Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 12 June 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

The silent battle of languages

England has been declared the winner. No less a person than a foremost statesman of ours recently declared that England has achieved the status of initiator of WORLD LANGUAGE, a status many an upcoming nation would aspire to attain. How did this happen?

Most would attribute it to the corresponding power the Isles achieved in the race for grabbing other people's land. Of course, the Iberian races stood first in the race, but Britain soon surpassed them weaving their power mostly around the Indian sub-continent. Here too the Dutch had established their VOC or the Dutch East India Company before the British, but by a ring of Forts put up in the major cities mostly by the sea, the British East India Company outdid them.


Some pundits quip, the glorious British Empire in India was put up by a business company that the kings and queens of England had ignored at the beginning.

Imperialism is not condoned here, but facts have to be presented. Around these Forts, as Madras and Bombay grew pockets of British culture, the English language found them fine breeding places for entrenchment.

Meanwhile, a little island, which some compare to a teardrop or a pearl, hung beneath India and a replica of this drama took place here too. (Who can evade universal currents?) Accordingly, as early as 1833, a gentleman named Colebrook, accompanied by one Cameron, suggested that the medium of all schools in Ceylon (as it was then called) should be English. But, mainly due to the lack of teachers (and not due to any national sentiment) this proposal was not carried out by the then ruling body, the Legislative Council that preceded the State Council.

Did the propagation of the English language stop with this? No. In fact the missionaries began to have their field day. Armed with staff who had mastered the English language, and equipped with appropriate buildings in major towns, English education began to flourish in these schools and were well patronized by the rich and the powerful, thus heightening the social class division.


It took many more years and visionaries such as CWW Kannangara to bridge the widening gap by establishing what came to be known as Central schools, which paradoxically were national schools, adopting English as the main medium. Soon, English education spread throughout the island with even the University medium established as English. One would expect the native mediums to be crushed under the winner. But it did not.

What happened in Mesoamerica did not happen here. There, under the brutal shoes of the Spanish and Portuguese the local languages fled, despite heroic efforts by a few patriots to retain them. The battle of the languages was fought more favourably towards the invaders. However, Ceylon and India fared better due to intense national movements.

But, all is not well. We have lost much of the nuances and the idiomatic expressions in the process of the transition. It can be dubbed almost piquant, but much of the upcoming generations lost touch with them due to being misled as 'sophistication'.

The other day, I had this conversation with my niece who had just rebuked a relative for using the form of address "Yakko!"

'Yakko is not a dirty word. It is, say, an elemental word, a word we use when we are in doubt or in a flurry".

Another person joining in said, "The yakkos have come down history with the Sinhalas for generations, so that some have coined little stories and catchy praises around them. These are the mysteries of languages. No one can introduce them from outside. They spring from within."


"Yes. There are many words of that calibre in the Sinhala language and nobody needs battle with them. In fact, doing away with such piquant native words is like destroying the very essence of the native language.'

"For example, the saying, Yana yaka korahath bindagena yanawa vagey, meaning, intensifying the pandemonium on one's exit".

"What is koraha?" the niece wished to know.

"It is a kitchen vessel supposed to be made with clay, but now made with aluminium. Yet, the word koraha remains".

"Is it a language battle?"

"No. It is language retention like anora wehi. Anora means heavy showers, and mostara means patterns and nona is lady, which are all Portuguese words."

"Heavens! Not words brought by the yakkos?"

"No. We have more than 1,000 words taken from the Portuguese, who once ruled us. In fact, the game, 'Come come burro', is coined from a Portuguese usage, which is a summons to a donkey or booruwa. Though the booruwas were later deported to Delft, the young took to the booru game avidly, while camp beds too began to be called booru beds for no apparent reason."

"No language battle here?"

"No. Language camaraderie, resulting from many factors including musical resonance."


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