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Languages in Sri Lanka – A Vernacular Potpourri of The Emerald Isle

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Official Language

Sinhala and Tamil are the two official languages of Sri Lanka that are widely spoken across the country. It is the native language of the Sinhalese people and contributes to the language spoken by about 70 percent of the population.  Sinhala has been majorly influenced by Pali, the sacred language of the Sri Lankan Buddhists and Sanskrit. Sinhala also derives many words from Tamil, and the words are incorporated from other languages like Portuguese, Dutch, and English.

Tamil – The Indian Linkage

Being spoken by close to 15 percent of the population, Tamil has a wide base and has been accorded as an official language. Tamil is a Dravidian language that finds its origin and predominance in Southern India, mainly Tamil Nadu. The proximity of Tamil Nadu has caused an influx of tradespeople, settlers, kings, invaders.  Hence not only trade but language too was imported to this Emerald Isle.

English – The Visitor’s Conversational Boon

Sri Lankan English is the link language, making the country decipherable to millions of tourists visiting this island nation. Although the public has the right to deal with government institutions in any three languages, it is generally English preferred in government functioning.

The Vernacular Potpourri

The island nation of Sri Lanka is home to many ethnicities. Some of them are Moors/Muslims who speak a form of Tamil heavily influenced by Arabic.  Burghers/Eurasians speak Portuguese Creole, the lingua franca in Sri Lanka between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Malay immigrants speak the beautiful florid language of Creole Malay extensively.  It is a unique language with both Tamil and Sinhala roots. A minority still speaks it of Sri Lankans and a mix of Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil, Sinhala, and Arabic, which adds to the languages’ dynamics.

Influences from the neighboring countries of India, Maldives, and Malaysia, plus the Arab settlers, add to the wide variety of languages in Sri Lanka. For instance, the ethnic group of Veddah speaks an exclusive language called Veddah extensively.  They are the tribal hunter-gatherers who live in the forest of central Sri Lanka.  Similarly, the Rodiya people of Sri Lanka speak a dialect of Sinhala called Rodiya. Today, however, the use is declining as younger Sri Lankans have begun relying on Sinhalese, Tamil, and English for communication.

Sinhalese English- The Lingua Franca

The majority of Sri Lankans are fluent in conversational English. Therefore, from a tourist’s point of view, it makes for a hassle-free conversation. Though one might come across a quirky local word or phrase lacing a sentence or an intonation converting a statement to a question, do not worry as there is a very slim chance that you might get lost in translation. It is because Sri Lanka, as most of the Indian subcontinent, has engaged in keeping English and its myriad vernacular languages together. Indeed, it is this quality that is the crux of this beautiful everlasting exchange of cultural influences.

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