The Politics of Language in Sri Lanka | Daily News

The Politics of Language in Sri Lanka

Professor  Sandagomi  Coperahewa
Professor Sandagomi Coperahewa

If you were to examine any of the issues that have come to shape the Sri Lankan political terrain, you are likely to encounter the issue of language somewhere in the background, never too far from view. From Sinhala-only and the tensions surrounding the country’s official language to divisions resulting from the privileged position occupied by English in a post-colonial society, the issue of language has been a consistently contentious one.

Professor Sandagomi Coperahewa of the Sinhala Department at the University of Colombo, has written extensively in the field of socio-linguistics, exploring the ways in which questions of language shape our societies. We spoke to him to find out more about those issues which lie at the intersection of the linguistic and the political in Sri Lanka.

Q: You’ve done a lot of work on the Hela movement and linguistic purism in Sri Lanka. What was the Hela movement and what was its social significance?

A: The Hela movement was a language revitalization movement started by Munidasa Cumaratunga who was a Sinhala scholar and the foremost language loyalist and Sinhala grammarian of the 20th century. His aim was to ‘purify’ the Sinhala language in accordance with classical Sinhala. This involved a desire for authentic linguistic usage as opposed to the Indo Aryan linguistic discourse. He wanted to show that there was a purely indigenous form of Sinhala which was devoid of an Indo-Aryan origin and that language reform was necessary in order to safeguard the intrinsic purity of the language. This involved removing Sanskrit and Pali words from Sinhala and replacing them with Hela, that is, indigenous ones. The movement was intimately connected with the nationalism of the early 20th century.

Q: Why did Cumaratunga want to remove Sanskrit and Pali influences from Sinhala and how did this coincide with nationalism?

A: The puristic discourse of Cumaratunga was socio-politically inspired to a large extent and can’t be divorced from the social, political and cultural context of the period. In the late 1930s there was a project to compile a Sinhala dictionary and he wanted to show that there were many Sinhala words without a Sanskrit origin. He wanted to show a purified form of Sinhala and argued that those words with an Indo-Aryan origin were foreign intrusions to the language.

In emphasising the linguistic uniqueness of Sinhala, he was reacting to the institutional dominance of Sanskrit scholarship in the country at Pirivenas (monastic schools), universities and the Sinhala Dictionary Office. They all considered Indo-Aryan or Sanskrit scholarship as the base of the Sinhala language. Cumaratunga wanted to attack this established scholarship, most of whom were Pali and Sanskrit scholars.

Language purists and puristic movements such as the Hela movement are nationalistic, thus they often try to keep the symbol of national identity free from outside influence. This was also related to the fact that in the 1940s we had a lot of connections with India, Rabindranath visited thrice, there were a lot of connections between the Indian National Congress and Ceylon National Congress. Nehru and others had a very good association with Sri Lankan politicians. We can’t say his movement was wholly an anti-Indian movement, but there was an attempt to distance the Sinhala language from Indian associations and therefore to culturally distance ourselves from India.

Q: What is the influence of the Hela movement today and what are your own views on its claims?

A: It has lost its significance now, after the death of Cumaratunga. However, the term ‘Hela’ has been used in Sinhala nationalist political movements. For instance, Jathika Hela Urumaya, these movements often use the term Hela instead of Sinhala.

My own view is that Sinhala is a composite language, with both Indo Aryan and local influences. We are also very close to the Dravidian belt, and there is an influence of Dravidian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam on Sinhala. Around 10 percent of Sinhala words have been brought from Tamil; we also have Portuguese, Dutch and other words. There are various sources which have impacted, not just Indo Aryan and local, it’s also possible that some influences may be from the Polynesian side.

Q: There has been a lot of debate about the place of English in Sri Lanka, particularly in terms of its relationship with issues of class, colonialism and the demands of the global market economy. Can you tell me a little bit about the sociological history of English in the country?

A: We have to consider the fact that during the British era, English was an elite language. There were two main aspects of this phenomenon, one was its association with education, the ‘English educated elite’ became a slogan at that time. Another aspect was employment and the fact that English used to be the administrative language of this country, knowledge of it was essential for any position of importance. It was the recommendations of the Colebrooke–Cameron Commission that paved the way for this state of affairs. They believed that knowledge of English would lead to the enhancement of the people of the island, and consequently, the Commission showed little interest in the local languages.

In terms of the resistance to English, the movement that started in the late 19th and early 20th century was, interestingly, started by people who were educated in English. The likes of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Ponnambalam Arunachalam, they wanted the vernaculars, the ‘Swabasha’ as the language of education, the medium of instruction and the language of administration, highlighting the importance of one’s mother tongue. However, at the same time, history shows that even during this colonial period there was a demand for English in the wider society, not only resistance, many wanted to send their children to English schools for example. This was an interesting phenomenon where the campaign for the use of the vernacular was actually led by a group of educated elites whilst among the general public there was a demand for English. We know that at that time even in the Pirivenas, pupils had the opportunity to learn English.

