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Sunday, 3 February 2002  
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Government - Gazette

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Budusarana On-line Edition

Our British heritage

by J. B. Disanayaka

The sun has set on the British Empire. The British have come and gone. Tomorrow, on the fourth of February, we celebrate our independence. We are a free nation again. We are free to do what we like. We are our own masters. The colonial masters who dictated to us have gone for good. Have they gone for good? I have my doubts.

For their memories still linger on, particularly in two fields: in the game of cricket and in the English language. I am no sportsman and thus it wouldn't be cricket to talk about this game. I shall, however, talk of the English language which has left behind some indelible marks on the Sri Lankan linguistic scene.

The British left behind their language, variously labelled 'British English', 'Queen's English', 'Standard English' and even 'English English' to distinguish it from other brands of English such as American English, Australian English, Indian English and so on. Once we gained independence, English lost its status as the official or state language in the island.

English is no more the official language but it has been recognised as a national language, which functions as a link language that links the different ethnic groups in the island. Its impact on the island's linguistic landscape is therefore as strong and sharp as ever, so much so that it has given rise, at least, to four varieties of linguistic phenomena: Standard English, Sri Lankan English, Sinenglish and Singirisi.

Of these four, Standard English is the best known. It is the brand of English that is considered 'proper' and 'acceptable' by the educated, whether in Britain or in any other part of the world. Grammars of English are generally based on this brand of English. In teaching English as a second language much attention is paid to Standard English.

In Sri Lanka, this is the brand of English used both in the print and electronic media. A few so-called 'Ceylonisms' or 'colloquialism' may have found their way to this brand of English but their impact has not affected the structure of Standard English to any substantial extent. The editorials, in particular, of the English press are written in Standard English.

There are two varieties of English that have origins in this island: Sri Lankan English and 'Sinenglish', a term introduced by Dr. Wimal Wickramasinghe in his book "Sinenglish: A de-hegemonized variety of English in Sri Lanka" published in 2000. In this book an attempt is made "to examine Sinenglish against the perspectives of Standard English and Lankan English in Sri Lanka, on the one hand, and New Englishes that are found elsewhere, on the other' (p.4)

Once English left the shores of England and settled down in other parts of the globe, it assumed different forms to accommodate new ways of thinking generated by the native languages.

The United States of America, for instance, produced American English. This process resulted in producing a new term, 'Englishes', to identify varieties of English that came to be termed 'Canadian English', 'Australian English', 'Indian English' and so on.

Thus came into being in Sri Lanka a variety of English that may legitimately be termed 'Sri Lankan English', since it is usual to identify such a variety by the country that produced it.

In my own book, 'Understanding the Sinhalese' (1998) I have discussed some aspects of Sri Lankan English in the segment titled 'Of their English' (pp.137-158) "Sri Lankan English" writes Dr. Wickramasinghe "is a deviation of Standard English, the degree of deviation due to the occasional use of colloquialisms and switches" (p.iii), In addition to such usages, there is in Sri Lankan English a good deal of Buddhist terms the origins of which go back to Sinhala or Pali.

English newspapers are full of passages that contain Buddhist usages of such as the following:

"The new Minister of Buddha Sasana speaking at the inauguration of the all-night pirith chanting ceremony of his Ministry said that he would meet the Maha Nayakas of the Asgiriya chapter and the Malvattu chapter of the Siyam Nikaya and the Maha Nayaka of the Amarapura Nikaya, to discuss security arrangements at sacred sites such as the Dalada Maligawa, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and the Atamasthana."

Sri Lankan English also replaced standard tag questions such as"isn't he?" "aren't they?" "am I?" by the simple "no?" which is a derivative of the Sinhala tag question: "ne?" or "ne:da?"

Rather than saying

"Today is Sunday, isn't it?"

"You are a doctor, aren't you?"

"I am late, am I?"

a Sri Lankan will say

"Today is Sunday, no?" (ada irida, ne?)

"You are a doctor, no?"(oya: dostara kenek, ne?)

"I am late, no?"(mama parakkuy ne:da?)

Many scholars have written on the nature and structure of Sri Lankan English. Among them are University dons such as H. A. Passe, Tiru Kandiah, Shiromi Fernando, D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, Arjuna Parakrama and Manique Gunasekera. Prof. Goonetilleke, for instance, defines Sri Lankan English thus:

"Sri Lankan English has evolved into its own characteristics of phonology, idiom, vocabulary and grammar which are completely intelligible in their social context, but the English speaking community in Sri Lanka does not seem to be sufficiently large and independent to be capable of evolving a dialect like Australian English. In fact, Standard Sri Lankan English speech, though it differs from Standard English, is not widely so and is intelligible to speakers of Standard English (Modern Sri Lankan Poetry: An Anthology, p.26)

'Sinenglish', as Dr. Wickramasinghe defines it, "is also a variety of Sri Lankan English which has more Sinhala words and phrases as well as ungrammatical usages." (p.iii) He, however, hastens to add that his attempt "is not to approve wholesale of all the usages found in Sinenglish but to elevate it to acceptable level (though it is still a nonstandard variety in the eyes of language purists) by codification and standardization" (p.iii)

To get a taste of Sinenglish, let me quote a passage from Dr. Wickramasinghe's book on Sinenglish:

"Machang, that rascal is pushing a cart but that baduva does not know that he's already hitched to some other bird.

Kohomada umba danne? I mean, how do you know?

I have seen the bloke cubbing a girl.

So what? Maybe that she is a good catch or a fast one. But this cart looks pukka. She is not a cow-catcher. Neither does she have a carrom board. Apita mokada. What does it matter to us?

But I like to get set with her.

In that case, you better start putting a line to her"(p.392)

Sri Lankan English and Sinenglish are products of the universal linguistic phenomenon described by linguists as 'languages in contact'. English, when it came into context with the two national languages of the island, Sinhala and Tamil, was influenced by the latter, ultimately producing these new brands of English, unique to this island.

The 'languages in contact' situation in Sri Lanka had another kind of impact. English was the source of a new brand of Sinhala, which I have termed 'Singirisi'. Whereas 'Sinenglish' is a brand of English, 'Singirisi' is a brand of Sinhala with its own patters of usage. This is the brand of Sinhala used by bilingual in Sri Lanka.

In my book 'Understanding the Sinhalese' I have made an attempt to describe some of the patterns of usage of Singirisi in the chapter entitled 'Singirisi, the Speech of the bilingual". These bilingual include professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, University teachers and, others like businessmen and housewives.

Let me reproduce the passage that I have quoted in my book as a typical example of Singirisi: (Sinhala words are in italics)

"Campus eke strike ekehinda eke extend karamu kiyala vice chancellor science faculty eke professor kenek ekka kivalu. Namut samahara tutors-la kivva lectures cancel karala practicals vitarak karamu kiyala. Dean kenek kivva freshers-lata rag karana seniors-la suspend karana tek exam eka postpone karamu kiyala. Lectures cut karana undergrads-la kohomat fail venava" (p. 134)

At the beginning, Singirisi was used only in informal personal communication and it was avoided in formal speech and writing, except in some newspaper columns. Today, however, I have observed that advertisers are using this brand in advertisements exhibited in public.

This has certainly aroused the concern not only of purists but also of others who have a love for their language. For language is one of the most important symbols of ethnic identity and the Sinhalese would love to keep their language, Sinhala, "unpolluted" by alien sources.

Stone 'N' String

Crescat Development Ltd.

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