Posted on March 16th, 2018


The ‘Sinhala only’ story began in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when agitation for ‘swabhasha’ emerged as an anti-imperial or anti-colonial gesture. Sinhala Mahajana Sabha (1919) established a network of local mahajana sabhas in the rural areas. These Mahajana Sabhas conducted their proceedings in Sinhala. The rules and regulations were printed in Sinhala. In 1936, Philip Gunawardene,  then leader of the  Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) brought a resolution in State Council that proceedings in the law courts and the recording of  statements in police stations should be in Sinhala and Tamil.

In many countries, the indigenous language vanished under foreign rule, but in Sri Lanka, Sinhala survived. Sinhala was a sophisticated language with a well developed script, a substantial written literature and a long, unbroken history. It was Sri Lanka’s national language till   1815. It has also functioned as Sri Lanka’s language of science, trade, manufacture and administration. The people were proud of the Sinhala language and were not prepared to abandon Sinhala.

Throughout British rule, the people kept Sinhala going. Parents sent their children to the temple to learn Sinhala. Conversations in the home were conducted in Sinhala.  Discussions and debates, public and private, were also held in Sinhala.  There was a continuous production of poetry and prose in Sinhala. There was style, even in speech. Arisen Ahubudu recalled that when a Tantirimale gam vaddha was asked what there was to see in the nearby jungle his answer was ‘haa, kadimata nelaapu buduruve novae.’

Sinhala was used not only in the Buddhist temple but also in the Christian church, Roman Catholic and Protestant. This, in my view, is very important aspect of the preservation of Sinhala. There was functional use of Sinhala too. Y. Amarasena de Silva had been employed at Trincomalee   harbor as a signalman in the 1940s.  He invented the Sinhala Morse and semaphore. This was published in a book. He had later taught Sinhala Morse and semaphore to the scouts of Rajapakse College, Ahungalle.

Sinhala was made a subject in missionary schools. Trinity College,  Kandy had started an extra class in Sinhalese, in 1860 to be conducted after school. In 1908, Rev. A.G. Fraser, Trinity’s principal, announced that the Ceylonese pupils could neither read nor write in their native languages and he intended to reduce the emphasis on Latin, and make the vernaculars compulsory for all.

Fraser’s ideas influenced the other Christian schools and thereafter ‘every English school in the island gave a place to the vernaculars.’ S. Thomas College, Colombo, taught Sinhala from 1918. But G.D.Perera recalls that when he was studying at S. Thomas from 1928 to 1938, there was only one Sinhala period for the whole week.

Apart from this limited recognition however, Sinhala was suppressed in the missionary schools. Pupils   were forbidden to converse in Sinhala. If they did so, they were punished. Kirthi Abeyesekera (b.1924) states that in the convent he attended in Bandarawela, ‘we were punished if we spoke in Sinhala’ . Anne Abayasekara reminiscing about her schooldays in the 1930s also confirms that Sinhala was not encouraged in the classroom. She expected a reprimand when she answered in class in Sinhala instead of English.  As a result, very few of those who were educated in English [Christian] schools had any knowledge of the vernaculars, she said.

Sinhala was better looked after in the Buddhist schools. F.L.Woodward, Principal of Mahinda College, Galle from 1903-1919, had included   Sinhala in his school curriculum.  Ananda College too had taught Sinhala. Prizes had been awarded for Sinhala handwriting and Sinhalese literature. One student had got distinctions in Sinhala in the Cambridge Senior in 1919. Not only was this the sole distinction for the whole island, but it was also the first distinction ever obtained in the exam.

P de S Kularatne arriving in Ananda College as principal in 1918, decided to entrench Sinhala fully at Ananda. Kularatne had grown up in a Sinhala speaking village and therefore had experienced Sinhala as a living language. He knew that it was possible to provide secondary education in Sinhala and he thought also that is was desirable to do so. He said that the child who came from a Sinhalese speaking home, not only spoke in Sinhalese, he also thought and felt in Sinhalese. It was best to teach him in that language, not in English which was an alien language.

Kularatne said he had seen what education in an unfamiliar, alien language was doing to the children. A child at a Christian missionary school asked to recite in English, had done so with a set face, without knowing what she was saying, but had responded brightly as soon as she was spoken to in Sinhala.  He also pointed out, very bluntly, that only a small percentage were educated in English at primary school level and even among them, the majority were not sufficiently conversant with English, to use it as a medium of instruction.

