Link: A collection of Articles Reflecting Superb Scholarship


by Prof. K. N. O.Dharmadasa

(Part I of this article appeared on May 16, 2012)

Sinhala and Tamil

Prof. Karunatillake is undoubtedly the linguist we have who can speak with authority on both Sinhala and Tamil. Earlier in this essay I have referred to his grammatical and lexicographical works in Sinhala and Tamil. In the present collection we have three papers which are comparative studies of Sinhala and Tamil : Namely, Ch. 18, " Pronouns of Address in Tamil and Sinhalese : A Sociolinguistic Study" which Prof.Karunatilleke has co-authored with one of his long time friends, Prof. S.Suseedraraja, formerly of the University of Jaffna); Ch. 19 Tamil Influence on the Structure of the Sinhalese Language"; and, Ch. 22 "Phonology of Sinhalese and Tamil : A Study in Contrast and Interference" In the present essay I propose to examine the first of those papers which deals with the sociolinguistics of the pronouns of address in the two languages. The study begins with a description of the two language communities, which explain how they differ in composition and in aspects of culture. We know that the Tamil language community in Sri Lanka has sharp divisions, regional, religious, ethnic etc. For convenience of description the authors, however, use Jaffna Tamil as the base, and then bring out, as occasion demands peculiarities in other dialects, notably the Muslim Tamil dialect It is stated at the outset that compared with the Sinhala society, the caste system is more stratified, and it follows therefore that " its reflections in the Tamil language are more abundant"

Thematically, the paper deals with the linguistic reflection of the social relationship between two individuals – the addresser and the addressee. Sociolinguistically, the hierarchical system of the society, how it is structured, will be reflected in the linguistic usages. The authors have presented their discussion in three parts. The first part describes the social hierarchy and its linguistic co-relates in Jaffna Tamil and the second part Sinhala is analysed on similar lines, and, finally, they present a contrastive statement of the two systems. As the first part shows, there are three pronouns meaning "you" in Jaffna Tamil, viz. nii , niir and niinkal indicating in hierarchical order, disrespect, medial respect and high respect. There are several social factors which determines the choice of each : "caste, age, education, position or rank, sex, wealth, family backgrounddress, personality etc. " Interstingly, although the Jaffna Tamil society is highly caste conscious, " caste becomes irrelevant if the addressee is highly educated and holds a high position" And, "similarly the age factor is "nullified if the addressee belongs to a low caste and is uneducated or is shabbily dressed and clumsy." One of the most interesting features of the choice of the specific pronominal form is how male/female distinction determines that choice. "In almost all high caste families," observe the authjors, " the wife uses niinkal to her husband….[but] husbands have been using only nii to their wives." They add however, that in recent times things have been changing and especially in educated families, niir and sometimes niimkal have come to use .

Although one could expect a simple co-relationship between language and social stratification, there are so many complications and complexities when it comes to real social situations. For example, there are groups way down in the social hierarchy who use only nii among themselves and that is irrespective of age, education, sex etc. But when addressing their social superiors they would invariably use niir or nimkalas the case may be. Furthermore there are other ways of displaying respect, like the use of certain words, and, most interestingly, even naam, a first person plural pronoun which denotes " a sense of surrendering themselves to their masters or lords." A peculiar and inexplicable usage by Hindu Tamils is the choice of the "low" or "impolite" nii in addressing God. It is also the same among Muslims. The Christians Tamils however, use the more polite niir in addressing God. No one apparently uses niimkal the term of highest respect .

When it comes to the Sinhala society, the authors have observed that while there is a caste hierarchy among the Sinhalese, unlike in Tamil it never is a determinant in the choice of a second person pronoun, It is more the attitude of the addresser towards the addressee that determines the choice from among of the four tiered pronominal system, which in descending respect/ politeness scale is: oyaa, tamuse, umba, too. The greatest contrast between Tamil and Sinhala usages is the determining factor being the attitude rather than structured social hierarchy and here the Sinhala Buddhist society has a sharply drawn line between the clergy and lay people. Furthermore, it is pointed out that linguistically the Sinhala language has other indicators of hierarchy, that is, plus or minus respect / politeness which are not found in Tamil. They relate to (a) the imperative form of the verb, where the "go" can appear in descending hierarchical order as vadinna (for the Buddhist clergy), yanna, palayan, and pala. Of course there are other complex formations in this hierarchy of the imperative mood which the authors have poited out in detail and which I do not wish to describe for want of space.(b) The answer to yes / no questions are also in a hierarchcal order in Sinhala. Thus the most respectful, usually when answering "yes" to a monk will be ehey / ehemay , and in answering a social superior or teacher ( by a pupil) will be ehemay or the more common ov. We should note that ehey is exclusively used for the clergy. The authors point out that a fundamental difference between Sinhala and Tamil languages is this special linguistic reflection of the division of society into two, the Buddhist clergy and the lay people.


Buddhist Sanskrit

The final paper in this collection deals with the subject of Buddhist Sanskrit which is the medium of Mahayana Buddhist texts, in contradistinction to Pali which is the medium of Theravada Buddhism with which we in Sri Lanka are familiar. Prof. Karunatillake with his superb knowledge of Old Indic languages, Sanskrit, Pali and the various Prakrits tells us in this paper how a Buddhist Sanskrit Reader could be progranned so that students will be able to handle the linguistic peculiarities in the ancient Mahayana texts, particularly those in what linguists call Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, which has traces of , apart from the basic Sanskrit, the many Prakrits that were in use in early times, including the Prakrits found in Asokan inscriptions. Prof. Karunatillake is anxious that students are provided with this skill in particular because "students are too often open to a limited cannon of philosophical texts and remain unskilled in the interpretation of Buddhist literature such as narratives, ornate poetry Tika style exegesis etc." It is this concern that has prompted him to utilize his familiarity with the language resources of ancient India to remedy the situation. The twenty five papers included in this volume are outstanding examples of the work of this dedicated and accomplished scholar, who prefers to keep a low profile. By putting them together a great service has been done to scholars interested in the field of linguistics in Sri Lanka.


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