Sinhala writers   modified the brahmi script by adding two sets of new letters. Sinhala has two vowels and a set of four consonants, all of which are unique to Sinhala. This has made the Sinhala alphabet one of the most creative alphabets of the world. At the International World Character Conference, Seoul 2009 Sinhala was declared one of 16 creative alphabets.    Verbs in the Sinhala language,    work in ‘unusual ways’, added Disanayaka. Every verb has a corresponding ‘passive verb’.

Sinhala   language has played an important role in the preservation of Theravada Buddhism. The commentaries on Theravada Buddhism,   which would originally have been in Magadhi, were eventually to be found only in Sri Lanka, written in Sinhala. They were known as Helatuva and were held in great esteem in India.  Secondly, the Tripitaka was written down for the first time, at Aluwihare, in  Maghadi but in the Sinhala script. Thereafter the Magadhi language, in Sinhala script, became known as Pali.  ‘the written form of Magadhi as modified by the sinhala monks, was given the new name Pali’ said Disanayaka. [1] Since ‘Pali’ simply means ‘text’,    in my view, the correct name of ‘Pali’ still remains ‘Magadhi.’

J.B. Disanayaka divides Sinhala language and writing into five periods: Old Sinhala, Middle Sinhala, Classical Sinhala, Pre-modern Sinhala, and Modern Sinhala. Old Sinhala can be found in the period up to 2 AD and is best seen in the cave donation inscriptions. They are in brahmi script. Buddhist texts were written in Old Sinhala. Mahavamsa mentions three kinds of Helatuva, ‘Maha atuva’, ‘Mahapasuru atuva’ and ‘Kurundivelli atuva’. These have disappeared but quotations from them are given in Dampiya atuva getapadaya. In the Hela atuva ‘lakuntaka’ means ‘short’        and   ‘rahado ‘means ‘pit, said Disanayaka, but we do not know how old Sinhala was spoken.

Middle Sinhala’ period is from 2 AD to 8 AD. Writings of this period can be seen in cave, rock, and slab inscriptions and in the Sigiri Graffiti. Sigiri Graffiti is an important source of information. This period saw the birth of two new vowels, a new set of  consonants called ‘sannaka’ that have no equivalent in any  other Indian language and the introduction of long vowels. The letter ‘ja’ was substituted for the earlier ‘cha’ in many words. . There are many examples of this in the Sigiri Graffiti. The language in the graffiti has many variants. This is a conspicuous feature in the graffiti. This indicates that Middle Sinhala was an intermediate stage of evolution between Old Sinhala and Classical Sinhala.

A substantial body of Sinhala writing, both prose and poetry, developed in this period. There is reference to the ‘Dolos maha Kaveen’ during the reign of king Agbo II. (604-614). Their names are available, but not their writings. However, quotations from their works are used as illustrations for grammatical rules.

Sigiri graffiti shows a unique poetic tradition found nowhere else in the world. It displays excellent poetic expression, by ordinary folk. There is skill in handling language. There are certain metrical limits when writing graffiti and within this limitation, words had to be chosen well and put together in the best order, observed Disanayaka.

Classical Sinhala” belongs to the period    9-15 century. This was a period full of literary activity. Classical Sinhala is the creation of an ‘impressive array of Sinhala writers, monks, kings, and laymen.” It was also the period of the long galpota of King Nissanka Malla. For the first time, Sinhala included words from Sanskrit, both loan and derived. There were hardly any Sanskrit words in the previous period. This innovation enriched the Sinhala vocabulary and created new language patterns. New letters were needed for the Sanskrit words, new strokes were created, and also two styles of writing, the poetic, and the regular style were developed.

‘Pre modern Sinhala’   covers the period 15-19th century. Sinhala took on a new role in this period. The Roman Catholic religion had arrived and Sinhala was used to teach the Roman Catholic religion to the natives. Sinhala words, such as ‘deva’ were used by the Roman Catholic priests, in explaining their religion. The Protestant Christian missionaries, who followed, used spoken Sinhala in their Sinhala Bible and also in their sermons. They had to convert both Buddhists and Roman Catholics.