In 1920, Kularatne introduced the study of Sinhalese as a subject ‘into every class’ in Ananda College and in 1923 he made Sinhalese compulsory for all students. As an incentive he pointed out in his Principal’s report that Sinhala could be offered as a subject for Senior Cambridge and London exams.

‘Right from the very beginning, Ananda has encouraged the study of our own languages when other schools despised them’ said Kularatne in 1936.’ Even today we, with our sister Buddhist institutions, are the only institutions that provide for the teaching of Sinhalese on the right lines. Judging from the boys that come to us from non-Buddhist schools, I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Sinhalese is utterly neglected in them.’

Kularatne pointed out that the failure of these schools to teach Sinhalese on the right lines is largely due to the fact that they did not start Sinhala early, in kindergarten and they do not employ teachers with the best qualifications. Kularatne did both. There was a dearth of competent Sinhala language teachers at the time in Ceylon. Ananda could produce only two ‘very competent’ teachers of Sinhala. Kularatne solved the problem by getting bhikkhus to teach Sinhala. When he found that there was no satisfactory primer to teach Sinhala he wrote a book called ‘Parakrama’s first reader.’

At this time, in most English schools, the majority of which were Christian missionary schools, the Sinhalese teacher was laughed at and the Sinhalese period was an hour of entertainment.  Anandians also did not take the Sinhala lesson seriously at first reported K.D.  de Lanerolle,    but Kularatne was firm, ‘the idea took root’    and Ananda eventually achieved a high level of proficiency in Sinhala.

Kularatne then declared in his Principal’s Report, 1940 that ‘Sinhala will be the medium of instruction in all sections of the kindergarten for Sinhalese children. English will be taught as a subject’.  de Lanerolle who was teaching at Ananda at the time and was closely associated with Kularatne in his work, said that Kularatne started this without government approval, with only the consent of the parents. He ran the risk of losing the government grant over this. ‘The results produced were revealing and the government gave its approval.’   Lanerolle called it a courageous and confident move.

Kularatne also encouraged the study of Sinhala literature.   He prescribed Martin Wickremasinghe’s   Geheniyak and W.A. Silva’s Lakshmi for students in the senior classes. He also introduced Sinhala folk stories to Ananda College. This was derided in the English newspapers, saying that this would prevent students from appreciating Greek heroes and ‘the story of Cinderella’. A Sinhalese Literary Study Circle was organized by a member of the staff in 1936.

Next, Kularatne   wanted Anandians to be able to write creatively in Sinhala. The mentors for this were readily available. There were at least three creative writers on the staff to guide the pupils, Ven. S Mahinda, K.D. de Lanerolle and ‘Kayes’. From 1920 onwards, the school magazine included Sinhala articles. By 1939 this had developed into a separate Sinhala section with its own editorial. But Kularatne was not satisfied.   He asked the headmaster of the Primary school, K.D. de Lanerolle to get up a magazine with material in Sinhala suitable for the age group 5-12 years. The result was a monthly magazine called Sinhala Daruwa, commencing in 1937 with de Lanerolle as its first editor.

Sinhala Daruwa contained stories written and illustrated by students and teachers. Students and teachers of the Upper School also got interested and contributed material. There were articles from well-known writers as well. 500 copies of the magazine were distributed in the College. A number of other schools also became subscribers.  ‘The like of this had never been published before in Ceylon’ said de Lanerolle.

Ananda’s role in bringing Sinhala forward was recognized in British Ceylon. Times of Ceylon said in 1936, ‘the emphasis laid on national languages at Ananda is worthy of emulation.  There was a time when snobs in other schools, boys, masters, and principals   talked of the English accent being ruined by giving the national languages their due place in the curriculum. But today such warped minds are few and far between and other schools are following the lead given by Ananda College.”

Ananda College then went on to pioneer science education in Sinhala.  De Lanerolle noted that there was considerable resistance at the time, to teaching science in Sinhala, but Kularatne and Mettananda  together with other science teachers ‘silently showed’ that science could be taught in Sinhala.   when the government ordered schools to teach science in Sinhala,    and present them for the Senior School Certificate and the Higher School Certificate, in the 1950s, Ananda was ready. This emphasis on Sinhala in schools would have spread from Ananda to the other Buddhist schools, making it a broad movement.

