Posted on February 21st, 2019


Revised 13.3.19

Sinhala has been the sole official language of Sri Lanka throughout most of its history.  It was the sole language of administration under the Sinhala kings. Royal orders were communicated to the public in Sinhala. The evidence is in the rock edicts. Sinhala was the language of the north as well. Jaffna was part of the ancient Rajarata.   P.E.Pieris says the pact signed by the Jaffna ruler, Cankili I (1519-61) in 1560 with the Portuguese was in Portuguese and Sinhala not Tamil.  The territories under Portuguese and Dutch would also have been administered in Sinhala.

Sinhala continued as the state language till 1815, when the Udarata kingdom went under the British.  Sinhala lost its position as the language of administration during British rule. But it continued to be the language of the majority. The Sinhala speakers kept increasing. 1881 Census recorded 66.91% Sinhalese, 1921 Census recorded 67.05 %, 1946 Census recorded 69.41%.  At independence, Sinhalese was spoken by over two thirds of the population, a clear majority observed KM de Silva.

It was therefore correctly suggested in 1944 to State Council that when Ceylon got back its independence, it should revert to   the national language of the earlier sovereign Sinhala state, the Sinhala language. But the Tamil Councilors and Marxist Councilors, of the State Council wanted parity for Tamil.

The Census figures for the ‘Ceylon Tamil’ however, did not justify this.1881 Census recorded 24.90% Tamils and 1946 Census recorded 11.04%, Tamils, showing not only decrease in the population but also that the immigrant Tamils had assimilated into the Sinhala group. However, State Council agreed on parity for Tamil. Sinhala shared equal status with Tamil on Independence Day, 1948. Messages were read out in Tamil and Sinhala.

The Sinhala lobby   did not like this. They worked hard and Sinhala triumphantly became the sole national language in 1956 with ‘Sinhala Only’. However, DEW Gunasekera later observed that it took 14 years (1956 – 1970) for Sinhala to fully become an official language. It was done in four phases.

The 1972 constitution which followed, also upheld Sinhala Only. People are not aware, said KNO Dharmadasa that it was the express wish of Colvin R de Silva, Chairman of the Constituent Assembly that the initial drafting of the 1972 constitution had to be in Sinhala. P.E.E. Fernando, senior lecturer in Sinhala, University of Ceylon, came down from Peradeniya for this task.

Sinhala continued to be the most spoken language .The 1971 Census   showed 9,131,241 Sinhalese out of a total population of 12,689,897.  The 2012 Census showed 15,250,081 Sinhalese out of a total population of 20,359,439. It could be safely assumed therefore that   Sinhala was the first language of 2/3rds of the population.

Sinhala’s world rank in   spoken languages was a respectable 70 with 13,320 speakers in 1996. (Ethnologue 1996). Sinhala is spoken by more people than those in Scandinavia. (Denmark’s population is 5,754,356, Norway 5,330,800, Sweden 9.85 million.)  Therefore Sinhala was not a negligible language.

Sinhala also had the highest rate of literacy in Sri Lanka compared to Tamil and English. According to the 1971 Census 71.96% of the population were literate in Sinhala. In the 2012 Census, nearly 80% of the population was literate in Sinhala.  The Census criteria for literacy was,’ the ability to read a language and comprehend the contents of reading and also if that person could write a short paragraph from that language’.

Sinhala competence also was better than Tamil. At the GCE Ordinary Level examination, 2016,   61,386 offered Sinhala as a subject with 4.25% failure rate. 14,861 offered Tamil and the failure rate was 19.38.

Sinhala made a successful transition   into the twentieth century. It   modernized beautifully and functioned well as the language of government and administration.  At the cultural level, Sinhala language bloomed.  The creative arts in Sri Lanka are centered on Sinhala. Sinhala generates the best literature, theatre, teledrama and also the best daily television news presentations.

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) statistics showed that 6003 Sinhala and 296 Tamil books with ISBNs were published in 2010.  For 2011 the figures were: Sinhala 7823 Tamil 638 books. For 2012 it was Sinhala 6483 Tamil 508. For 2013 it was Sinhala 6431 Tamil 717 and for 2014 it was Sinhala 6377 Tamil 677. The Tamil books were mostly poetry.

Sinhala never lost its position as the premier language of Sri Lanka. There was a deep loyalty to Sinhala which Tamil and English just could not match. Nobody therefore wanted to meddle with Sinhala. Sinhala was always   the first listed language. Its position today is such, that the President of Sri Lanka can address the UN in Sinhala, if he wishes.

