Posted on February 9th, 2019


Revised 12.3.19, 13.3.19

Before British rule, the island had just one native language, Sinhala. Sinhala had a script, a voluminous written literature and a long history of continuous use. Sinhala   was used for administration,   trade, science and technology. Sinhala was also the language of the royal court. Treaties with the Portuguese and Dutch were in Sinhala.

Under British rule, Sinhala lost its position as the sole native language of Sri Lanka. The British administration introduced Tamil as a parallel ‘native’ language despite the fact that Tamil   was an alien South Indian language spoken only by immigrant Tamil laborers from South India. During British rule, Sri Lanka therefore had two ‘native’ languages, Sinhala and Tamil.  The intention clearly, was to reduce the status of Sinhala.

British helped establish the Tamil language by setting up vernacular schools teaching in Tamil. Under British rule, the government provided village schools which gave primary education in Sinhala or Tamil. The choice of language was made according to the ‘race ‘the pupil belonged to. The vernacular schools charged no fees. There were 1670 vernacular schools in 1900. In Tamankaduwa, in 1900 there were 5 Sinhala schools and 10 Tamil schools. (U.B. Karunananda.  Tamankaduwa 1815-1900 p 39).

The Town Schools Ordinance no 5 of 1906 and Rural Schools Ordinance 8 of 1907 made it compulsory to set up primary schools. There were, in addition, a number of government schools which provided five years of post primary education, in Sinhala or Tamil, leading to the Senior School Certificate.  There were Sinhala and Tamil teacher training colleges to cater to these schools. Teachers were certified as ‘Sinhala trained ‘and ‘Tamil trained’ teachers. However, Jane Russell observed that  Tamil  was pushed into the school curriculum only after 1912.

In 1943, the  Executive Committee for Education appointed by the  State Council,  recommended that education should be free, compulsory and the medium  of  instruction should be the ‘mother -tongue’. The term ‘Mother tongue’ was first used by Catholic monks to describe the native languages in which they were preaching Catholicism in the colonies. In British Ceylon ‘mother tongue’ simply meant the home language of the natives and that was, of course, Sinhala or Tamil.

From this time onwards, there were two language streams in education in Sri Lanka. The right to education in Sinhala and Tamil was treated from start as a group right rather than an individual right.  Both Sinhalese and Tamils wanted this. Sinhalese thought that otherwise parents of Sinhala children would opt to teach them in English.  Tamils were scared that Tamil parents would opt to teach in Sinhala and this would lead to assimilation.

The British rulers also permitted some of the administration to be conducted in Tamil. Government announcements were in Tamil.  Headmen in the north made their entries in Tamil.   Entries in police stations were made in Tamil. Name boards of roads were in Tamil in the Tamil areas and in Sinhala in Sinhala areas. Gazette notifications, notarial deeds and marriage registration were in all three languages

With two languages running neck and neck, there arose the question, ‘which language was supreme?’ The Ceylon Tamil community anticipated this. They called for ‘Swabhasa’ for both Sinhalese and Tamils.  It is the Tamil community which has the proud distinction of being the first community to ask for Swabhasa, said K.M. de Silva. This was largely because the Tamils in the North were initially ahead of the Sinhalese in the south as regards political alertness, he said.

The Northern Province and the town of Jaffna took the lead in the Swabhasa agitation from as early as 1925 with Jaffna Youth Congress in the forefront. They retained this lead till well into 1930s concluded K.M. de Silva.

In 1934 the Northern Province Teachers Association had adopted a motion supporting teaching in the vernaculars.  Jaffna Youth Congress in 1938 moved that the teaching of Sinhala and Tamil be made compulsory in all schools in Ceylon. However, there was a general lack of enthusiasm for Tamil among the Sinhalese, including elite. This was the natural complacency of a majority community, observed K.M. de Silva.

Throughout the mid 1930s and late 1930s the bilingual Swabhasa movement grew in strength. G.K.W. Perera had moved a resolution in 1932 in State Council to allow Sinhala and Tamil be used in conducting State Council business.  It did not get the necessary votes. In 1934 he moved that Sinhala and Tamil be used in the administration and law courts. This was adopted but nothing was done.

In 1936 Philip Gunawardene introduced a resolution in State Council to the effect that the proceedings in the Law courts and entries in Police records be allowed in Sinhala and Tamil. Robert Marrs, Principal of University College (1922-1939), pointed out that Swabhasa could create divisions because it was on the basis of a majority language and a minority language.

