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Sanskritisms in Sinhala: striking a balance


That language constitutes an important aspect of a people's cultural heritage cannot be denied. It represents a good part of a nation's intellectual attainments and reflects to a large extent its weltaanschauung or view of the world. It is therefore not surprising why a nation's intellectuals should be so concerned about preserving their language for posterity, some even to the point of advocating a policy of 'linguistic purity' that seeks to purge the language of all foreign influences.

The fact however is that linguistic purity is more often than not a fallacy in most major languages save for a few like Icelandic whose speakers have made a conscious effort to resist external linguistic influences, even in the case of modern-day technological terminology.

Foreign loans

Most of the major languages spoken in the world today have come under considerable foreign influence, including among others Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Sinhala and English. These are largely due to historical or practical reasons. Take for instance Sinhala which has come under the influence of Tamil as a result of recurrent Tamil invasions, peaceful mercantile intercourse and the assimilation of Tamil-speaking caste groups into the Sinhalese social system. Similarly, Sinhala has been influenced by the languages of the European colonial powers including the Portuguese, Dutch and British. These influences could be said to be largely historical.

However, there is another reason why foreign loans enter a language and that is because of practical reasons. Sinhala scholars have for instance thought it fit to adopt loans from the Sanskrit language to fill the perceived shortcomings of the Sinhala language, especially in connection with technical terminology.

Indeed, there are hundreds of Sanskritic terms which have entered the Sinhala lexicon in this manner during the past hundred years or so. Many of them appear to have been influenced by the lexicons compiled by Prof. Raghu Vira who coined technical terms for Indian scholarship based on Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European speech spoken in Northern India around 4000 years ago and believed to be the parent speech from which the modern Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali and Sinhala derive.

The methodology employed by Prof.Raghu Vira somewhat resembled the European model of coining neologisms from Greek and Latin, dead languages which nevertheless form the basis of a good number of modern scientific, medical and technological terms in some major European languages such as English.

Among the Sanskritic loans in modern Sinhala may be included such common terms as praja-tantra (democracy), shalya-karma (surgery), chaya-rupa (photograph), surya-balaya (solar energy), trasta-vadaya (terrorism), harda-spandana (heart-beat), vag-vidya (linguistics) and rupa-vahini (television). Although there can be little doubt that such loans are justifiable and even necessary, one also feels that Sanskritic terms very often tend to be employed unnecessarily even where there exist alternative Helu or pure Sinhala terms which convey the meaning as much as or even better than their Sanskritic equivalents.

This unhealthy trend is especially pronounced in contemporary Sinhala scientific, medical and technological literature including school textbooks where one finds innumerable Sanskritisms being employed even in cases where there exist alternative Sinhala terms. For instance take asthi-panjaraya (skeleton) instead of eta-sekilla, shata-varsha (century) instead of siya-vasa, dirgha-shirsha (dolicocephalic) instead of digu-siras, shila-lekhana (inscription) instead of sel-lipi, patha-shala (school) instead of pasala, arogya-shala (hospital) instead of rohala and karmanta-shala (factory) instead of kam-hala.

One indeed wonders why our academics and educationists should have preferred these complex jaw-breaking Sanskritisms to the far more simpler and pleasant sounding Helu terms, especially when compiling textbooks meant for schoolchildren. Euphony, brevity and practicality have been overlooked by our pundits here in their rush to join the Sanskritic bandwagon which has made rapid inroads into Indian media and academia ever since the 1950s.

Not only are these jaw-breaking Sanskritisms hard to pronounce and require more effort, but may also serve to create a bad impression of high Sinhala among youth. Indeed, this is a matter to which our lexicographers should give serious consideration.

Coining words

Besides employing existing Sinhala terms, the coining of new terms based on old or surviving Helu forms should also be seriously considered.

This strategy has been successfully followed in Iceland where the greatest effort has been made to coin modern-day scientific terms from the native lexicon rather than resorting to the easier alternative of borrowing from Greek or Latin as has been the case with English. Indeed, there exists a considerable lexicon in Sinhala, both extinct and existing, which could be made use of to coin scientific and other terminology for modern-day studies.

For instance take old Sinhala words like la (heart), rov (disease), detu (senior), milis (barbarian) and hingu (speedy) which could be easily employed to replace their respective Sanskritic equivalents harda, roga, jyeshtha, mlechcha and shighra which are widely used at present, even in complex terms. By employing such a methodology we could coin a number of neologisms such as sulu-divin (microbes) for kshudra-jivin, savan-nahara (auditory nerve) for shravana-snayu, le-kes-neli 'blood capilleries' for rudhira-kesha-nalika, sivasa 'quadrilateral' for chaturasraya and aturudela (internet) for antar-jalaya.

It is indeed unfortunate that the linguistic puritan Hela Havula movement which advocates the purging of all Sanskritic loans from Sinhala should have largely confined its activities to prose literature such as novels instead of venturing into the more challenging task of coining scientific terms for Sinhala scholarship. This should certainly be a worthwhile exercise and should receive the support of all persons genuinely interested in the perpetuation of the Sinhala language.

Euphonious terms

However, at the same time one must caution that the campaign against Sanskrit should not be taken to a point where it could impoverish the Sinhala language by depriving it of some very useful and euphonious terms.

Take for instance such common words as rupa (shape), krama (manner), svalpa (little), avastha (opportunity), bhasha (language), sthana (place), viplava (revolution) and svarupa (form) which are simply worth retaining for their euphony, if not for anything else. There also exist many Sanskritic terms commonly employed in Sinhala which are simply not worth changing for want of a better term.

Take for instance words like madhya-sthana (centre) and bala-dakshika (Girl guides). One cannot also easily find Helu alternatives to convey certain entrenched expressions such as gambhira-(penuma) which though literally meaning 'a deep look' conveys the sense of 'a profound and handsome countenance'. Employing the Helu equivant would give us the ludicrous gemburu-penuma.

There may also be instances where the Helu equivalent of a Sanskritic term used today may have quite a different meaning. For instance, the Helu equivalent of the Sansritic term yantra which is used to refer to a 'machine' is yatura meaning 'key'.

In conclusion, it should be stated that although there exists a need for employing more Helu-based terms in education and academia, even to the extent of coining new ones, due consideration should be given to the brevity and euphony of those Sanskritic terms marked for supersession. Striking a balance between the two is perhaps the best alternative we could think of.

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