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Sinhalese Citations   Sinhalese Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: 13.2 million

Key Dialects: Colloquial Sinhalese and literary Sinhalese

Geographical Center: Sri Lanka

Sinhalese is an official language of Sri Lanka, where, with the exception of certain districts in the north, east, and central regions, it is spoken widely across the country. Sinhalese is spoken by over 13 million people on the island as well as by roughly 30,000 people in Singapore, Thailand, the Midway Islands, the Maldive Islands, the United Arab Emirates, and Canada. Over two million people speak Sinhalese as a second language.

Sinhalese is an Indo-Aryan language of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. It is most closely related to Maldivian.

The colloquial dialect of Sinhalese spoken by the lower caste people differs considerably from the literary form of the language. For example, most verb forms have quite different terminations in the written language than in the colloquial language.

Sinhalese is written in its own distinct script. The orthography is syllabic and consists of 34 consonant graphemes and 16 vowel graphemes. The Sinhalese script emerged between the seventh and eighth centuries AD and has been in use ever since. A distinguishing feature of the Sinhalese orthography is the use of the superscript virama, which unlike other Indic scripts where it is used for vowel muting and is limited to vowels in word-final position, is added to consonant graphemes to indicate consonant clusters and final consonants. Due to the rounded shape of the graphemes, the Sinhalese script resembles the orthographies of other south Indian Dravidian scripts

The phoneme inventory of Sinhalese consists of seven vowel phonemes and twenty-four consonant phonemes, depending on the analysis. Vowel length is contrastive and consonant clusters, geminates, and double vowel articulations are attested. The existence of pre-nasal stops is a defining property of the Sinhalese sound system. Stress placement in Sinhalese appears to follow the same rules as govern the placement of stress in Sanskrit: main stress either falls on a long or heavy penultimate syllable or else on the ante-penultimate syllable.

Sinhalese is a head-final language with an SOV word order. Articles and adjectives follow the nouns they modify, indirect objects precede direct objects, and postpositions are attested. Negation is expressed by way of a verbal auxiliary that follows the verb. Nouns inflect for case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, and vocative) and definiteness/number. Verbs inflect for tense. Although there are two tenses in the language (past and non-past), the verbal inflection system is complex, with various morphological and syntactic operations yielding a variety of verb forms expressing a full range of temporal/aspectual meanings. Reduplication is fully productive in the language.

Sinhalese is the official language of Sri Lanka.

According to legend, Sinhala was brought to Sri Lanka from India around 500 BC. Stone inscriptions and ancient texts support this claim to a good extent. Although Sri Lanka came under colonial rule by the British, Portuguese, and Dutch, it regained its independence in 1948. As a result of this influence, contemporary Sinhalese contains many words of Portuguese and Dutch origin. In the late 20th century, nationalist movements led by the grammarian Munidasa Kumaratunga inspired a great deal of pride and interest in the language.

Coulmas, Florian. 1996. Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Gair, James W. 1970. Colloquial Sinhalese Clause Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Gunasekara, Abraham Mendis. 1986. A Comprehensive Grammar of the Sinhalese Language. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Jayarajan, Paul M. 1981. History of the Evolution of the Sinhala Alphabet. (Second edition)

Reynolds, C.H.B. 1980. Sinhalese. An Introductory Course. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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