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Sinhala (සිංහල, ISO 15919: , , sometimes referred by alternative spelling Singhalese) is the native language of the island Sri Lanka, and the language of the Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group of Sri Lankamarker. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages.

Sinhala is the mother tounge of about the 15 million Sinhalese, and is spoken by other ethnic groups as a second language, totalling about 19 million . It is one of the official languages of Sri Lanka, along with Tamil and English. Sinhala has its own writing system (see Sinhala alphabet) which is an offspring of the Indianmarker Brahmi script.

The oldest Sinhala inscriptions found are from the 3rd or 2nd centuries BCE; the oldest existing literary works date from the 9th century CE.

The closest relative of Sinhala is the language of the Maldivesmarker, Dhivehi.


Sinhala is actually a Sanskrit term; the corresponding Middle Indic word is Sīhala; the actual Sinhala term is heḷa or eḷu. The Sanskrit and the Middle Indic words have as their first element (siṃha and sīha) the word "lion" in the respective languages. According to legend, Sinhabahu or Sīhabāhu ("Lion-arms"), was the son of a Vanga princess and a lion. He killed his father and became king of Vanga. His son Vijaya would emigrate from north India to Lankā and become the progenitor of the Sinhala people. Taking into account linguistic and mythological evidence, we can assume that the first element of the name of the people means "lion".

As for the second element la, local tradition connects it to the Sanskrit root lā- "to seize", as to translate it "lion-seizer" or "lion-killer", or to Sanskrit loha/Sinhala "blood", to have it mean "lion blood". From a linguistic point of view however, neither interpretation is convincing , so that we can only safely say that the word Sinhala is somehow connected to a term meaning "lion".


About the 5th century BCE, settlers from North-Western India reached the island of Sri Lankamarker, bringing with them an Indo-Aryan language. (This first group of settlers is referred to as prince Vijaya and his entourage in the chronicle Mahavamsa.) In the following centuries, there was substantial immigration from Eastern India-Bengal (Kalinga, Magadha) which led to an admixture of features of Eastern Prakrits.. It was heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Pali.

Stages of historical development

The development of the Sinhala language is divided into four periods:
  • Sinhala Prakrit (until 3rd century CE)
  • Proto-Sinhala (3rd - 7th century CE)
  • Medieval Sinhala (7th - 12th century CE)
  • Modern Sinhala (12th century - present)

Phonetic development

The most important phonetic developments of the Sinhala language include
  • the loss of the aspiration distinction in stops (e.g. kanavā "to eat" corresponds to Sanskrit khādati, Hindi khānā)
  • the shortening of all long vowels (compare example above) [Long vowels in the modern language are due to borrowings (e.g. vibāgaya "exam" Sanskrit vibhāga) and sandhi phenomena either after elision of intervocalic consonants (e.g. dānavā "to put" damanavā) or in originally compound words.]
  • the simplification of consonant clusters and geminate consonants into geminates or single consonants respectively (e.g. Sanskrit "time" > Sinhala Prakrit > Modern Sinhala )
  • development of /j/ to /d/ (e.g. däla "web" corresponds to Sanskrit jāla)

Western vs. Eastern Prakrit features

An example for a Western feature in Sinhala is the retention of initial /v/ which developed into /b/ in the Eastern languages (e.g. Sanskrit "twenty", Sinhala visi-, Hindi bīs). An example of an Eastern feature is the ending -e for masculine nominative singular (instead of Western -o) in Sinhala Prakrit. There are several cases of vocabulary doublets, e.g. the words mässā ("fly") and mäkkā ("flea"), which both correspond to Sanskrit but stem from two regionally different Prakrit words macchiā and makkhikā (as in Pali).

Sri Lankan Politics

In 1956 Sinhala replaced English as the national language. This has historically been viewed by academics as a key point in the development of ethnic discontent between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. It was implemented by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party as one of its first acts in government and was perceived by the Tamils as a part of a strategy of placing "Sinhalese culture, language, and religion (Buddhism) to a position of dominance in the society." (Baxter, 2002, p.354).


Affinities to neighbouring languages

In addition to many Tamil loanwords, several phonetic and grammatical features present in neighbouring Dravidian languages, setting today's spoken Sinhala apart from its Northern Indo-Aryan siblings, bear witness to the close coexistence of the two groups of speakers. Some of the features that may be traced to Dravidian influence are

ēka alut kiyalā mama dannavā
it new having-said I know
"I know that it is new."

ēka alut-da kiyalā mama dannē nähä
it new-? having-said I know.emph not
"I do not know whether it is new."

Foreign influences

As a result of centuries of colonial rule, contemporary Sinhala contains many Portuguese loanwords, Dutch loanwords and English loanwords.

Influences on Other Languages

Macanese language or Macau Creole (known as Patuá to its speakers) is a creole language derived mainly from Malay, Sinhalese, Cantonese, and Portuguese, which was originally spoken by the Macanese community of the Portuguesemarker colony of Macaumarker. It is now spoken by a few families in Macau and in the Macanese diaspora

The language developed first mainly among the descendants of Portuguese settlers whom often married women from Malaccamarker and Sri Lankamarker rather than from neighboring Chinamarker, so the language had strong Malay and Sinhalese influence from the beginning.