In 1939 the Ceylon National Congress adopted a resolution to make Sinhala and Tamil the country’s official languages.  The Sinhalese objected. They ‘expressed a strong and vocal dissent’. They wanted only one official language, the Sinhala language. (Hansard 1939 col. 765). The ‘Ceylon Tamils’ opposed that. They feared assimilation. G.G.Ponnambalam said in State Council in 1939, a Sinhalese Christian can become a Sinhalese Buddhist but a Tamil cannot become a Sinhalese. That is a metamorphosis through which we cannot go.’ (Hansard 1939 col 960)

Britain had promised to give Ceylon independence once World War II ended. This led to the question of an official language for the newly independent country.  Britain had administered Ceylon in English. But this could not continue after independence. Hardly anybody knew English.  A new language of administration was needed and State Council wanted this matter settled, before independence was granted.

Therefore, in 1943, J.R Jayawardene presented a resolution to State Council that Sinhala be made the sole official language. J.R .Jayewardene presented a motion in State Council to make Sinhala the national language.

The motion said ‘with the object of making Sinhalese the official language within a reasonable number of years, this Council is of the opinion that (a) Sinhalese should be made the medium of instruction in all schools, that  (b) Sinhala should be made a compulsory subject at all public examinations. (c) legislation should be introduced to permit the business of the House to be conducted in Sinhalese,  (d) commission be appointed   choose and translate books into Sinhala (e) a commission should be appointed to report on all steps that should be taken to effect the transition from English to Sinhalese.

This met with immediate protest from the Tamil members of the State Council. The Tamils took the position that imposition of Sinhala would lead to the assimilation of the Tamils and destroy their culture. The Tamil councillors   wanted Tamil also to be an official language. Therefore the words and Tamil” were added after ‘Sinhalese’.  The Tamils also insisted also on ‘parity’. Tamil must be used at all the levels where Sinhala was used.

G.G.Ponnambalam said ‘the motion invites this house to accept the language of a section of the people as the only official language and the medium of instruction and medium of normal official intercourse. It is one of the first steps that one would take to advance the theory of one race, one religion and one language. What is all this talk of imparting instruction in a foreign language, English, when two million people are to receive their future instruction through Sinhala, a foreign language,’ he added.

Ponnambalam continued, ‘better retain English as the official language than made any change to promote the vernaculars.  As long as there are two vernaculars, two linguistic communities, with people speaking two different languages, confined to two different areas, we must have a common language  and the language must be English. K.M. de Silva argued that Implicit in Ponnabalam’s arguments was the belief that the English language provided a neutral medium for fair competition between the two communities.

D.S.Senanayake, Ceylon’s future Prime Minister was also not supportive of the resolution. Only V. Nalliah took a different view.  ‘I don’t see why we Tamils should stand in the way of Sinhalese being the official language in the Tamil areas and it is quite possible that both languages will be used for purpose of administration, he said. When the motion was debated, three  camps emerged, for ‘Sinhala Only’ , for ‘Sinhala and Tamil and for ‘English only. [1]

The State Council appointed a Select Committee on Official language policy in Sept 1945 with J.R.  Jayewardene as chairman. The committee issued its report in 1946.  Committee recommended that Sinhala and Tamil  should be the language of administration  from 1, Jan 1957. It recommended a ten year period to end use of English as language of government. It also recommended that a Commission for National Languages be appointed and a Department for National Languages be established. It was assumed at the time that both Sinhala and Tamil would be official languages when independence was granted.

The three member National Language Commission was appointed in 1951 to expedite the language policy. The Commission was asked to recommend procedures and policies for  the language transition in Government departments. The National Language Commission was soon fractured. R.S. de Saram, E.O.E. Pereira and A.W. Mailvaganam boycotted meetings. Arthur Wijewardene, L.J de S Seneviratne, N.D. Wijesekera and L.H. Mettananda were for Sinhala Only .

K.M. de Silva says that by 1953 a substantial amount of preparatory work in the implementation of the new language policy had been completed. This period of two and half years of the Commission’s work marked a very creative period in language planning and implementation. The transfer from English to Sinhala was  fairly smooth because the government took steps to make it so.  For instance, a Swabhasa department  was set up under the Ministry of Education in 1955  for education needs in respect of national languages. [2]

The National Language Commission issued interim reports. The final report was published as SP XXII of 1953.Most of its recommendations were accepted, but some such as those for future recruitment of officers and the creation of a new Department of National Language were not accepted by Parliament. The Commission also recommended just one Swabhasa language for university after 1962. It would be easier that way for textbooks and so one, the Sinhala Only group said. [3]

The secretariat of the Commission continued as a special unit of the Official Languages Bureau under the Ministry of Finance. In October  1955 this Bureau was converted to a separate and permanent Department of the Ministry of Finance as the Department of Official Languages. ( Continued)

[1] Neil Devotta, Blowback ,linguistic nationalism  p 51….. from google

[2] KM de S coming full circle , ,  ethnic studies reports vol XIV no 1 Jan 1996  p  25

[3] Neil Devotta, Blowback ,linguistic nationalism  p 53….. from google


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