Sinhala (සිංහල, Singhala, Singhalese, Sinhalese) belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. It is the majority language of Sri Lanka where it is spoken by 15.5 million people as a first language and by 2 million people as a second language (Ethnologue). Its closest relative is Maldivian (Diveh, Dhivehi), spoken by some 30,000 people in the Maldives.
Stone inscriptions suggest that Sinhala developed from the Prakrits, spoken vernaculars, brought to Sri Lanka by settlers from Northwestern and Northeastern India in the 5th century BCE. Because of its isolation from the other Indo-Aryan languages of mainland India, Sinhala’s development was somewhat independent. Since Tamil, the oldest of the Dravidian languages, and Sinhala have coexisted for generations, it strongly influenced Sinhala’s phonology, grammar, and vocabulary.
There are distinct differences between Literary and Spoken Sinhala. The most important difference between the two varieties is lack of inflected verb forms in Spoken Sinhala. Spoken Sinhala distinguishes between a formal and a colloquial variety (Rodiya). Literary Sinhala is used in all forms of writing. Formal Spoken Sinhala is used in speeches, lectures, and in the media. Colloquial Spoken Sinhala is used for informal everyday communication.
A notable characteristic of Sinhala that distinguishes it from other Indo-Aryan languages, is the presence of prenasalized stops and lack of aspirated consonant series. The phoneme inventory of Sinhala consists of seven vowels and twenty-four consonants, depending on the analysis.
Sinhala has seven vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that distinguish word meaning. They can be short or long. Vowel length distinguishes word meaning. In the table below, vowel length is indicated by a colon. In transliteration, long vowels are normally written with a double vowel letter, e.g., aa, ee. There are also several diphthongs
- /ə/ = a
- /æ/ = a in cat
A distinguishing feature of the Sinhala consonant system are prenasalized consonants /b/, /d/, /g/. Consonants may be geminated (doubled). Consonants in parentheses occur only in loanwords. There is a contrast between voiced, and prenasalized stops, such as between /b/ – /b/, /d/ – /d/, /ɖ/ – //, ɖ/, /g – /g/. Additionally, there is a contrast between and apical vs. retroflex consonants, e.g., /t/ – /ʈ/, /d/ – /ɖ/, /n/ – /ɳ/. Apical consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, whereas retroflex consonants are produced with the tongue curled, so that its underside comes in contact with the roof of the mouth. They do not have equivalents in English.
- /ʃ/ = sh in shop
- /tʃ/ = ch in chop
- /dʒ/ = j in job
- /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
- /ŋ/ = ng in song
- /ɭ/ has no equivalent in English
- /ʋ/ can be realized as /w/ or /v/.
Stress in Sinhala falls either on a long or heavy penultimate (one before last) syllable or on the ante-penultimate syllable.
Sinhala uses postpositions, rather than prepositions, e.g., English under the tree would be tree under in Sinhala.
Nouns are marked for the following categories:
- Nouns are marked for animation. They are either inanimate or animate. Literary Sinhala distinguishes between masculine and feminine nouns within the animate category.
- There are two numbers: singular and plural.
- In some analyses, spoken Sinhala has eight cases cases: nominative, genitive, dative, genitive, instrumental, locative, ablative, and vocative. Literary Sinhala and some dialects of the spoken language also have a marked accusative case.
There is a four-way distinction in demonstrative pronouns: (1) close to the speaker; (2) close to the addressee; (3) close to a third person who is present; (4) close to a third person who is not present.
Sinhala verbs are quite complex and express many tense and aspect distinctions.
- Both Liiterary and Spoken Sinhala mark tense, voice, aspect, and mode.
- There is no subject-verb agreement in spoken Sinhala.
- The subject of the verb can be dropped if it is made clear by context.
- The copula to be is usually dropped.
- There is a three-way distinction involving active, causative, and involitive verbs.
The normal word order in Sinhala is Subject-Object-Verb. This word order can be modified to suit pragmatic considerations such as emphasis. Modifiers, including modifying clauses, precede the words they modify. However, numerals follow nouns.
Sinhala has numerous loanwords from neighboring Dravidian languages, especially Tamil. As a result of colonial rule, Sinhala also has many borrowings from Portuguese, Dutch, and English, e.g., faamsiy ‘pharmacy.’ Words can be formed by reduplication.
Below are some common words and phrases in Sinhala.
|Hello||ආයුබෝවන්||aa yu boo va n|
|Please||කරුණාකර||ka ru nnaa ka ra|
|Man||මිනිසා||mi ni saa|
Below are the numerals 1-10 in Sinhala.
|four||හතර||ha ta ra|
|nine||නවය||na va ya|
The Sinhala alphabet, a descendent of the Brahmi script, was developed in the 2nd-3rd centuries BCE, and has been in continuous use since then. Like the orthographies of other Indo-Aryan languages, the consonants imply the vowel [a]. Various diacritics surrounding the consonant indicate other vowels or the absence of a vowel. Letters are written from left to right in horizontal lines. The rounded appearance of the script is similar to that of Dravidian scripts. In addition, Sinhala orthography is distinguished by a number of features, including the following: (1) Vowels are written as independent letters at the beginning of syllables. (2) Special conjunct symbols are used for prenasalized consonants such as /b/. (3) There are extra letters for writing Sanskrit and Pali loanwords.
There is no data on the difficulty of Sinhala for speakers of English.