Link : A collection of articles reflecting superb scholarship


Reviewed by Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa

Prof. W. S. Karunatillake, Profesor Emeritus of the University of Kelaniya is undoubtedly one of the foremost linguists in Sri Lanka today. As the volume titled "Link: Selected Articles on Middle Indo-Aryan, Sinhala, Tamil and Sri Lankan Gypsy Telugu Languages" would indicate the range of his competence in the field of linguistics is wide and varied.This collection has articles submitted by him to various journals and symposia in the fields of historical linguistics, structural linguistics as well as sociolinguistics. The articles reflect a competence in the discipline gathered over the years as an academic who has become an authority in the field having taught in Sri Lanka as well as several universities abroad. I should mention that it was only a few weeks ago that his students, here and abroad, presented him with a Felicitation Volume titled, Embedded Languages: Studies of Sri Lankan and Buddhist Cultures. It contained 16 papers written by scholars in Sri Lanka and in other countries and was edited by Carol S. Anderson (Kalamazoo College, USA), Susane Mrozic ( Mount Holyoke College, USA), R.M.W. Rajapakse (Univ. of Kelaniya) and W.M. Wijeratne (Univ. of Kelaniya). As I mentioned earlier Prof. Karunatillake’s range of scholarship is wide and varied. Having obtained a Special Arts Degree in Sanskrit from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, he first joined the university system as a lecturer in the newly founded Department of Linguistics in the University of Colombo in 1967. He proceeded to Cornell University USA one of the topmost institutions of higher learning and earned his Ph.D. in 1969 writing the dissertation A Historical Phonology of Sinhalese : From Old Indo-Aryan to the 14th Century. Coming back to Sri Lanka he eventually found himself in the University of Kelaniya’s Department of Linguistics, as the Linguistics Department in Colombo was shifted there in the University Reorganization of 1972. It was Kelaniya which in the course of time became his site of achievements, a Jaya Bhumiya, very much to the good fortune of higher studies in Sri Lanka. Here he built up the department getting trained a highly competent set of teachers, designed and taught a variety of courses in linguistics, producing a large number of students and, above all, brought out a large number of scholarly publications.

Range of Scholarship

Professor Karunatillake’s academic interests range from the many areas of linguistic research to the study of classical languages, the study of Buddhism, the editing of classical Sinhala texts, and it extends to Sinhala and Tamil lexicography. While the volume under review displays his meticulous work in the various branches of linguistic studies, I need to mention that high level research has not detracted him from his role as a teacher. His pioneering introductory text book on historical linguistics Aitihasika Vaagvidya Pravesaya (1984) remains to date the only introduction to the field available in Sinhala. He has compiled several introductions to Pali ( some of them are co-authored with Prof. James W. Gair) , an introduction to Sanskrit Surabharati : Sanskruta Pravesaya (1995), and giving the lie to the view that " linguists are a tribe that abhors grammar" compiled a comprehensive grammar of the Sinhala language, Sinhala Bhasha Vyakaranaya (1995). Special mention should be made of An Introduction to Spoken Tamil which he compiled in association with Professors S. Suseendirarajah and James W. Gair. Another noteworthy publication of his is the massive Tamil-Sinhala Dictionary Demala Sinhala Akaradiya (2002). Other major publications by Prof. Karunatillake are, An Introduction to Spoken Sinhala (in English) Samples of Contemporary Literary Sinhala Prose (with Prof. James. Gair, 1976) , Guttila Kavyaya, Artha Vyakhana Sanskaranaya, (1991), Buddha Sankalpaya Sambhavya Sinhala Sahityaye Ideiripatvana Akaraya (how the Buddha Concept is presented in Classical Sinhala Prose, 1995), Abhidanappapika ( Pali Thesaurus with Sinhala and English Indexes, 1995) Sinhala Viruddhartha Pada Koshaya (Sinhala Antonyms, 2006) Pada Manjari Sinhala Homonyms, 2007), and we learn that he is in the process of compiling several other works among which is Sinhala Etymological Lexicon, Indo-Aryan Sources of Sinhala words, with 8000 entries. The volume which we are considering today reflects the achievements of such an outstanding scholarship, the likes of which is rarely found in academic circles today.

In this collection we have a good number of articles dealing with themes in historical linguistics. And, then there are several that deal with structural aspects of contemporary spoken Sinhala, some other papers are structural comparisons between Sinhala and Tamil; Some other papers are sociolinguistic and some are explorations of problems faced by students learning second languages. There is also one paper on Sri Lanka Gypsy language, a rarely known language in our country. The last paper in the collection deals with what scholars call "Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit," a linguistic form different from the systematic and chaste "Paninian Sanskrit."