Sinhala shares many features common to other Indo-European languages.

Numeral Sinhala Sanskrit Greek Latin German English Russian
1 eka(එක) éka heis unus eins one adna/ adno
2 deka(දෙක) dvá dúo duo zwei two dva/ dvye
3 tuna(තුන) trí treis tres drei three tri
4 hathara(හතර) catúr téttares quattuor vier four chityri
5 paha(පහ) páñca pénte quinque fünf five pyat'
6 haya(හය) shat héx sex sechs six shest'
7 hatha(හත) saptá heptá septem sieben seven syem'
8 ata(අට) aṣṭá októ octo acht eight vosim'
9 navaya(නවය) náva ennéa novem neun nine dyevit'
10 dahaya(දහය) dáça déka decem zehn ten dyesit'


Sinhalese spoken in the Southern provincemarker of Sri Lanka (Galle, Mataramarker and Hambantotamarker districts) uses several words that are not found else where in the country; this is also the case for the Central part, and north-central region. For native speakers all dialects are mutually intelligible, and they might not even realize that the differences are significant.

The language of the Veddah people resembles Sinhala to a great extent, although it has a large number of words which cannot be traced to another language. Rodiya people use another dialect of Sinhala.


In Sinhala there is distinctive diglossia, as in many languages of South Asia. The literary language and the spoken language differ from each other in many aspects. The written language is used for all forms of literary texts but also orally at formal occasions (public speeches, TV and radio news broadcasts, etc.), whereas the spoken language is used as the language of communication in everyday life (see also Sinhala slang and colloquialism). As a rule the literary language uses more Sanskrit-based words.

The most important difference between the two varieties is the lack of inflected verb forms in the spoken language.

The situation is analogous to one where Middle or even Old English would be the written language in Great Britainmarker. The children are taught the written language at school almost like a foreign language.

Sinhala language also has diverse slang. Some is regarded as taboo and most is frowned upon as non-scholarly.

Writing System

The Sinhalese writing system, Sinhala Hodiya, is based - as all other surviving Indo-aryan language scripts - on ancient Brahmi. The Sinhala script can be considered semi-syllabic, sometimes referred to as abugida or alphasyllabic, meaning that a basic letter such as ක represents a syllable with a default vowel, in this case ka ([kə]). This inherent vowel may be changed by adding so called pilla, vowel marks (diacritics), around the syllabic character, producing syllables such as කා kā, කැ kä, කෑ kǟ, කි ki, කී kī, කු ku, කූ kū, කෙ ke, කේ kē, කො ko, කෝ kō. Pili may appear above, below, to the left, to the right, or around the consonant. Sinhala also knows hal kirama and uses two differing virama symbols depending on the basic grapheme to explicitly indicate the lack of a vowel.

The complete writing system, Elu Hodiya, consist of 54 basic characters. It includes 18 vowel characters and 36 consonant characters. Only 36 characters (12 vowel and 24 consonant symbols) are required for writing spoken Sinhala in Suddha Sinhala. The remaining symbols for sounds that have gotten lost in the course of linguistic change, such as aspirates, are required to write Sanskrit and Pali loan words.̹Sinhala is written from left to right and the Sinhala character set is only used for this singular indo-aryan language. As with all indo-aryan languages the alphabet follows a sorting rule different from other indo-european languages:

a/ā ä/ǟ i/ī u/ū [ŗ] e/ē [ai] o/ō [au] k [kh] g [g] ṅ c [ch] j [jh] [ñ] ṭ [ṭa] ṭ [ṭh] ḍ [ḍh] ṇ t [th] d [dh] n p [ph] b [bh] m y r l v [ś ṣ] s h ḷ f


  • The presence of so-called prenasalized stops. A very short homorganic nasal is added before a voiced stop. The nasal is syllabified with the onset of the following syllable, which means that the moraic weight of the preceding syllable is left unchanged.
  • The pronunciation of unstressed short as schwa , which otherwise has no written symbol.

Labial Dental/

Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop voiceless

Front Central Back
long short long short long short
Mid ( )


Nominal morphology

The main features marked on Sinhala nouns are case, number, definiteness and animacy.


Sinhala distinguishes several cases. Next to the cross-linguistically rather common nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative, there are also less common cases like the instrumental. The exact number of these cases depends on the exact definition of cases one wishes to employ. For instance, the endings for the animate instrumental and locative cases, atiŋ and laŋ, are also independent words meaning "with the hand" and "near" respectively, which is why they are not regarded to be actual case endings by some scholars. Depending on how far an independent word has progressed on a grammaticalization path, scholars will see it as a case marker or not.