I have included the above description of Sinhala at Ananda College because I wish to show that Sinhala was alive and kicking during British rule.  It is this, together with the cultural use of Sinhala, which led to ‘Sinhala only.’ ‘Sinhala only’ was a natural movement, not an unnatural one.

The British administration, however, did not recognize Sinhala.  During British rule, the island was administered in English, which the majority did not understand, even telegrams were in English.  The State Council and the Ceylon National Congress knew by 1943, that independence was round the corner.  It was clear that the island could not be administered in English after Independence. Hardly anybody knew English. The majority used Sinhala.

Therefore, in 1943, J.R Jayawardene presented a resolution to State Council that Sinhala be made the sole official language. This met with immediate protest from the Tamil members of the State Council and it was decided in 1944 that Sinhala and Tamil be the official languages. This was strongly opposed by the Sinhala lobby who wanted ‘Sinhala only’. A Communist Party meeting supporting parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil was broken up by Sinhala Only supporters.

The public found that even after independence, the administration continued to be in English. A letter from the government or a telegram had to be taken to someone who knew English.  The Courts of law and all office administration were in English. The ‘Sinhala only’ lobby gathered momentum throughout the 1950s.   Several town councils and village committees began to conduct business in Sinhala.

There were three groups which pushed strongly for Sinhala Only. They were   known as the ‘sangha, veda, guru’ group. The sangha were long standing supporters of Swabhasha. The ‘veda’ component were the ayurveda physicians.    ‘Guru’ were the vernacular (Sinhala trained) school teachers. They got less pay than the English trained teachers. There were also the ‘vernacular’ educated intelligentsia, who had studied in Sinhala medium and whose prospects, therefore, were limited. There was an Association of Swabhasha Qualified Unemployed” with a voting strength of 20,000 at the time. This ‘sangha, veda, guru’ group together with ‘govi’ and ‘kamkaru’ formed the Pancha Maha Balavegaya which influenced the 1956 General Election.

There was a strong economic basis  for the demand of Sinhala only, observed analysts. Firslty, there was no higher education in swabhasha, university  education  was in English. Secondly, the prestigious and high paying occupations and positions went to those who knew English, thus  affecting very seriously the social chances of the swabhasha educated. Therefore the vernacular educated, primarily rural intelligentsia were, by the 1950’s very resentful of the limited opportunities available to them.

Popular support for ‘Sinhala only’ was so great that all the major political parties succumbed and announced support for ‘Sinhala only’ when the General Election of 1956 was announced. Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP) and the SLFP announced their support in 1955 and UNP followed in 1956.   If SWRD had not brought up the Sinhala issue someone else would have, observed P.A. Samaraweera.

The General Election of 1956 was a watershed in the modern history of Sri Lanka. The ruling UNP lost to the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, MEP in a resounding defeat. The MEP consisted of SLFP, its major component, with the original MEP, the Bhasha Peramuna, and VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardena. It had a no contest pact with LSSP and CP.  The MEP got 51 of the 95 seats, but only had 40% of the votes.

Weerawardana remarked that the electorate displayed a surprising maturity. Voter turnout was 69% which was considered good for that period of time. (It is considered good even today, in certain countries) and the electorate voted clearly for the party and not for individuals.  P.A. Samaraweera observed ‘people took all the money lavishly given by rich UNP politicians, wore the green bush shirts given by them, took the lunch packets, went to the polling booth and voted for the MEP.’

In 1956, Parliament passed the Official Language Act no 33 of 1956. It was passed after a marathon debate, with 66 ‘for’ and 20 ‘against.’ The Act said that the Sinhala language ‘shall be the one official language of Ceylon.’ The Act came into effect on 1st January1964.  All government transactions throughout the country had to be in Sinhala from 31.10 1963.  Therefore it was not ‘Sinhala in 24 hours’. That statement is incorrect.

‘Sinhala only’ was never ‘Sinhala only’. Critics observed that the Act had failed to limit the use of Tamil and English, ‘as it should have done’. Nor did it make Sinhala compulsory in schools. No subsidiary legislation was passed under the Act either. Implementation was based solely on administrative orders and Cabinet directions. As a result, state administration was conducted in English above a certain level.

It was only after the Administration of Justice Law of 1973 that the original courts started to work in Sinhala. A critic observed recently that all the administrative legal enactments are not yet available in Sinhala. .  Education continued to be in Sinhala, English and Tamil. Cultural activity took place in all three languages. The private sector continued to work in English.

