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Grammarians versus Linguists - the match is over

A debate that has lasted for some time now between grammarians and linguists has, at last, come to an end. A linguist, by the way, is not necessarily one who knows many languages, but one who is skilled in this relatively new science of linguistics. The end came when Dr. J.B. Disanayaka, a linguist of some eminence, announced the other day he has come to an understanding with Arisen Ahubudu, poet, lyricist and grammarian of the Hela school, that both of them are now willing to respect one another's views on the Sinhalalanguage. The debate between the two schools has been going on, now hidden, now open, for some time, acrimoniously.

Bernard Shaw once said, 'All my life was an education except for the time I spent in school.' And to endorse that I would like to add that I learnt my Sinhala only after I left school. It happened like this. The UNP was licking its wounds in 1956 after its astonishing defeat when it was reduced to just 8 seats, out of a total of nearly a hundred or so seats in parliament, at the hands of the newly formed Mahajana Eksath Peramuna led by a former UNP politico, SWRD Bandaranaike. At that time I was at Lake House.

The defeat came as a shattering blow to the designs and plans of the then Managing Director of Lake House Editorial, the late Esmond Wickremasingha, a personable and a very pleasant man.

The recovery

He recovered quickly, nonetheless, from that setback. One of the first things he decided to do was to see that, as Sinhala was assured to be made the official language, the journalists on the English newspapers received a good working knowledge of the official language. He appointed a sub editor from the Dinamina, who was the former Principal of the WennappuvaTraining School, Mr. M. P. Mendis, to teach Sinhala to the English journalists. Esmond may not have been aware of the irony of his act, for some of the journalists on the English papers referred to the Dinamina disdainfully as the Dyna Miner and the area they occupied as the native quarter. A notice was sent round asking those journalists on the English papers who wished to attend, to join the Sinhala language class.

There was a fair gathering on the first day, but as time went on the numbers dwindled and soon I found that I was the only student left. The language teacher was a very widely read man with both Pali and Sanskrit as a background and I greatly profited by his acquaintance and soon felt as if I had engaged a private tutor. It was from him that I gathered that there had been several controversies on the grammar of Sinhala and lately the man at the bottom of most of these was Munidasa Cumaratunga. That was my introduction to the Hela school of grammar, one that had come to be either ignored or casually targeted by some of the University products of the new linguistic science. By that time, however, Cumaratunga had passed away and the father of modern linguistics, Naom Chomsky, under whose influence our own linguists grew up, had still not appeared on the scene.

As Disanayaka explains, the grammarian is interested in how grammatically a sentence is written, while the linguist's interest is in how language is used. Language is used by all sorts of people, high and low, blacks and whites, adults and children. From the linguist's point of view what matters to him is not how well or ill a sentence is constructed but how characteristically the language is used. The aesthetics of its expression are not his concern so much as its character of expression. As one of Chomsky's foreign disciples, Steven Pinker, puts it in his book, The Language Instinct: "Linguists repeatedly run up against the myth that working class people and the less educated members of the lower middle classes speak a simpler or coarser language.

"This is a pernicious illusion arising from the effortlessness of conversation. Ordinary speech, like color vision or walking, is a paradigm of engineering excellence - a technology that works so well that the user takes its outcome for granted, unaware of the complicated machinery hidden behind the panels. Behind such 'simple' sentences as, Where did he go? and or The guy I met killed himself, used automatically by any English speaker, are dozens of sub routines that arrange the words to express the meaning." But what Pinker regrets is the attention people give to what he calls the 'trifling' differences in mainstream speech and dialects.

As examples he refers to expressions like isn't any versus ain't no, those books versus them books and dragged him away versus drug him away. According to him these are two different ways of saying the same thing and to take offence is like discriminating against a people like the French who say chien for dog or when a dragon fly is referred to in some parts of the United States as a 'darning needle.'

Had Cumaratunga been alive I wonder how he would have reacted to the new approach to language studies by the new linguistic science. Though Cumaratunga took an inflexible stand on certain issues on grammar, he realized the need for a change in the approach to teach the Sinhalalanguage. In the third issue of Subasa, the voice of the Hela school, writing on the subject, Today's Sinhala, he makes a very interesting observation, "What should be done first to encourage the study of Sinhala is to study the Sinhala of today. By directing attention to study the Sinhala that appeared in books published long years ago both children and the newcomers to Sinhala are discouraged to study it. As a result they find the language tasteless, discomforting and difficult to keep in mind. This has led to two varieties of Sinhala, one spoken and one written."

When Robert Knox lived among the peasants in Bandara Koswatta he noticed a characteristic in the speech of the common people and said, "Their ordinary ploughmen and husbandmen do speak elegantly and are full of complement. And there is no difference in the ability and speech of a countryman and a courtier." This seems to indicate that the difference in the two forms of language that exist today may not have existed then or if it did it was only minimal.

It seems a pity that the thoughts contained in the essay on Today's Sinhala were not elaborated in subsequent issues.

He may not have had time in the busy literary life he led, for in the rush he also translated a few verses of the very popular Gray's Elegy on a Country Church Yard and gave a very good rendering of the pathos so similar to what exists or existed in our country life.


Although Cumaratunga gave the impression of being a 'traditionalist' in his grammar, in many other areas he gave an entirely different impression - that of being a modernist. His celebrated remark that a nation will never rise if it did not invent anew, is quoted often even today urging his countrymen to put their best foot forward to develop the nation. He once wrote a short story in which his hero goes to hell and transforms King Yama's kingdom by converting his fire and brimstone into sources of energy to bring us all our modern comforts.

But where I agreed most with him is in his observation of the preparations of our sweetmeats. He deplored the lack of enterprise to turn out a tastier preparation of the ubiquitous kavun.

These qualities he had indicate a very flexible mind, and if he had met Naom Chomsky he may have congratulated him on his achievements. Chomsky, by the way, is the first to call America a terror state. In turn Chomsky would congratulate Cumaratunga on his achievement of freeing Sinhalafrom the thralls of Pali and Sanskrit and, as Disanayaka has pointed out, his achievement of preserving the Sinhalaness of the Sinhala grammar.



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