The brackets with most of the vowel length symbols indicate the optional shortening of long vowels in certain unstressed syllables.

animate sg inanimate sg animate pl inanimate pl
NOM miniha(ː) potə minissu pot
ACC miniha(ː)və potə minissu(nvə) pot
INSTR miniha(ː) atiŋ poteŋ minissu(n) atiŋ potvəliŋ
DAT miniha(ː)ʈə potəʈə minissu(ɳ)ʈə potvələʈə
ABL miniha(ː)geŋ poteŋ minissu(n)geŋ potvaliŋ
GEN miniha(ː)ge(ː) pote(ː) minissu(ŋ)ge(ː) potvələ
LOC miniha(ː) laŋ pote(ː) minissu(n) laŋ potvələ
VOC miniho(ː) - minissuneː -
Gloss man book men books

Number marking

In Sinhala animate nouns, the plural is marked with -o(ː), a long consonant plus -u, or with -la(ː). Most of the inanimates mark the plural by subtractive morphology. Loan words from English mark the singular with ekə, and do not mark the plural. This can be interpreted as singulative.

SG ammaː ballaː horaː potə reddə kantoːruvə satiyə bas ekə paːrə
PL amməla(ː) ballo(ː) horu pot redi kantoːru sati bas paːrəval
Gloss mother(s) dog(s) thief(ves) book(s) cloth(es) office(s) week(s) bus(ses) street(s)

On the left hand side of the table, plurals are longer than singulars. On the right hand side, it is the other way round, with the exception of paːrə "street". Note that [+animate] lexemes are mostly in the classes on the left-hand side, while [-animate] lexemes are most often in the classes on the right hand.

Indefinite article

The indefinite article is -ek for animates and -ak for inanimates. The indefinite article exists only in the singular, where its absence marks definiteness. In the plural, (in)definiteness does not receive special marking.

Verbal morphology

Sinhala distinguishes three conjugation classes.Spoken Sinhala does not mark person, number or gender on the verb (literary Sinhala does). In other words there is no Subject-Verb-agreement.

1st class 2nd class 3rd class
verb verbal adjective verb verbal adjective verb verbal adjective
present (future) kanəvaː kanə arinəvaː arinə pipenəvaː pipenə
past kæːvaː kæːvə æriyaː æriyə pipunaː pipunə
anterior kaːlaː kaːpu ærəlaː ærəpu pipilaː pipicca
simultaneous kanə kanə / arinə arinə / pipenə pipenə /
infinitive kannə/kanḍə / arinnə/arinḍə / pipennə/pipenḍə /
emphatic form kanneː / arinneː / pipenneː /
gloss eat / open / blossom /


  • SOV (Subject Object Verb) word order.
  • There are almost no conjunctions as English that or whether, but only non-finite clauses that are formed by the means of participles and verbal adjectives. Example: "The man who writes books" translates to , literally "books writing man".
  • It is a left-branching language (see branching), which means that determining elements are usually put in front of what they determine (see example above).
  • An exception to this is statements of quantity which usually stand behind what they define. Example: "the four flowers" translates to , literally "flowers four". On the other hand it can be argued that the numeral is the head in this construction, and the flowers the modifier, so that a better English rendering would be "a floral foursome"
  • There are no prepositions, only postpositions (see Adposition). Example: "under the book" translates to , literally "book under".
  • Sinhala has no copula: "I am rich" translates to , literally "I rich". There are two existential verbs, which are used for locative predications, but these verbs are not used for predications of class-membership or property-assignment, unlike English is.


  • There is a four-way deictic system (which is rare): There are four demonstrative stems (see demonstrative pronouns) "here, close to the speaker", "there, close to the person addressed", "there, close to a third person, visible" and "there, close to a third person, not visible".


  • Sinhala is a pro-drop language; that is, arguments of a sentence can be omitted when they can be inferred from context. This is true for subject—as in Italian, for instance—but also objects and other parts of the sentence can be "dropped" in Sinhala if they can be inferred. In that sense, Sinhala can be called a "super pro-drop language".

Example: The sentence , literally "where went", can mean "where did I/you/he/she/we... go".

See also


  1. Geiger, Wilhelm: Culture of Ceylon in Mediaeval Times. 2nd edition, Stuttgart 1986. ISBN 3-515-04447-7. §21.
  2. Carter, Charles: A Sinhalese-English Dictionary. Reprint, New Delhi 1996. ISBN 81-206-1174-8. p678.
  3. Baxter, Craig, Yogendra K. Malik, Charles H. Kennedy, Robert C. Oberst (eds.), (2002), Government and Politics in South Africa, Westview Press, USA.


  • Gair, James: Sinhala and Other South Asian Languages, New York 1998.
  • Gair, James and Paolillo, John C.: Sinhala, München, Newcastle 1997.
  • Geiger, Wilhelm: A Grammar of the Sinhalese Language, Colombo 1938.
  • Karunatillake, W.S.: An Introduction to Spoken Sinhala, Colombo 1992 [several new editions].
  • Clough, B.: Sinhala English Dictionary, 2nd new & enlarged edition, New Delhi, Asian Educational Services, 1997.

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