The oldest Sinhalese Prakrit inscriptions found are from the third to second century BCE following the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the oldest extant literary works date from the ninth century. The closest relative of Sinhala is the Maldivian language. Sinhala has two main varieties – written and spoken. It is a good example of the linguistic phenomenon known as diglossia.
Sinhala (Siṃhāla) is a Sanskrit term; the corresponding Middle Indo-Aryan (Eḷu) word is Sīhala. The name is a derivation from siṃha, the Sanskrit word for "lion" Siṃhāla is attested as a Sanskrit name of the island in the Bhagavata Purana. The name is sometimes glossed as "abode of lions", and attributed to a supposed former abundance of lions on the island.
According to the chronicle Mahavamsa, written in Pali, Prince Vijaya and his entourage merged with two exotic tribes of ancient India present in Lanka, the Yakkha and Naga peoples. In the following centuries, there was substantial immigration from Eastern India (Kalinga, Magadha) which led to an admixture of features of Eastern Prakrits.
An example for a Western feature in Sinhala is the retention of initial /v/ which developed into /b/ in the Eastern languages (e.g. Sanskrit viṃśati "twenty", Sinhala visi-, Hindi bīs). An example of an Eastern feature is the ending -e for masculine nominative singular (instead of Western -o) in Sinhalese Prakrit. There are several cases of vocabulary doublets, e.g. the words mässā ("fly") and mäkkā ("flea"), which both correspond to Sanskrit makṣikā but stem from two regionally different Prakrit words macchiā and makkhikā (as in Pali).
In 1815 the island of Ceylon came under British rule. During the career of Christopher Reynolds (1922–2015) as a Sinhalese lecturer at the SOAS, University of London, he extensively researched the Sinhalese language and its pre-1815 literature: the Sri Lankan government awarded him the Sri Lanka Ranjana medal for this. He wrote the 377-page An anthology of Sinhalese literature up to 1815, selected by the UNESCO National Commission of Ceylon
According to Wilhelm Geiger, Sinhala has features that set it apart from other Indo-Aryan languages. Some of the differences can be explained by the substrate influence of the parent stock of the Vedda language. Sinhala has many words that are only found in Sinhala, or shared between Sinhala and Vedda and not etymologically derivable from Middle or Old Indo-Aryan. Common examples are kola for leaf in Sinhala and Vedda, dola for pig in Vedda and offering in Sinhala. Other common words are rera for wild duck, and gala for stones (in toponyms used throughout the island). There are also high frequency words denoting body parts in Sinhala, such as olluva for head, kakula for leg, bella for neck and kalava for thighs, that are derived from pre-Sinhalese languages of Sri Lanka. The author of the oldest Sinhala grammar, Sidatsangarava, written in the 13th century CE, recognised a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhala. The grammar lists naramba (to see) and kolamba (fort or harbour) as belonging to an indigenous source. Kolamba is the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.
In addition to many Tamil loanwords, several phonetic and grammatical features present in neighbouring Dravidian languages, setting today's spoken Sinhala apart from its Northern Indo-Aryan siblings, bear witness to the close interactions with Dravidian speakers. However, formal Sinhala is more similar to Pali and medieval Sinhala. Some of the features that may be traced to Dravidian influence are –
Macanese Patois or Macau Creole (known as Patuá to its speakers) is a creole language derived mainly from Malay, Sinhala, Cantonese, and Portuguese, which was originally spoken by the Macanese people of the Portuguese colony of Macau. It is now spoken by a few families in Macau and in the Macanese diaspora.
The language developed first mainly among the descendants of Portuguese settlers who often married women from Malacca and Sri Lanka rather than from neighbouring China, so the language had strong Malay and Sinhala influence from the beginning.
The Sinhala language has different types of variations which are commonly identified as 'dialects and accents'. Among those variations, 'regional variations' are prominent. Some of the well-known regional variations of Sinhala language are:
People from Uva province also have a very unique linguistic variation in relation to the pronunciation of words. In general, Sinhala singular words are pluralized by adding suffixes like O, hu, wal or waru. But when it comes to Monaragala, the situation is somewhat different as when nouns are pluralized a nasal sound is added.