The changeover to administration from English to Sinhala, took place without much protest. The transition was not a problem for those who knew Sinhala. T.B. Ilangaratne, Minister of Finance, under whom the subject came, when ‘Sinhala Only’  had been introduced, told Neville Jayaweera,  that old entrants into government service were to be treated gently (‘widest accommodation’) and that new entrants must  be given time  ( ‘a few years’) to acquire proficiency in Sinhala.

The transition took place smoothly because officers who knew Sinhala were already in place in the government service. The transition to Sinhala was readily   supported by the bilingual officers who were working in government departments at the time, observed analysts. They made Sinhala administration possible.  Those officers mainly came from the ‘Buddhist schools’,   such as Ananda, Nalanda and Rahula, where Sinhala had been given prominence.

Anandatissa de Alwis, an Anandian,   declared that Ceylon was able to establish Sinhala as the state language because of Ananda College. D.B. Dhanapala another Anandian,  also  observed that  In  1956, when Sinhalese became a national language, Anandians who were well versed in Sinhalese were present, in significant numbers  in the Ceylon Civil Service, Official Languages Department and other state departments.  They were superbly bilingual and could assist in the move from English to Sinhala.

Sinhala had not been used as an official language since the fall of the Udarata kingdom in 1815. Sinhala was now pushed to the front of the stage. It now had to cater to a huge range of situations and activities for which it lacked the vocabulary. The chief criticism of the anti-Sinhala lobby was this lack of Sinhala words to express modern ideas. The Sinhala lobby   over came this very easily.

Sinhala was not a ‘dead’ language, which had to be revived. It was not a ‘new’ language or a   ‘backward’ language either. Sinhala had been existing parallel to three western languages, Portuguese, Dutch and English, for the last 400 years. There would have been interpenetration between these languages. Sinhala    already had a good vocabulary, a systematic grammar and many ‘root’ words, therefore finding suitable Sinhala words for its new role was not difficult.  Modernizing Sinhala was not a daunting task. Specialists in Sinhala language sat down to the task with great dedication.

The Official Languages Department, set up in October 1956 started work on Sinhala glossaries. Other professional bodies also contributed glossaries. There were a few conferences to which those interested in the subject of forming Sinhala technical terms were invited,’ recalled Aelian de Silva.

Opponents of ‘Sinhala only’ ridiculed the whole process. They said that the Sinhala term for ‘universal joint’ was ‘sarvaloka puttuwa’. M.J. Perera, head of the Official Languages Department declared that the word did not exist. This was a hoax. However, this was not an innocent hoax. It showed a deep animosity to Sinhala and fear of Sinhala’s emerging position.

At University of Ceylon, Peradeniya .Prof D.E. Hettiarachchi, as Head of Department, created a Swabhasha office, in the Sinhala department, headed by P.E.E. Fernando, and this office also compiled technical terms.  The Sinhala academics sat for long hours with specialists in the various subjects and compiled the terms.  The glossaries were cyclostyled and distributed.  Those glossaries were later acquired by the Department of Official Languages and formed the basis for the glossaries they published.  This valuable service of the University is now forgotten, said K.N.O Dharmadasa.

Spoken Sinhala also became important after ‘Sinhala Only’. Officials had to speak in Sinhala too, not only write in it. Their speaking had to be correct and effective. After ‘Sinhala only’ more debates in parliament were in Sinhala. There is no information on what the politicians and officials did about this, but Radio Ceylon took action.

Radio Ceylon focused on setting good standards of Sinhala speech. It held workshops where Sinhala scholars gave guidance. Ven. Kalukondayawe Pragnasekera was invited in the 1961 to advice on pronunciation. . K.N.O. Dharmadasa and J.B. Disanayake were invited later for workshops. Staff were drilled in the use of good language.  Later on, Rupavahini also had workshops which KNO attended. KNO had notified MJ Perera whenever he heard language errors on Rupavahini and MJ had taken action.

Foreign diplomats recognized Sinhala. A  Chinese diplomat had, some years ago called on a minister in Colombo.  The minister had instructed in Sinhala ‘this visitor may have diabetes, so bring the tea and sugar separately.’ As he left, the diplomat had said, also in Sinhala ‘I do not have diabetes’. China teaches Sinhala in the Foreign Language Institute in Beijing.