The nature of the opposition changed later however, after independence and the implementation of the Kannangara reforms, there was a post-colonial discourse about English. For an example in the 1970s, as noted by scholars like Thiru Kandiah, where English was symbolised as a ‘kaduwa’ (sword). This resistance came from the youth, it was a term commonly used by university students for example.

Q: What was distinct about the post-colonial resistance to English when compared to its colonial predecessor? Is that resistance still prominent now? Ought it to be?

A: In the 1970s the resistance, was more amongst the youth and not amongst the other groups because youth were finding great difficulty finding jobs in the private sector. English was a factor with regard to employability, it gave access to the most lucrative jobs and social prestige. Those who opposed the use of English in the 1970s could not typically speak it, in contrast to the early twentieth century where prominent opponents were often educated in English. For instance, people like Munidasa Cumaratunga and Martin Wickramasinghe were bilingual.

In the 1980s things shifted again. In the last two decades, there has once again been a demand for English with the rise of international schools. These discourses are different from time to time in the history of English in this country and we have to situate these discourses in the different social and political contexts of this country. We have to do a kind of situated history.

We have come to a situation now where even amongst those who promote the local languages there seems to be a consensus that the teaching of English is important. There isn’t as much of a resistance to English, at least not any organised resistance. The only issue is that there are few good facilities to promote good education in English. These should exist to empower students. My personal view is that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn English, either as a second language or through education in English medium, as well making sure that they have proficiency in their native language. I don’t see any kind of clash between those two things.

Q: What were the historical conditions which led to the change from the Swabasha movement to the call for Sinhala-only? How did we go from movements which attacked the privilege of English and colonial influence to an agenda that caused clashes between Sri Lanka’s own ethnolinguistic communities?

A: Legislators from the north and south previously worked on a single platform, it was after independence that this division in platforms came about. JR Jayewardene’s famous resolution in 1944 was only approved by the state council after Tamil was included as well, at the request of several Tamil politicians. The understanding was that both would be made official languages.

However, my argument is that D. S. Senanayake didn’t act on this preparation, if he had done so, we would not have seen this demand for Sinhala only. He wanted to take things very slowly, he had no urgent desire to remove English as the official language and so he didn’t implement the 1944 state council resolution. From 1948 to 1956 they continued with English as the official language. If he implemented immediately in 1948 or 1949, Sinhala only would not have been an issue. However, because of this delay, after 1948 all the Swabasha educated parliamentarians came into parliament and that’s where the parliamentary demand came from for Sinhala only. In early 1955 a powerful wing of the SLFP led by prominent Bhikkhus and laity proposed a motion to amend the SLFP constitution on this issue to advocate for Sinhala only. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was able to use the issue of language to the SLFP’s electoral benefit, he understood the power of language as an aspect of group identity.

Q: What do you think caused this division of platforms? What were the kind of narratives that led Sinhala people to be suspicious of Swabasha and switch to Sinhala-only?

A: Sinhala language loyalists argued that if we declare Tamil as an official language that then there would be a flow of literature, film and other cultural products from India and that there would be a huge demand for that. Because Sinhala was only spoken in Sri Lanka whilst Tamil was one of the oldest languages being spoken in India, they thought that Sinhala would become an endangered language. Tamil was flourishing in Tamil Nadu and at that time South India and Sri Lanka had very close connections, there were even train and ferry services up to India. They spoke about a kind of ‘cultural invasion’ in which Tamil became a majority language due to its dominance in the larger South Asian area. In addition to that, the demand for ‘parity of status’ was not understood by the Sinhalese masses and many were misled by politicians to believe that this meant that they should become bilingual.

Q: The effects of Sinhala-only policy on the history of conflict in the country is now widely acknowledged. But how much have things changed since Tamil was recognised as an official language, what are the issues surrounding language in Sri Lanka now?

A: After 1988 the political debate shifted from debate about official language to a debate about language rights. It’s not enough to declare something a national language, you have to provide facilities for that language. Language policies are well documented in this country, what is lacking is implementation.

Twenty five percent of the country’s population are Tamil speaking, but only a small percentage of the employees in the public service are conversant in Tamil. Similar problems are faced by the Sinhalese in the North and the East where the activities in most government offices are conducted in Tamil. Consequently, the language barrier is one of the main problems faced by the general public in obtaining the services of state institutions.

The Official Language Commission was set up in the 1990s to address the language complaints of people. This was important to address the violation of language rights especially in administration, education and other sectors of society. Under the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government there were a number of efforts made to ensure the implementation of language policy. In the last regime there was another language planning project, the ‘Trilingual Sri Lanka’ project, which promoted the trilingualisation of society, however these complex issues still remain with regard to language rights. 


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