Sinhala underwent major changes towards the end of their period. Writing transferred from ola leaf to printing press. This in turn, led to the creation of word boundaries, with spaces between the sentences and between words. This period saw the rise of Sinhala journalism. Sinhala Journalism made a significant contribution to the development of the Sinhala language by influencing its orthography, style, usage, and vocabulary, said Disanayaka. Certain linguistic styles were created by the journalists, though purists objected. In any case, old styles had to give way to new. The phrase ‘rising of the price of fish’   changed to ‘the price of fish goes up,’ added Disanayaka.

In the pre- modern period, words from western languages came into the island, brought in by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Some of these words were incorporated into Sinhala. There are lists of the Sinhala words derived from Portuguese, Dutch and British, such as ‘viskotu’ ( Portuguese) ‘ kokis’ ( Dutch)  ‘cake’  (English).

Among these western words, there were plenty of words with the sound F”. Initially the Sinhala letter ‘pa’ was used as a substitute for ‘F’ but a new letter , the inverted ‘ya’ was suggested by Mendis Gunasekera in his Comprehensive Grammar  of the  Sinhalese language in 1891. This letter came into use in the early 20th century.

Sinhala of this period had a larger set of pronouns of the second and third person in contrast to those in classical Sinhala. There was ‘umba’, ‘oya,’ ‘thama,’ ‘thammunnanse’, ‘thamuse’, for second person. There was ‘oo’ ‘unde’, ‘unnahe’, ‘aru’, ‘ eya’, ‘eka’, for third person,

Disanayaka  observed that  it was possible to get some idea of  the Sinhala spoken in the Udarata  kingdom of this period, from the travelogue of Vilbagedera Rala who led the delegation to   Siam in mid 18 century sent by King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782) asking for the upasampada. On the return journey, he had written a travelogue, almost like a diary, in language close to spoken idiom, Disanayaka observed. They used ‘tibenava’,  ‘dutuva’, ‘karanta’,  ‘padinta’,  ‘idichcha’, ‘patavapu’ and  ‘tanapu’,

Modern Sinhala” is of course the contemporary Sinhala we are using today. Many exciting things have happened to Sinhala in the contemporary period. Firstly, Sinhala was subject to intense ‘language planning.’

After Sinhala only,  (1956) new words had to be found in a mighty hurry. For instance, a new way of saying ‘you’ in conversation was needed. The word ‘oba’ which was used for the third person in Classical Sinhala was now transferred to the second person.

Words are coined in no time now, said Disanayaka, in 2017, giving the example of ‘salli karaya. Sinhala slang, such as ‘kota uda’ has now entered standard Sinhala, but scholars will not use it, he said. Sinhala is a phonetic language but nevertheless, there was a fuss over spelling. There are guide books now on how to spell Sinhala words correctly, said Disanayaka in 2017.

In 1968,   I.M.R.A. Iriyagolle Minister of Education, appointed a committee   to create a ‘sammatha Sinhala’   standard for written Sinhala. The Hela Havula group got into this committee and the recommendations were all Hela Havula. There was a terrific uproar among the writers and University dons. It was an ‘open battle’ and print media gave wide coverage to the issue, said Disanayaka. The report was revised and a second report appeared in 1970. I cannot recall this report and I think the whole project was abandoned thereafter.

Sinhala came into the Modern Period with 58 letters, 40 sounds,  and 20 vowel strokes. This underwent change. There was a call for the simplification of the script. One reason was that print setting was easier with less letters. Therefore some letters, some strokes, and ‘bandi akuru’ began to be left out. Purists said that the murtada nayanne”, and the   double petalled layanne”  must be retained since they indicated different meanings within the same spelling,  but others pointed out that the meaning emerged in the usage regardless of the spelling for instance in  ‘tana kiri’ and ‘tana kola’.

Modern Sinhala has  attempted to bring the spoken and literary Sinhala together. This is partly a result of language planning,  said Disanayaka. Scholarly writing, non fiction, textbooks and legal documents,   still keep to traditional grammar, but  novels are today written entirely in the spoken idiom. Television news today is a blend of formal and informal Sinhala. Private television and radio use more spoken Sinhala in news reading than the state television. But both radio and television use the spoken idiom in popular shows. So the difference between spoken and written Sinhala is diminishing. Both styles are influencing each other and producing new forms, observed Disanayaka.

