Sinhala beyond the Sidath Sangarawa


by Chinthaka Ranasinha

In this article my endeavour would be to reveal the historical evolution of the contemporary dialogue on the Sinhala language. As the main part of the ongoing debate, we observe that there is a critical and sharp theoretical battle between two groups, who can be identified as traditionalists and modernists. How do we identify them on the basis of their ideological approaches and how do we read their ideas and their historical evolution?

Sinhala, often referred to in English as ‘Sinhalese’, has a history dating back to 2000 years ago. There are lots of inscriptions written in Sinhala, of which the earliest surviving specimens date from ancient times. During this long period Sinhala has developed a script of its own and a considerable literature. Sidath Sangarawa was written in the 13th century in Sinhala to describe and analyze the grammar of the language. This book is the most important one on the subject and has been taught in the monasteries in Sri Lanka.Many editions and commentaries have been brought out on the grammar of Sinhala and numerous discussions have taken place on the book. These have triggered the development of language discourse and sourced the scholastic tradition of the country.

I will now try to identify the nature of the conversations on the book in the 20th century. The significance of it is that it provides the guidelines for an epistemological approach to the Sinhala language. James de Alwis translated the book into English with a very long and effective introduction in 1852. In the introduction he attempted to give a vivid and analytical description of Sinhala literature. After him in 1924, W.F.Gunawardhana edited only the first two chapters. Professor M.W.Sugathapala de Silva says: "Gunawardhana has a very perceptive critique of the arrangement and content of the first two chapters of the Sidath Sangarawa." He says so in the book titled ‘Sinhala and other Island Languages in South Asia’.

Next, we should pay attention to two important editions of the book, one by Ven.Hikkaduwa Siri Sumangala and the other by Ven.Rathmalana Dharmarama. The former was the chief monk at Vidyodaya Pirivena and the latter held the same position at Vidyalankaraya Pirivena. Thereafter, the most authoritative edition of the Sidath Sangarawa was by Munidasa Cumarathunga in 1934 and it contained four chapters of the book. Cumarathunga strongly criticizes several grammatical principles in the book by comparing them with Pali and Sanskrit grammatical categories. He reveals the limitations of the Sangarawa author. R.Tennakoon, another editor of the book, having published his work in 1954, makes a very sharp analysis of it but has initiated an independent path to analyze the book, without imitating Cumarathunga. He thereby proved to be an independent scholar, choosing not to follow his favorite leader. However, Sidath Sangarawa is the most prominent and influential grammar book of Sinhala, in both the monastic and university traditions and makes a profound impact on Language Studies.

With the launching of the University of Ceylon, Modern Linguistics came into the Language Study field. The impact of the subject on Sinhala Language Studies was such that it effected a polarization among language personalities. They could be divided into two groups, as linguistics and grammarians, based on their theoretical approach. M.W. Sugathapala de Silva was the pioneer of the first group and he trained as a linguist in a Western country. After coming back to Sri Lanka he initiated a school of thought on the subject. Several books were written, criticizing the traditional grammarian’s approaches to the language. A fine speaker, Silva gave lectures at the university and outside and some members of the younger generation followed him. When we examine these developments, a very important thing to be noted is what Silva has presented on the subject and how it differs from the others’ views at the time. We are able to sum-up his main theory in a sentence. He says, "As a linguist, the most valuable part of a word is not its meaning and I give my priority to the Form of the word." When he expresses this idea we know where it has come from - Father of Modern Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of Modern Linguistics, who wrote the book, Course in General Linguistics.

This is the book which expressed a very sharp vision on Language Studies and the new theoretical approach affected every area in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. We know that the most popular critics and philosophers, Derrida, Levi Strauss and other key thinkers of the period were strongly influenced by Saussure. In Sri Lanka, before the discussion on "post-modern theories", the influence of Saussure came into intellectual conversations. It was in that context that Modern Linguistics was introduced by Prof.M.W.Sugathapala de Silva in sixties after obtaining a doctorate in the West. He brought the new discipline, ‘Linguistics’, to the Sinhala Department of the University of Ceylon and inspired a new generation to follow him. As I earlier mentioned, at this point he had to re-read Sidath Sangarawa by utilizing the dominant idelogy, based on Saussurian theory and its applications in the West. We need to identify what his thinking on the Sidath Sangarawa was and how it influenced the modern Sinhala grammatical tradition.

Before Silva focused on the text there had been extensive discussions on the same and very sharp criticism had been leveled by several scholars, such as Cumarathunga and R.Tennakoon. They had questioned some grammatical categories of the book and presented their alternatives to several grammatical rules in the Sidath Sangarawa. Today there are very insightful dialogues on the use of the Sinhala language and a lot of personalities are in the conversation. They enthusiastically bring their ideas and agree with each other to establish their ideas. This gives us immense pleasure because these ideological approaches and interventions are a very essential part of the intellectual activities of the country. However, to understand the dialogue we should be aware of its history and this awareness will lead us to the relevant contemporary debate.

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