A Japanese diplomat had walked into a shop and the owner had shouted to his staff in Sinhala ‘tell him an inflated price’ and the Japanese had replied in Sinhala, if you inflate the price I will not shop here again’. In the German embassy on one occasion, an official had said in Sinhala ‘do not panic remain silent.’

K.N.O. Dharmadasa had drawn attention to a little known fact, that when the 1972 Constitution was under preparation, Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Colvin R De Silva insisted that that the initial drafting be done in Sinhala. P. E. E. Fernando travelled from Peradeniya to Colombo twice a week to take part in the drafting of the new Constitution and he used to share with us his experiences in constitution making, recalled KNO.

Dharmadasa observed that this was probably the first time the government deviated from the usual practice of drafting first in English with a Sinhala translation   thereafter. The official language policy was enacted in letter and spirit, on that occasion. The constitution says the Sinhala version takes precedence in matters of interpretation.

Today, Sinhala is the common language of discourse in Sri Lanka. This is evident in the discussions heard in shops, markets, railway stations, theatre foyers, and hotel lobbies. English and Tamil are also spoken, but to a lesser extent. Census of Population and Housing for 2001 showed that Tamils of local and Indian origin spoke Sinhala.  They needed Sinhala for jobs and for business. The customer base is Sinhala speaking.

A survey was conducted by an independent research institute, on behalf of the Public Survey and Research Unit (PSRU) of the Presidential Secretariat, in October 2010.  The sample was drawn from western, southern, central, and eastern and Northern provinces, of 1484 citizens of both sexes belonging to the three major ethnic groups, also a mix of occupations.    97% of the Tamils and 100% of the Muslims in the survey said they knew Sinhala. The learning of a language is based on its usability.  The chances of Sinhala being used across the island for wider communication are great, said Rohana Wasala. It was estimated in 2016 that approximately 76% of the population spoke only Sinhala.

‘Sinhala Only’ was an essential part of the re-emergence of   Sri Lanka as an independent state, after 450 years of colonial rule. ‘Sinhala only’ should have been implemented in 1944 itself. According to the 1946 Census there were 69.4% Sinhalese and 11% Tamils.  In   1953 it was    69.3% Sinhalese and 10.3% Tamils and in 2012 it was 74.9% and 11.1 % respectively. Therefore Sinhala was always the language spoken by the majority of the population.

‘Sinhala only’ should also be seen in its broader context. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s period as Prime Minister, though short, 1956-1960, was a period of high consolidation and movement towards a modern state. The Sinhala Only  Act was just  one feature of a much larger exercise which involved the Paddy lands Act, the EPF, nationalized services, takeover of Katunayake air base and Trincomalee  navy base and expanded diplomatic relations.

‘Sinhala Only’ was not ‘wrong. ‘Sinhala only’ was ‘right’. It was correct and timely.  ‘Sinhala only’ was a natural movement, not an unnatural one.  It should not be treated with contempt and it should not be sneered at.  Very few languages can show evidence of continuous use from ancient times to modern times as Sinhala can. This includes continuous use as the language of administration too.

UNESCO is said to have predicted that in 25 years Sinhala language will be extinct. Sinhala, far from being a dying language, has many features not found in many world languages, said J.B. Disanayake. Sinhala is among the 15 most creative alphabets in the world along with Chinese, Greek, and Arabic. It is considered a unique language.

A language will not die, as long as there are speakers, say linguists. Today, Sinhala is ranked 75 in the hundred most spoken languages in the world   and 62 in the   top hundred languages ranked by number of native speakers.  Sinhala speakers are proud of Sinhala and have a deep love for the language. They wish to preserve the script too.  They do not want to see it romanised. (Continued)


  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Kamalika is absolutely correct when she says that the Sinhala Only demand emerged as an Anti-Colonial gesture. Thank you, Kamalika.

    * At the bottom of pile of confusion and despair in Lanka, there is COLONISATION of nearly 500 yrs.

    * Next, Cold War/s and Lanka entanglements, due to Location in the Indian Ocean, Ports & neighbor INDIA.

    * Next, Tamil Caste Wars of Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu expansionist ideas (halted by the PM Nehru Anti-Secessionist Law of 1963), transferred to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

    * Add on local political power & economy games/competition.

    The time has come for serious PATRIOTISM by one and all.

  2. 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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