Tamil was not as fortunate in India as Sinhala was in Sri Lanka.  Tamil   reigned as the national language in Tamilnadu, until Tamilnadu was conquered by the Vijayanagara Empire of Karnataka in the 14th century and Tamil was replaced by Telegu. Tamil then fell into disuse.   Tamil never regained its position as a national language,

The Tamil language was thereafter rescued and elevated by Christian missionaries arriving in

The 17 century .They had to teach Tamil to convert the natives to Christianity and in the process they helped to revive Tamil language and literature.

The main contributors were two Italian Jesuit priests, Roberto de Nobili (1606-1656) and Constanzo Beschi (1680-1742) and German Lutheran priest Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719). They collected Tamil manuscripts,   made translations and compiled grammars. G.U.Pope (1830- 1857) a Wesleyan priest, translated many Tamil texts into English and British Civil Servant F.W.Ellis (1810-1819) made a large collection of Tamil manuscripts.

Rev. Robert Caldwell went further; he introduced the notion of a Dravidian family of languages in his  ‘A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages, ‘(1856) Tamil was presented as a very ancient, classical language. Caldwell’s notion of Tamil as a distinct and superior language spawned a Tamil nationalist movement based on Tamil language, said critics.

Caldwell’s theory was not accepted by other linguists. However it was accepted by E.V. Ramaswami, known as Periyar. In 1925 Periyar set up the Self Respect Party, later Dravida Kazhagam. This DK Party tried to stop the introduction of Hindi to Tamilnadu. The notion of a Tamil identity linked to Tamil language developed. This attitude was picked up later by the Tamil Separatist Movement in Sri Lanka and used to inject an emotional dimension into the issue of Tamil language in Sri Lanka.

The Indian leaders were not interested in any of this. When India became independent in 1947, the Tamil kingdom was not revived. Tamilnadu separatist ambitions were squashed, and Tamilnadu was made a federal state under New Delhi. The Tamil language was demoted to a state religion. The national languages were Hindi and English. Hindi took precedence over Tamil in Tamilnadu itself.

When I was in Madras some years ago, I found that at Anna International airport, Madras, the name of the airport was shown in Hindi at the top,   with Tamil at bottom left, and English at bottom right. Tamil does not rank high in the list of Indian spoken languages either.  The rank list for the most spoken languages in India is, Hindi, Bengali, Telegu, Marathi, Tamil. (2018).

But things turned out fine for the Tamil language in Sri Lanka .The Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka had, from the 1940s,   wanted to somehow see that Tamil ranked equally with Sinhala island wide. It was a sort of obsession. They were unable achieve this directly, therefore they had to resort to strategy.

The  Tamil language  lobby in Sri Lanka , which was  a part of the Tamil Separatist Movement, had influence over President JR Jayewardene. They got the chapter on Language in the 1978 Constitution altered to include Tamil. Tamil became a ‘national’ language in the 1978 Constitution. Then through the 13th amendment of 1987, Tamil became an ‘official’ language as well.

The Tamil lobby succeeded in getting Tamil elevated  to  the highest possible position, in three stages,  in the years 1978, 1987 and 1988.  Tamil  ranked equally with Sinhala as a ‘national language’ and an ’official language’. The  government  was obliged  to work in Tamil as well as Sinhala. Sinhala  had  lost its solo position. ‘We forgot to make Sinhala compulsory for the Tamil medium students’ said the Sinhala lobby  in hindsight, later on.

Critics   pointed out  that Sri Lanka is the only sovereign  state in which Tamil is recognized as the official language. Tamil does not have national language status even  in India where there are more Tamil speakers than here, they observed, but it is a national language in Sri Lanka,     Tamil is one of the four official languages in Singapore too, but it is not used in Singapore. It is used as one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin.

Devanesan Nesiah observed, that the 13th amendment made Tamil an official language without undermining the historical status of Sinhala as the official language. That is correct.

Sinhala   is today the most  effective language in Sri Lanka and the Tamil population recognizes this. The Tamil public  , seeing Sinhala rise,   had no hesitation joining in. They needed to know Sinhala if they wished to succeed in business, professions or the public sector. The Tamil lobby however made a mighty big fuss when Sinhala Only was declared in 1956. They said it dethroned Tamil.  They were going to boycott Sinhala.  They went on and on about it.  But here is the reality.