In the early 20 century spoken Sinhala and folk idiom were not recognized as areas worthy of serious study, said Disanayaka. Martin Wickremasinghe said in his autobiography, Upan da sita” that he was ridiculed by the academics when he spoke of Sinhala folk poetry. Disanayaka records that the initial work on folk idiom was by A.V.Gunapala who published ‘Hela vahara” in 1957.(Saman Press). Gunapala had  focused on spoken Sinhala with emphasis on regional usage. His work was a trailblazer, said Disanayaka. After that many researchers, studied Sinhala folk speech and recorded it for posterity. Disanayaka coined the term’ jana vahara’ for folk language

Disanayaka  in his book, records the regional variants of Sinhala.. Ruhunu Sinhala uses ‘karahang’, Southern Sinhala  uses ‘makkatai’, Udarata Sinhala   says karanta, kiyanta,’ Rajarata Sinhala (North central province)  says‘ umbahe’, Digamadulla  uses ‘balapa.’ In Hat korale ‘to go for medicine’ is ‘bet para yanawa. In Hatara korale wedding is ‘taruvava’,  I think that this usage would-be confined to the rural sector in these regions, not the urban sector.

In addition to this, Disanayake pointed out that certain occupational  groups such as  brass workers,  cinnamon peelers, fishermen, graphite miners,  jewelers, lacquer workers, masons, potters and toddy tappers had  occupational jargon of their own . There was also a special vocabulary relating to paddy cultivation. This, of course,  is well known. The young grain of paddy is ‘vee’,  the harvested rice is ‘hal’ and the cooked rice is ‘bat’

Disanayake pointed out that in contemporary Sri Lanka there are two sacred spaces, the kamatha in the paddy field and the temple in village and town. A special Sinhala is used in  these two spaces. The threshing floor is considered sacred and harvesting has ritual significance. A special set of words is used. Odd numbers avoided in counting, instead of eka they say hapura. However, in my view,  this is  an inherited tradition coming down for centuries. It is not a special characteristic of modern Sinhala. This usage   shows the remarkable  continuity of the Sinhala language and Sinhala culture.

Similarly, a special set of words are used  for everyday things, when inside a  temple. The teledrama ‘Sidu’  which is  showing now, is giving us instruction on this, through its two  little samanera. Vatura is ‘pan’,  midula is ‘maluva’, evening tea is ‘gilan pasa’. There is a separate terminology  when speaking  to  a bhikshu and of a bhikshu,  such as  ‘vadinava’,   ‘satapenava,’  ‘ apavat   veneva,’ ‘avasarai’, ‘ehei hamuduruwane,’ ‘dane valndanne’ and ‘tun namak’ .

There was a third area where modern Sinhala speakers had to be cautious. The old ways of address were no longer acceptable. Modern spoken Sinhala has inherited more than a dozen pronouns meaning ‘you’ and different ways of commanding. . There is a choice of oba, oya, umba, tamuse, also commands, ‘yanta’/ ‘pala/ ‘and ‘kapan’/ ‘kapiya’. Today these need to be used with utmost care, commented Disanayaka.

In 1989 the National institute of Education (NIE) was requested by W.J.M Lokubandara, Minister of Education, himself a Sinhala scholar, to standardize the Sinhala alphabet. There were some letters in use which were not in the alphabet. These were now given official recognition. The Sinhala strokes were also   regularized (ispili, papili, alapilla, hal)  and the number of letters rose to 60. This was a historic achievement, said Disanayake. A set of letters that were in actual use for centuries but were not included in the alphabet were now given official recognition.  This standardized alphabet paved the way for CINTEC, NARESA, and SLSI to propose a Sinhala Unicode to ISO.

With the arrival of computers, it was necessary to digitize Sinhala. ISO was offered three versions of the Sinhala alphabet for ratification. One by Irish expert on signs and symbols, Michael Everson, one by Microsoft and a third by Sri Lanka Standards Institute. ISO got ready to approve the Everson  version. Sri Lanka got the Everson draft suspended till ISO General assembly met in 1997 in Greece. Naresa sent two representatives, T.Nandasara and J.B.Disanayaka. Disanayaka said they had a hard time getting ISO to accept the SLSI recommendation, which was the sole local recommendation. ISO ratified the Sinhala alphabet in 1998.  Sinhala UNICODE of 61 characters was created thereafter.


[1] J.B. Disanayaka encyclopedia of Sinhala language and culture 2 ed 2017 p  756


  1. Christie Says:

    My Sihala goes back to Gunasena’s Kumarodaya and if I remember it had about 30 letters including vowels and consonants. But after Banda who was another direct appointment by India and Indian Colonial Parasites like Sirisena changed the languge.