2. Southern variation with regard to the vocabulary used in ‘Kamath language’
The Kamath language (an indigenous language of paddy culture) used by the Southerners is somewhat different to the ‘Kamath language’ used in other parts (Uva, Kandy) of Sri Lanka as it is marked with a systematic variation; ‘boya’ at the end of the majority of nouns as the examples below show.
Here the particular word ‘boya’ means ‘a little’ in the Southern region and at the end of most of nouns, 'boya' is added regularly. This particular word 'boya' is added to most words by the Southern villages as a token of respect towards the things (those things can be crops, tools etc.) they are referring to.
3. The contrast among the regional variations used by Kandy, Kegalle and Galle people in relation to pronunciation
Even though the Kandy, Kegalle and Galle people pronounce words with slight differences, the Sinhalese can understand the majority of the sentences.
In Sinhala there is distinctive diglossia, as in many languages of South Asia. The literary language and the spoken language differ from each other in many aspects. The written language is used for all forms of literary texts but also orally at formal occasions (public speeches, TV and radio news broadcasts, etc.), whereas the spoken language is used as the language of communication in everyday life (see also Sinhala slang and colloquialism). As a rule the literary language uses more Sanskrit-based words.
Sinhala diglossia can also be described in terms of informal and formal varieties. The variety used for formal purposes is closer to the written/literary variety, whereas the variety used for informal purposes is closer to the spoken variety. It is also used in some modern literature (e.g. Liyanage Amarakeerthi's Kurulu Hadawatha).
The situation is analogous to one where Middle or even Old English would be the written language in Great Britain. The children are taught the written language at school almost like a foreign language.
Sinhala also has diverse slang. Most slang words and terms were regarded as taboo and most were frowned upon as non-scholarly. However, nowadays Sinhala slang words and terms, even the ones with sexual references, are commonly used among younger Sri Lankans.
Sinhala script, Sinhala hodiya, is based on the ancient Brahmi script, as are most Indian scripts. Sinhala script is closely related to South Indian Grantha script and Khmer script taken the elements from the related Kadamba script.
The writing system for Sinhala is an abugida, where the consonants are written with letters while the vowels are indicated with diacritics (pilla) on those consonants, unlike English where both consonants and vowels are full letters, or Urdu where vowels need not be written at all. Also, when a diacritic is not used, an "inherent vowel", either /a/ or /ə/, is understood, depending on the position of the consonant within the word. For example, the letter ක k on its own indicates ka, either /ka/ or /kə/. The various vowels are written කා /kaː/, කැ /kæ/, කෑ /kæː/ (after the consonant), කි /ki/, කී /kiː/ (above the consonant), කු /ku/, කූ /kuː/ (below the consonant), කෙ /ke/, කේ /keː/ (before the consonant), කො /koː/, කෝ /koː/ (surrounding the consonant). There are also a few diacritics for consonants, such as /r/ in special circumstances, although the tendency nowadays is to spell words with the full letter ර /r/, plus either a preceding or following hal kirima. One word that is still spelt with an "r" diacritic is ශ්රී, as in ශ්රී ලංකාව (Sri Lankāwa). The "r" diacritic is the curved line under the first letter ("ශ": "ශ්ර"). A second diacritic, this time for the vowel sound /iː/ completes the word ("ශ්ර": "ශ්රීී"). For simple /k/ without a vowel, a vowel-cancelling diacritic (virama) called හල් නිරීම /hal kiriːmə/ is used: ක් /k/. Several of these diacritics occur in two forms, which depend on the shape of the consonant letter. Vowels also have independent letters but these are only used at the beginning of words where there is no preceding consonant to add a diacritic to.
The complete script consists of about 60 letters, 18 for vowels and 42 for consonants. However, only 57 (16 vowels and 41 consonants) are required for writing colloquial spoken Sinhala (suddha Sinhala). The rest indicate sounds that have been merged in the course of linguistic change, such as the aspirates, and are restricted to Sanskrit and Pali loan words. One letter (ඦ), representing the sound /ⁿd͡ʒa/, is attested although no words using this letter are attested.