Historical Linguistics

Prof. Karunatillake is undoubtedly the foremost historical linguist in Sri Lanka today and it is a pleasure to read his analytical descriptions of the early stages of the Sinhala language about which he can speak with authority bringing out comparisons with Old Indic forms, Sanskrit, PaIi and the other Prakrits.. Ten among the twenty five papers in this volume are on historical linguistics, namely, Ch,1 "A Phonological Sketch of Early Sinhalese Inscriptions"; Ch.6 "The Development of Old Indo-Aryan Consonant Clusters (involving Spirants) into Pali"; Ch 9, "The Development of Old Indo-Aryan Vocalic /r/ in Old Sinhalese; Ch,11 "Some Orthographical Peculiarities of the Early Sinhala Inscriptions: A Phonemic Statement" ; Ch 16."The Development of Old Indo-Aryan Vowels into Sinhalese: An Outline"; Ch. 17 "The Position of Sinhala Among Indo-Aryan Languages"; Ch 20 "A Phonological Sketch of Apabramsa in the 11th Century AD" ‘Ch.23 "Retroflection in Sinhala : A Historical Statement" ; and, Ch. 24 "Some Special Phonological Developments in Sinhala"

In this review we will deal with only a few of those papers. Let us first take the case of Sinhala in its position as a special member of the Indo-Aryan family of languages in South Asia. We know that almost all other New Indo-Aryan languages of this family, such as Hindi, Urdu, Bangla (Bengali), Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya etc. are sited in mainland Asia. whereas Sinhala, and its dialect Divehi (spoken in the Maldives) are isolated and are separated physically from their sister languages in the mainland by a belt of Dravidian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam etc. This geographical factor has led to linguistic peculiarities, especially Tamil language influencing Sinhala. Such a phenomenon is common in instances of languages in contact, for example, there is a considerable Dravidian influence on the Marathi language, placed as it is in proximity to Kannada and Telugu. As the Sinhala language is placed in close proximity to Tamil Sinhala down the centuries has a great deal of Tamil influence It is not only the geographical proximity but also the cultural factor of Tamil being studied in our institutions of monastic learning, and our scholars deriving inspiration from Tamil sources, especially during the medieval period, that led to such an impact. In Chapter 19 Prof. Karunatillake analyzes this impact under the headings. Phonological, morphological and syntactic. Phonologically, one of the most noteworthy differences between Sinhala and the other NIA languages relates to the phenomenon of aspiration in the consonants.While other NIA languages such as Hindi and Bengali have retained the aspirate consonants which they inherited from Old Indic, Sinhala lost the aspirate/ non-aspirate dichotomy during very early stages as attested by our earliest inscriptions. Prof. Karunatillake mentions that some scholars have interpreted this phonological innovation in old Sinhala as an instance of the impact of Tamil but states that one needs cogent evidence to accept such an explanation. He states however that "there are certain new canonical shapes and widening of the distribution of certain phonemes" which on historical evidence could be attributed to the influence of Tamil. For example, Sinhala muuttu (joint) and paatti (vegetable bed) derived from Tamil. This instance as well as some others pointed out by Prof. Karunatillake indicate a strong Tamil influence on Sinhala sometime after the 8th century and this trend became stronger in the later centuries.

