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The Fascinating Sri Lankan Archipelago Beyond Sinhala, English, Tamil – by Randika Jayakody & Jerome Perera

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Source: Dæhæna – Radio 4EB Sri Lankan Group – Monthly e-Newsletter – April 2022

A familiar refrain amongst the Sri Lankan diaspora is that the country utilises three languages; Sinhalese, Tamil, and English. This seems reasonable until one understands that the Sri Lankan islands have been central to global trade for millennia and like any such location should be more linguistically diverse. Accordingly, a closer inspection reveals a trove of linguistic diversity for a country so small.

The most ancient languages spoken in Sri Lanka are those of the Wanniyala-Aetto. These languages predated recorded time and are not written, but orally transmitted, like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia. Having spent recent years learning this language I can attest to the elegance with which these languages describe natural phenomena.

The Sri Lankan Malay language amalgamates various Indonesian and Malaysian forms of Malay and is a recognized formal dialect of Malay. Ubiquitous amongst the Malay community, this language is being codified and preserved for future generations.

Sri Lanka has several distinct types of Tamil languages. The Jaffna Tamil, containing elements of Malayalam, contrasts with the staccato Hill country Tamil. The amalgamation of Arabic and Tamil into Moor Tamil echoes a fascinating historical cultural interchange.

Malayalam is spoken by the sizeable community of Sri Lankan Malayalis. These communities, originating in modern
day Kerala, have settled in Sri Lanka from time immemorial and have preserved their languages intact.

Telugu is spoken by the intriguing gypsy community of Sri Lanka whose vagabond lives are shrouded in a veil of underappreciated history and culture. Various Chinese languages originating from historical Chinese settlers from centuries past attest to a close relationship with Ancient Eastern Asia.

Sindhi, Lisan-al Dawat, Gujarati, and Memoni languages are spoken by the Sindhis, Bohoras, and Memon communities of Sri Lanka and are a living testament to the rich connections between Sri Lanka and the greater subcontinent.

For over 350 years, the language of Portuguese creole was the island’s lingua franca. It facilitated communication between ethnic, cultural and religious divides and was almost universally adopted by all communities, resulting in the vast array of Portuguese loanwords in Sinhalese. This language remains in use amongst the Portuguese Eurasians and Ceylon Africans and is being actively preserved with support from the University of Lisbon.

The Fascinating Sri Lankan Archipelago Beyond Sinhala, English, Tamil - by Randika Jayakody & Jerome PereraCeylon Dutch is a now extinct language spoken by citizens of Dutch Ceylon. Echoes of this language live on in the large number of Dutch loanwords in Sinhalese. English creole is a unique language spoken in Sri Lanka, particularly among the Eurasian community. This language combines English idioms, Sinhalese grammar and Tamil loanwords. It is iconic and I relish any opportunity to speak this language with family. Along with Standard English and ESL, SL English Creole constitutes a linguistic time capsule of nearly 200 years of cultural exchange between Britain and Sri Lanka.

This article is only a short list of languages that live and thrive in Sri Lanka. These languages and many others not mentioned attest to an enchanting history of multicultural and multilingual diversity on our islands.


Randika Jayakody & Jerome Perera

Randika Jayakody and Jerome PereraAmong Randika and Jerome’s many interests is a deep passion to understand Sri Lankan history and culture. This has been facilitated through exposure to multiculturalism through their travels and living experiences in multiple countries.

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