    What we got now is Piriven Sinhala a concoction of Sinhala, Snaskrit and Pali.

    People in our country spoke Sinhala long before influenced by languages from the Indian sub continent.

    Rock inscriptions and Sel Lipi shows the evolution of Sinhala.

    If I remember correct some of our historians like Cumaraswami and Deraniyagala have written about Sinhala

    One of the scripts based on the circle.

  2. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    There are so many misinterpretations in your article.

    First Mistake -That is because the Magadhi language in which Gautama Buddha preached had no written script.

    This is a common myth propagated by some of the Buddhist monks who do not understand the history of development of syllabic writing system, where the overwhelming number of signs are used solely for their phonetic values. These phonetic signs are Syllabograms, meaning that they represent syllables rather than individual sound. A few non-phonetic are used for numbers, punctuation, and commonly used words.

    Nowadays there is more-or-less consensus on origin of writing. First of all, writing was invented independently in Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica. Recent discoveries have provided evidence that writing was invented in Egypt and Indus independently of Mesopotamia discrediting the original theory of Monogeneses.

    In the 10th chapter of Lalithavistara sutra in Mahayana tradition, Bodhisattva mentions 64 types of scripts he has mastered during his early education at Archarya Disaapamok . The Bodhisattva attends his first day at school, where he far surpasses even the most senior tutors. This chapter is notable in that it contains a list a scripts known to the Bodhisattva which has been of great importance in the history of Indic scripts, particularly through the comparison of various surviving versions of the text.

    The first six consecutive scripts were Brahmilipi (brahmi Scripts) Kharostilipi, Puskarasarilipi, Angalipi, Vangalipi and Magadhalipi.

  3. Randeniyage Says:


    In numerous suttas of Theravada tradition , Buddha refers to Brahmins who read and master “ancient scripts”. Surely there were written scripts not only Buddha’s time but even hundreds of year before Buddha.
    Does this mean although the language Buddha speak did not have script, language Brahmins read had script ?
    To me it is not possible but Bhramins were very proud of their ability to read those old scripts, therefore is it possible most people were illiterate ?

  4. NeelaMahaYoda Says:


    It is true that most people were illiterate. But there were considerable number of former Brahmins as disciples of Buddha so, there were ample of literate disciples to write and record sutta at that time. It is highly illogical to think that Ven Ananda and Ven Sariputta compose these stanzas without writing it down. The only problem they had was that writing paper or ola leaves were not discovered at that time, but they could have used treated barks of certain trees as temporary writing pads.
    The British Library / University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project was founded in September 1996 in order to promote the study, editing, and publication of a unique collection of fifty-seven fragments of Buddhist manuscripts on birch bark scrolls, written in the Kharosthi script and the Gandhari (Prakrit) language that were acquired by the British Library in 1994. The manuscripts date from, most likely, the first century A.D., and as such are the oldest surviving Buddhist texts, which promise to provide unprecedented insights into the early history of Buddhism in north India and in central and east Asia.

  5. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Some of the conclusions made by J.B.Disanayake in his book ‘Encyclopedia of Sinhala language and culture’ (2 Ed 2017) conflict with the development periods introduced by archaeologists in Sri Lanka and first period is called Sinhalese Prakrit (until 3rd century CE) .

    • Sinhalese Prakrit (until 3rd century CE)
    • Proto-Sinhalese (3rd – 7th century CE)
    • Medieval Sinhalese (7th – 12th century CE)
    • Modern Sinhalese (12th century – present)

    Sinhala Prakrit is the classical ancient Eḷu language, also it was also called Hela or Helu, which was originated from a Middle Indo-Aryan language or Prakrit before the 3rd century BCE.

    The Pali scholar Thomas William Rhys Davids refers to Eḷu as “the Prakrit of Ceylon”.

    A feature of Eḷu is its preference for short vowels, loss of aspiration and the reduction of compound consonants found frequently in other Prakrits such as Pali.

    Even before arrival Vijaya Elu or the Hela is the language used by the locals who were decedents of Ravana clan, migrant civilisation from North of India. Rama and Ravan were relatives. Later the Word Sinhala was given to the local language combining the two words Sinha and Hela, Sinha to represent the recently migrated Vijaya clan from Bengall and Hela to represent the original Elu.