Sinhala is written from left to right and Sinhala script is mainly used for Sinhala, as well as the liturgical languages Pali and Sanskrit. The alphabetic sequence is similar to those of other Brahmic scripts:a/ā æ/ǣ i/ī u/ū [ŗ] e/ē [ai] o/ō [au] k [kh] g [gh] ṅ c [ch] j [jh] [ñ] ṭ [ṭh] ḍ [ḍh] [ṇ] t [th] d [dh] n p [ph] b [bh] m y r l v [ś ṣ] s h [ḷ] f
Sinhala has so-called prenasalized consonants, or 'half nasal' consonants. A short homorganic nasal occurs before a voiced stop, it is shorter than a sequence of nasal plus stop. The nasal is syllabified with the onset of the following syllable, which means that the moraic weight of the preceding syllable is left unchanged. For example, tam̆ba 'copper' contrasts with tamba 'boil'.
/f~ɸ/ and /ʃ/ are restricted to loans, typically English or Sanskrit. They are commonly replaced by /p/ and /s/ respectively in colloquial speech. Some speakers use the voiceless labiodental fricative [f], as in English, and some use the voiceless bilabial fricative [ɸ] due to its similarity to the native voiceless bilabial stop /p/.
Long /əː/ is restricted to English loans. /a/ and /ə/ are allophones in Sinhala and contrast with each other in stressed and unstressed syllables respectively. In writing, /a/ and /ə/ are both spelt without a vowel sign attached to the consonant letter, so the patterns of stress in the language must be used to determine the correct pronunciation. Most Sinhala syllables are of the form CV. The first syllable of each word is stressed, with the exception of the verb කරනවා /kərənəˈwaː/ ("to do") and all of its infected forms where the first syllable is unstressed. Syllables using long vowels are always stressed. The remainder of the syllables are unstressed if they use a short vowel, unless they are immediately followed by one of: a CCV syllable, final /j(i)/ (-යි), final /wu/ (-වු), or a final consonant without a following vowel. The sound /ha/ is always stressed in nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, and so is not pronounced /hə/ except in the word හතලිහ /ˈhat̪əlihə/ ("forty"), where the initial /ha/ is stressed and the final /hə/ is unstressed.
The main features marked on Sinhala nouns are case, number, definiteness and animacy.
Sinhala distinguishes several cases. Next to the cross-linguistically rather common nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative, there are also less common cases like the instrumental. The exact number of these cases depends on the exact definition of cases one wishes to employ. For instance, the endings for the animate instrumental and locative cases, atiŋ and laᵑgə, are also independent words meaning "with the hand" and "near" respectively, which is why they are not regarded to be actual case endings by some scholars. Depending on how far an independent word has progressed on a grammaticalisation path, scholars will see it as a case marker or not.
The brackets with most of the vowel length symbols indicate the optional shortening of long vowels in certain unstressed syllables.
In Sinhala animate nouns, the plural is marked with -o(ː), a long consonant plus -u, or with -la(ː). Most inanimates mark the plural through disfixation. Loanwords from English mark the singular with ekə, and do not mark the plural. This can be interpreted as a singulative number.
On the left hand side of the table, plurals are longer than singulars. On the right hand side, it is the other way round, with the exception of paːrə "street". Note that [+animate] lexemes are mostly in the classes on the left-hand side, while [-animate] lexemes are most often in the classes on the right hand.
The indefinite article is -ek for animates and -ak for inanimates. The indefinite article exists only in the singular, where its absence marks definiteness. In the plural, (in)definiteness does not receive special marking.
Sinhala distinguishes three conjugation classes. Spoken Sinhala does not mark person, number or gender on the verb (literary Sinhala does). In other words, there is no subject–verb agreement.
There is a four-way deictic system (which is rare): There are four demonstrative stems (see demonstrative pronouns) මේ /meː/ "here, close to the speaker", ඕ /oː/ "there, close to the person addressed", අර /arə/ "there, close to a third person, visible" and ඒ /eː/ "there, close to a third person, not visible".
Sinhala is a pro-drop language: Arguments of a sentence can be omitted when they can be inferred from context. This is true for subject—as in Italian, for instance—but also objects and other parts of the sentence can be "dropped" in Sinhala if they can be inferred. In that sense, Sinhala can be called a "super pro-drop language", like Japanese.
Example: The sentence කොහෙද ගියේ [koɦedə ɡie], literally "where went", can mean "where did I/you/he/she/we... go".