An important fact pointed out by the author is that the phonemic systems of the two languages are quite distinct and that even as to morphology the two languages "do not seem to share much similarities worth mentioning." His observation is that "the grammatical category system of Sinhala stands in sharp contrast to that of Tamil." But he makes a passing reference to the plural suffix –val ( an alternate plural marker added to inanimate nouns in Sinhalese) which "some scholars have suggested to be related to the Tamil nominal pluralizer –kal. "While that too is not conclusive what Prof. Karunatillake points out is that there are more obvious Tamil influences at the level of syntax. One such example given by him is "the formation of relative clause in both the languages by using a verbal adjective instead of the that… who/which type of (co) relative pronominal sets." For example, the meaning "the book that I am reading" is depicted in Tamil as naan vasikkira puttakam and in Sinhala as mama kiyoona pota. Also in the formation of higher ordinals involving 10’s colloquial Sinhala has structures such as visi hatara (twenty four) while other NIA languages like Hindi having cau biis follow the OIA pattern. Here Colloquial Sinhala follows the Tamil usage which has iruvattu naalu (4+20). Interestingly while Colloquial Sinhala has visi hatara in literary Sinhala, especially in classical texts it is suu visi which indicates that the innovation is a later addition. It is a well-known fact that the most noteworthy impact of Tamil on Sinhala has been at the lexical level. Regarding the overall impact of Tamil on Sinhala, a noteworthy observation made by Prof Karunatillake is the possibility of dating some of these borrowings. For example, Sinhala has kaeti (a kind of knife) which obviously is a borrowing from Tamil Katti , Here we note that while the Tamil form retains the vowel a it becomes ae in the Sinhala word. The vowel ae is a hall-mark of the Sinhala language in contradistinction to Tamil, and, as historical linguistic studies have proved, is a special development in Sinhala sometime during the 6th -7th centuries. Here Prof. Karunatillake suggests that the borrowing of kaeti should have occurred sometime in about the 4th century, while muuttu and patti could be later borrowings.

In Chapter 17, Prof. Karunatillake deals with the question where Sinhala stands in relation to other NIA languages such as Hindi, Bengali etc., placed as they are in different regions of the sub-continent. For this study he takes examples from the oldest available written sources which are the inscriptions found both in the mainland and in the island of Sri Lanka. Having compared the major isoglosses in the literary Prakrits of six regions (West, North-West, South, Central, East and North) with OIA on the one hand and Old Sinhala on the other, he concludes that Sinhala has to be placed "only within a very large group (i.e. southern-central-eastern-northern)," and that, "it would be necessary to look for some other type of evidence if one is to locate it more narrowly."

Structural Studies

I would now like to examine briefly some of the structural linguistic studies included in this volume. There are several of them, namely, Ch. 2 "Vowel Alternation in Spoken Sinhala Nominals"; Ch.3 "Perfect Tense in Spoken Sinhala" ; Ch 4 "Sinhala Word Phonology" ; Ch. 5 "Spoken Sinhala Vocalisms" ; Ch. 8 "Noun Stem in Colloquial Sinhala" ; and Ch. 19 "The Category of Gender in Sinhala" ; I would like to make some observations on the long chapter "Perfect Tense in Spoken Sinhala" which is an extremely interesting study of a not very frequently studied aspect of our mother-tongue. What the author has studied here are forms such as balala (have/has looked) kapala (has cut), kaala (have eaten) and the many variants of such usages. The author says that it "had been referred to as the past participle in previous works. We prefer to call it the perfect tense form because one of its major usages is to express the completion of an action, only the result of which the speaker notices In this sense it is more reportive of a past action and compares with the paroksa perfect of Sanskrit." Here the author points out that apart from the usual –la ending there are other endings such as –gana (e.g. daenagana, aragana). Most interesting are the semantic variations found in the perfect tense expressions as they appear in different linguistic structures. For example taatta beet biila means "father has drunk the medicine and there is no medicine to be seen in the bottle", but with a first person subject there could be a completely new meaning and inference, eg mama eka diila ( I have given it away, unknowingly) api kolambat pahu karala (we have also passed Colombo, without realizing it). Thus while the earlier expressions, involving third person subjects are matter of fact statements the latter, involving the first person implies a surprise or sudden realization. Other usages of the perfect tense formation are (a) causative, e.g. e beet biila ledaa malaa (The patient died having drunk that medicine), (b) akka kaegahala aenduva (The elder sister cried loudly, yelling) (c) concessive api veda karala eyaa salli dunne nae (Although we worked he didn’t pay us) and so on. There are many more uses of the perfect tense. I will give just two more described by Prof, Karunatillake. Here we are dealing with the two auxiliaries which are structurally similar, one innava (there is) added in the case of animate nouns, and, tiyenava added in the case of inanimate nouns., eg. miniha innava (the man is there) and pota tiyenava (the book is there). But what happens when they are added separately to the perfect tense form? The meanings are in no sense related or similar. eg. lamaya vaetila tiyenava (the child has fallen down = there are indications) lamaya vaetila innava (the child has fallen, and he is in that position). There are so many other subtleties of the perfect tense usage (such as in the interrogative constructions, emphatic constructions etc.) which are described in detail by the author and although all of us native speakers are aware of these usages it is only after a competent linguist analyses the various structures and presents them with descriptions of their structural ramifications that we become conscious of and alive to the potentialities of our own language.

To be continued next week

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...