    Even during the Arrival of Buddhism to Lanka by Mahinda thero, local people spoke Elu and since it was a regional variation of Prakrith, people in Lanka could understand sermons delivered by Mahinda in Magadha (Pali). Pali is more grammertised version of Magadha developed to compose Thripitaka by Theravada sector of Buddhists.

    It is completely wrong to say Sinhala has two vowels and a set of four consonants. Sinhala has 16 Vowels, 14 Vowel diacritics,40 Consonants subdivided phonetically into Velar, Palatal, Alveolar, Dental, Bilabilal, Glides, Fricatives, etc with a general grouping of Voiceless,Voiced,Nasal and Nasalised Voiced.

  6. Randeniyage Says:

    I am right to say there is no other current language in the world than Sinhala with words that have the same sound and meaning to Pali ?

  7. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Sinhalese Prakrit (until 3rd century CE) should have been so close to Magadha(Pali)Prakrit with only minor regional variations but it is some what different from modern Sinhala because of the preferential usage of Sanskrit words over pali words. Sanskrit word ශ්‍රී is used over pali සිරි. sanskrit word ව්‍යවස්ථා is used over pali වැවස්ථා.sanskrit word ග්‍රාමික is used over pali ගාමික. etc.

    We should be grateful to Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, the well known Archeologist, for his many findings, and in particular for the recent discovery. The cognoscenti of this country are very fond of declaring that Vijaya was the predecessor of the Hela peoples ignoring the fact that when Vijaya and his friends landed in this country they confronted the Yakka people who were reigning in that part of this island. The ‘Yakkas’ belong to the Hela race which comprised the ‘Yakkas’, the ‘Raksasas’, the ‘Assuras’ and the ‘Na’. In this context the cognoscenti are fond of depicting the Hela peoples as demons whereas they belonged to specialized clans of the Hela peoples. According to Deraniyagala sufficient evidence are available now to believe that we have been using Prakrit even before arrival of Vijaya.

    But later the modern sinhala evolved with the influence of Sanskrit and dravidian languages.This has been discussed by Malini Dias in her book සිංහල භාෂාවේ ප්‍රත්‍යයර්ථ නාමයන්ගේ විකාශනය (ක්‍රි,පූර්ව 3 ශ.ව. -ක්‍රි.ව.10 ශ.ව දක්වා) published by the Archeology Department in 1996.

  8. Randeniyage Says:

    How come Tahi alphabet vowels are exactly same as Sinhala ?

  9. NeelaMahaYoda Says:


    The Brahmi script was the ancestor of all South Asian Writing Systems. In addition, many East and Southeast Asian scripts, such as Burmese, Thai, Tibetan, and even Japanese to a very small extent (vowel order), were also ultimately derived from the Brahmi script. Thus the Brahmi script was the Indian equivalent of the Greek script that gave arise to a host of different systems. You can take a look at the evolution of Indian scripts, or the evolution of Southeast Asian scripts. Both of these pages are located at the very impressive site Languages and Scripts of India

  10. Randeniyage Says:

    Thanks. NMY.
    Yes, in Java , “Aneka Rasa” means exactly the same as in Sinhala ( even better, because they use real Pali meaning of Aneka). We say Bhuumi Kampaa and they say (Bhumi is the same meaning) Ghampaa for earthquake. Many similarities.

  11. Christie Says:

    A E I O U

  12. NeelaMahaYoda Says:


    The cognoscenti of Sri Lanka after believing Mahavamsa as a gospel truth, ignored the Pre-Vijaya history from our history books. Considering that Mahavamsa was composed by Buddhist monks at the Mahavihara temple in Anuradhapura about the sixth century A.D people should have been more careful about believing on what is written in Mahavamsa.
    Again, Considering the amount of rock inscriptions in Brahmi script found in Sri Lanka when compared to the number of rock inscriptions found in India written during the same period, I wonder whether, Sri Lankans must have mastered the writing with a high intellectual capacity by ourselves and perhaps we must have initiated the early development Brahmi scripts from Indus scripts from the Indus valley civilisation. There are some archaeological evidences to prove that we have been in constant contact with Indus civilisation for want of peal and gems which was abandon in Lanka at that time.
    It is unfortunate that some of the local academics refuse to name early phase of the Sinhala language until 3rd century CE as Sinhala Prakrit period .

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