Tamils in the North had anticipated the move towards Sinhala, which had manifested itself around 1922 in the south. Between 1938 and 1940, the Hindu Board of Education which controlled the Hindu schools in the north had introduced Sinhala as a compulsory subject in all their schools. Sinhala was taught and spoken in schools in Jaffna peninsula and there were monks and Sinhala teachers living in the North said analysts.

In 1940, C.H. Gunawardene joined St John’s College, Jaffna as the first ever teacher for Sinhala in Jaffna. Thereafter other schools introduced Sinhala. Students were ‘thankful for the opportunity’. Jeyam Samuel recalled that Gunawardene was a good teacher and a good friend.

Fr. Claude Daly recalled that in 1948 when teaching in Trincomalee, he overheard two past pupils say that it would be no problem for them if Sinhala were declared the official language because they could learn it without any difficulty. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham (b 1934) and educated at Jaffna Central College,  spoke secretly to T. D. S. A Dissanayake in Sinhala at the Asian  Games Tokyo, 1958. He said that he  had already cleared the high jump at the required height and did not want  the Japanese to know.   Philip G Veerasingham recalled that  in the 1950s Udupiddy American Mission  College had a  Sinhala teacher, Leelawansa who was a BA in Sinhala and Tamil.

All leading schools in Jaffna taught Sinhala as a compulsory subject till 1956, said Devanesan Nesiah.  In 1956 Tamils stopped learning Sinhala and the Sinhala teachers left Jaffna.  Despite the protests against ‘Sinhala Only’ the trend towards learning Sinhala continued.  It  was reported that the Tamils    had started moving their children into the Sinhala stream from around 1958. This would have been in the south.

in the 1960s, most Tamils wanted to learn Sinhala and get on with it, said S Rasalingam. S. Nadarajah recalled that in the 1970’s he was encouraged to learn Sinhala by the priest in the Kuruwe Pansala in Rattota. S.Thambyrajah recalled that in 1970 when he went before the Local Government Services Commission he made his submissions in Sinhala.

In 1980 C.V. Kasynathan and M.P. Somasunderam conducted a survey among a sample of 100 Tamil students of the 1978/79 batch of the University of Peradeniya. They were interested in finding out the current attitudes to Tamil separatist ideology. They found, inter alia, that 50 were already proficient in Sinhala. 96 said that learning Sinhala is useful and 31 had attended classes to learn Sinhala. They were not bothered about what would happen to Tamil.

Department of Sociology, University of Colombo carried out a readership survey, in the 1990s of 11,438 respondents from over 3000 households in all provinces except north and east. If we ignore the   fact that the North and East are left out, we find that 90% of the country is Sinhala speaking.  M. S. Nuhuman found in 1995 or so, that the Tamil speakers were interested in learning Sinhala, in reading Sinhala literature and also in translating same into Tamil. In the 1990s, Sister Therese Rani, principal of St Mary’s College, Trincomalee stated that her Tamil students learnt Sinhalese. ‘Tamil and Muslims children sang out loud in Sinhala’. The LTTE spoke fluent Sinhala when they torched an entire fishing ‘wadiya’ in Yala this July, reported the media in 1997 .

Sociologist Tudor Silva  reporting on the  language needs and services in selected bilingual administration divisions in Sri Lanka ( 2014) stated that at Hali Ela DS division, in  Badulla district, they found that 54% Indian Tamils could speak Sinhala.  In Passara it was 51%. This showed that Indian Tamils and Sri Lanka Tamils have acquired considerable competency in spoken Sinhala. They were not good at reading or writing Sinhala,  but this must be recognized as a clear expression of a desire to learn Sinhala on the part of Tamil speaking community in plantation areas, the researchers  said.   They found that many estate workers in Ambagamuwa DS,  were willing to learn Sinhala because of the advantages offered.

Tamil and Muslims are learning Sinhala voluntarily in present times too. The media reported that ‘completing the 44th day of the Satyagraha and not receiving any favorable response from the government, in April 2017, the Batticaloa District Unemployed Graduates  began learning Sinhala.’ The President of the  Association of Unemployed Graduates in Sri Lanka  Ven. Thenne Gnananantha  is teaching them Sinhala under a tree close to Gandhi Park, Batticaloa.


