Origin of Tamil and Sinhala languages – its relevance  
Posted on January 31st, 2023

Prof. N.A.de S. Amaratunga DSc

Tamil is one of the languages in the Dravidian family of languages which include Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and also several minor languages numbering more than twenty. Dravidian languages have been spoken through out India from North to South and East to West for centuries long before the arrival of Aryans. It is beleived that the language in use in the Harappan period (3300 – 1300 BCE) of the Indus Valley Civilization was Dravidian. Dravidians were the major inhabitants even in the North-West regions.

With the decline of the Indus Valley culture due to a long drought, and arrival of Aryans in the later period, Dravidians may have migrated to the South. Indus Valley Civilization is beleived to have been built not by people who came there from outside but by the indigenous people. Similarly the Dravidian languages were not brought from outside but had developed indigenously though some scholars say there was at least contributions from Southern Iranian farming communities. Dravidian place names along the Arabian Sea Coast and Dravidian grammatical influence in the Indo-Aryan languages namely Maruthi, Gujarat, Marwari and Sindhi suggest that Dravidian languages were spoken more widely across the Indian subcontinent before the spread of the Indo-Aryan languages. Further Dravidian languages cannot easily be connected to any other language family and they could well be indigenous to India (Steven RF 2004, Dhevendra K, 2004).

Arrival of Aryans resulted in major changes in the demography of the Northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Aryans, a group of people who spoke Indo-Aryan languages,  came from the Northern and North-Western regions like Persia, South Russia, Austria and Hungary during the period from 2400 to 1500 BCE as part of the Eastern migration of people from the Eurasian Steppe Sintashta culture (2200 – 1800 BCE) and the subsequent Central Asian Andronovo culture (2000 – 400 BCE) and also the Bactrean-Margiana Archaelogical Complex (2250 – 1700 BCE) (ref. Reich D et al 2009, Metspalu M et al 2011, Moorjani P et al 2013).  Corded Ware culture which had existed in Nothern, Central and Eastern Europe had been the origin of these cultures. Sintashta culture is a late Middle Bronze Age archaelogical culture located east of Southern Urals within the Northern Eurasian Steppe on the borders of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Sintashta people had spoken a Proto-Indo-Aryan language.  These migrants when they arrived in the Indian subcontinent had settled first in the regions of Kabul River valley and in Panjab. These Aryans may have undertaken the task of developing the Vedic culture and the family of Indo-Aryan languages. The latter, also called Indic languages, is a major subgroup of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family (Allentoft, 2015).

Modern Indo-Aryan languages descend from Old Indo-Aryan languages such as early Vedic Sanskrit, through Middle Indo-Aryan languages (or Prakrits). The largest such languages in terms of first-speakers are Hindi–Urdu (c. 329 million), Bengali (242 million), Punjabi (about 120 million), Marathi (112 million), Gujarati (60 million), Rajasthani (58 million), Bhojpuri (51 million), Odia (35 million), Maithili (about 34 million), Sindhi (25 million), Nepali (16 million), Assamese (15 million), Chhattisgarhi (18 million), Sinhala (17 million), and Romani (c. 3.5 million). A 2005 estimate placed the total number of native speakers of the Indo-Aryan languages at nearly 900 million people. These languages are mainly spoken in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives (Encyclopaedia Britanica).

How could the umbilical connection between Indo-Aryan languages and Sinhala language be established? Indo-Aryan language family is a branch of Indo-European family of languages native to the overwhelming majority of Europe, the Iranian plateau, and the northern Indian subcontinent.  Today, the individual Indo-European languages with the most native speakers are English, Hindi–Urdu, Spanish, Bengali, French, Russian, Portuguese, German, and Punjabi.

Sinhala language is believed to have arisen from Mid-Prakrit languages which belong to the Mid-Indo-Aryan language family. Prakrit was the term used to identify the vernacular languages that were different from Sanskrit.   There were more than ten Mid-Prakrit languages that included Maghadi, Ghandari, Elu and Pali,  Elu is considered as the precursor of Sinhala and Dhivehi languages. The latter is spoken in Maldives and Minicoy islands. This explains the close resemblance of Sinhala and Maldivian languages. Elu in its development into Sinhala has boorowed heavily from Pali which was the language of the Buddha. It had borrowed from Sanscrit and later from Tamil and also from Portuguese, Dutch, and English. Sinhala language has the closest similarities with Maldivian and Sri Lankan Vedda languages.

Sanscrit was a classical Indo-Aryan language that arose in South Asia. RgVeda the earliest of the Vedic texts and one of the oldest texts in the indo-Aryan language family is written in Sanscrit and date from about 1500 BCE. Sanscrit was the language of Hinduism and Later Buddhist Philosophy and also Jainism. It had influenced the development of several South Asian and East Asian languages including Sinhala.

Sanscrit has had a significant influence on Sinhala. If we look at the words for mother in Sanscrit and formal Tamil and Sinhala we would see the relationship between these languages. The Sanscrit word for mother is mathru” and the formal Sinhala word is mava” while the formal Tamil word is thai”. There is resemblance between Sanscrit and Sinhala but the Tamil word is different. Sanscrit therefore has had an influence on Sinhala or to be precise on Elu but not so much on Tamil.  However the colloquial word in both Sinhala and Tamil for mother is amma” which points to the close association of Sinhala and Tamil people.

The earliest inscriptions in Sinhalese written on rock date from about 200 BCE. The Sinhala script was not developed at that time and the Sinhalese inscriptions were written in Brahmi script and these were called Sinhala Brahmi. Though the script is Brahmi the words could be identified as Elu. From about 1200 CE the literary language of Sinhala had taken form and had not undergone significant change since then.

Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions belonging to the BCE period have been found in Jaffna and also in Tissamaharama though whether they are early Tamil or early Sinhala has been contested by various scholars (Somadeva, 2021). After the Chola invasion in 1700 CE there had been several inscriptions including in Abhayagiriya in Anuradapura that could clearly be identified as Tamil.

Earliest Tamil Brahmi Script belonging to the 200 BCE could be seen inscribed on the cave walls in the Madurai and Tirunelveli districts in Tamil Nadu. There is no resemblance between these and the script of the alleged Tamil inscriptions found in Jaffna and Tissamaharama belonging to the BCE period. However Tamil inscriptions belonging to the post Chola invasion period bear close resemblance to those found in Tamil Nadu.

It is significant that there were early Sinhala inscriptions on caves in Sri Lanka and early Tamil inscriptions in Tamil Nadu belonging more or less to the same time period, 200 BCE. The difference between these two could clearly be detected. It is quite clear that the two languages were developing independently in two geographically separated places. This would not have happened if the Dravidians, who migrated to the furthest South with the arrival of Aryans, had moved further south into the island of Sri Lanka. That obviously had not happened. For some reason or other the Dravidians had not gone across the Palk Strait until the first invasion by them in 230 BCE. Well before that colonists from North India had arrived in the Island begining in 500 BCE and established themselves and had begun the development of their civilization including the language they had brought with them. Further development was boosted by the arrival of Buddhism in 300 BCE. Pali which was the language of Early Buddhism had also influenced the development of Sinhala to a significant degree.

If the Dravidians in their southward migration which happened in 2400 – 1500 BCE had crossed the Palk Strait the Island of Sri Lanka would have a different language, a different religion and an altogether different culture to what we find today. It is obvious that arrival of Tamils has happened with the South Indian invasions of the Island which had been fiercely resisted by the Sinhalese.

Prof. N.A.de S. Amaratunga DSc

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