The Tamil education stream is ,at present, foisted on two sets of unwilling parents. The Indian Tamils on estates have indicated they want Sinhala. But they are instead subjected to new schools teaching in Tamil.  There are three ongoing education projects, funded by SIDA and German Technical Aid, providing primary schools in the estate sector. In all three projects, primary education is given in the Tamil language. The estate Tamils, in the meanwhile are learning Sinhala privately. In the Ambagamuwa DS area, they complained that the Sinhala teacher was often a Tamil with limited knowledge of Sinhala.

In 1997, a delegation of Muslims told the Minister of Education that a large number of Muslims outside the North and East were switching on to the Sinhala medium.  They wanted a special officer to supervise and coordinate Sinhala teaching in Muslim schools.

Muslim parents have been trying to get their children into the Sinhala medium in school for decades. Wimala Ratnayake has stated that when she left teaching in 1986, she found an increasing demand by some Muslins and ‘even a few Tamil parents’ to get their children admitted to the Sinhala stream in Colombo.

In 1998, Muslims in Kandy district alleged, with evidence, that Muslim and Tamil children were denied admission to the Sinhala stream. One parent had filed a Fundamental rights case on this matter. The reason given by the education authorities was that otherwise the Tamil stream would not have any pupils. A Muslim parent told me the same thing in the 1990s.

Tamil parents want their children taught in the Sinhala medium. As a result,  the Tamil medium is  dying  in schools. Nireka Weeratunge speaking in 2017, of her field work in Karukupane in Weherakale, north of Chilaw, said Karukupane had a Tamil school and Sinhala school and Tamil school is losing to the Sinhala School.


Tamil intellectuals, professionals and politicians,   know Sinhala and speak it fluently. Representatives of SLMC, TELO, TULF, CWC and ACTC speak stylish Sinhala on political talk shows such as Kinihara, Rathu Ira, Jana Handa and Kadapatha.  Bala Tampoe, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, S. Manoranjan and Kumar Ponnambalam have appeared on TV speaking fluent Sinhala.  Kumar spoke of ‘BBC Nona’ and Mata dannava” but he also used    words like  ‘abhilasha.’  MA Sumanthiran spoke in fluent Sinhala on Satana programme on Sirasa on 2.5.15.

Three Tamil politicians including Mano Ganeshan spoke of the estate demand for higher wages in fluent idiomatic Sinhala. (  Derana news 4.10.16) Sambandhan spoke in clear Sinhala at Gomarankadawela  and said what the Tamils want power is sharing in an undivided Sri Lanka (Derana news 20.9.18). Wigneswaran spoke in fluent Sinhala addressing the Sinhala speakers  about his comment on Buddhist temples. (Swarnavahini 2.10.16 News at eight.) Northern PC Councilor Shivajilingam spoke in Sinhala on Derana news 16.9.18 on the refusal of a visa to India.

Others who speak good Sinhala on television news included  Palani Digambaram (Derana     6.55 news 26 .10.17) Kumar Gunaratnam (Derana 1.5.18  6.55 news.) DM Swaminathan (ITN 7 pm News   on 13.5.15.] and Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Governor, Central Bank (Derana news 24.3.17.  At the May Day rally of 2016 all spoke in Sinhala, including those speaking at the Upcountry rally.


In the late 1990s the government declared certain District Secretarial divisions as bilingual areas where the administration was to be simultaneously in Sinhala and Tamil. Researchers found that in most of these divisions the administration was done  in Sinhala, and the Tamil speaking community accepted this.

In Ambagamuwa division in Badulla district  the Tamils were in the majority in towns and estates. There were Sinhalese at Ginigaththena and Tamil labour in the estates. The Tamil and Muslim staff in the DS offices conducted their work in Sinhala. Office files were maintained in Sinhala. Most preferred to complete their documentation in Sinhala as this would reduce delays. Tamil meant long delays, reported the researchers. Those who did not know Sinhala went to those who knew. There were EPF problems such as names not written correctly. They had to go to Sinhala speakers and pay money to get their monies released.

In Hali Ela DS office many Tamil speakers complete their forms in Sinhala and make written submission in Sinhala. Some Tamils had competency in Sinhala and they did the work for the others. Only about 1% of the correspondence received in the DS office was in Tamil.

N Selvakumaran in his field study on the implementation of Tamil as an official language in selected District Secretariat divisions found that in Colombo there was a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Tamil, Indian Tamils, Sri Lankan Moors and Malays. The majority were competent in Sinhala both spoken and written. They were therefore able to do business with the government institutions in Sinhala. The Police stations in Colombo operate almost exclusively, in Sinhala but the majority of Tamil speakers can manage in Sinhala, Selvakumaran observed. (Continued)


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