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What Languages are Spoken in Sri Lanka? 18 Things to Know

Sri Lanka is located off the southeast coast of India. As the country is incredibly beautiful, it has earned the name “pearl of the Indian Ocean. Also, there’s a second name, the “the teardrop of India,” due to its teardrop shape while being off the coastline. 

In 1972, the country’s formal name changed to “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka.” Later, in 1978, the official name became the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” 

Sri Lanka has a diverse culture, just like its neighbor India. The country is rich with a combination of traditional aspects and modern elements. Also, you can witness the regional diversity of the country as you explore it. 

The languages of the country are as unique as their culture.

How many Languages are Spoken in Sri Lanka?

The tiny country on the Indian Ocean has four major languages: Sinhalese, Tamil, Creole, and English. Sri Lanka has very few languages that are used among Sri Lankan people for effective communication. Their languages are as unique as them. 

Sinhala

Sri Lanka’s first official language is Sinhala. Native Sinhalese people speak the language in the country, and the population of Sinhalese people is almost 16 million. 

For the additional 4 million people of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese is their second language. This language belongs to the Indo-European language group. Within the category, there’s a part of the Indo-Aryan branch. 

The written script is in the Sinhalese alphabet that descends from the Indian Brahmi writing. 

The Rodiya community also speaks in a type of Sinhalese dialect that’s called Rodiya. Using the Rodiya dialect indicates belonging to a lower-caste in the society. 

Sri Lankan Women in traditional Kandyan dress. Sinhalese culture values sculpture, fine arts, literature, dancing, and poetry. Source

Tamil

Tamil is another official language of Sri Lanka. Almost 4.7 million speakers within the country speak Tamil; however, this language has more than 70 million speakers worldwide. 

The Tamil language belongs to the Dravidian language family. It is one of the oldest continuously spoken classical languages of the world. Tamil is very similar to Dravidian languages spoken in South India. 

Researchers have discovered Tamil writings that date back almost 500 BC. The literary works on the Tamil language date back over 2,000 years. 

English

Sinhalese and Tamil are official languages. English is the link language as defined in the Sri Lankan constitution. English is spoken by almost 10% Sri Lankan population. The primary use of English is mainly for business and education purposes. 

Creole Languages

Malay Creole

Besides the two official languages of Sri Lanka, there are several minor languages that people speak in the country. The Creole Malay of Sri Lanka is a native language of almost 46,000 people. 

Sri Lankan Creole Malay is an Austronesian language combining Malay, Tamil, and Sinhalese.

The language was originally developed with the arrival of Malay immigrants. These immigrants were laborers, soldiers, and exiles of British and Dutch colonizers, during the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Today, Sri Lankan Malay is mostly oral and continuously declining as new Sri Lankan Malay generations rely more on Sinhalese, Tamil, and English communication. 

Portuguese

Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole is another almost rare creole language. Only 30 out of 3,400 Portuguese descent people speak the language. 

These individuals are mainly descendants of Casados, Topazes, and Portuguese Burgher. Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole once was a lingua franca of the country.

What is the Origin of the Sinhala Language? 

Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan language, and it is one of the official languages of Sri Lanka. The language arrived in Sri Lanka with colonists from northern India around the 5th century BC. 

The Sinhala language is the native language of the Sinhala people. Today, over 16 million Sinhalese people speak the language. 

Do they understand English in Sri Lanka?

The constitution of Sri Lanka acknowledges English as the link language meaning English is the language that unifies the country.

As a former English colony and a popular tourist country, many Sri Lankans understand and speak a basic level of English. 

Yet, not all Sri Lankans can speak English. Young generations of the country are much more fluent in speaking and understanding English than the older generations. 

So, for a tourist, it may turn out to be a little difficult to find English-speaking people in the country, at least for now. 

Tamil is Dravidian Language that is similar to South Indian Languages. Source

Are Sinhala and Tamil Similar?

Sinhala and Tamil are not two similar languages. Sinhala belongs to the Indo-Aryan language, while Tamil belongs to the Dravidian language. Their origins, grammar structure and sentence structures are different.

Yet, some Sinhala words have Tamil origin and became part of Sinhala since the interactions between two languages over 2000 years in Sri Lanka. So, there are lots of loanwords from the Tamil language. 

The words about administration, commerce, military, and botany have had the most influence when it comes to loanwords. 

Previously, new goods and innovations usually reached Sinhalese from Tamils as their area of settlement used to separate them from other parts of South Asia. 

Usually, traders who used to speak Tamil conducted most of the foreign trade of the country since the 10th century AD. 

Properties of Sinhala Language

Sinhala is a Syllabic Language

 The Sinhala language is syllabic, so each consonant has an inherent vowel. Vowels that fall at the beginning of a syllable appear as a separate letter. 

The language has 58 letters, but only 38 letters are used on a regular basis. 

Interestingly, the Sinhala script is also important for writing Pali and Sanskrit. 

Recorded History of Sinhala dates back to 200 BC

Historians discovered rock carvings that they believe in showing the first use of Sinhala. These carvings usually date back to 200 BC. 

The Sinhala language has changed and developed over the centuries. However, by 1250, a literary version of the Sinhala language formed and since then remained intact. 

Pronunciations also evolved, and it is now comparable to the 1250 version.

Sinhala follows the Subject-Object-Verb Word Order

The Sinhala language follows the usual subject-object-verb word order of some other Asian languages like Turkish, Korean and Japanese. 

In comparison to the Sinhala language, English follows the subject-verb-object word order. 

The subject-object-verb order changes many times, but the basic Sinhalese sentence structure follows the order. 

Sinhala is a Diglossic Language

There are two coexisting versions of the Sinhala language, and that’s why it’s diglossic. One of these versions is for everyday communication, while the other is a formal literature version. 

The differences exist in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation between the two versions. However, native speakers understand both versions. Native speakers mostly use the everyday version of the Sinhala language. 

Sinhala Alphabet Source

Which Script does Sinhalese use? 

Sinhalese Akṣara Mālāva is the script that the Sinhala language uses. The origin of the script is the ancient Indian Brahmi script. 

Sinhalese people and almost all Sri Lankans use this script in Sri Lanka for writing. 

Like most other scripts, the Sinhala script is also written from left to right, and its letters are arranged in two sets. It is considered an abugida. The core letters from the śuddha siṃhala alphabet, and it is the subset of miśra siṃhala alphabet. 

The Sinhala script came to Sri Lanka from Northern India during the 3rd century BC. Though some part of the script is independent, South Indian scripts have a strong influence on it. Specifically, the early Grantha script influenced the Sinhala script the most. 

For the basic word construction, the script uses consonants as the basic unit. Each of these consonants has a vowel that can be changed by adding a different vowel stroke. 

How Difficult is it to Learn Sinhala?

Sinhala has spoken form and written form. The spoken form is the most popular form of language, and it is much easier to learn than the written form. 

People will be able to use the spoken language easily as the grammatical formality and rigidity are much relaxed. 

Compared to other languages of the world, the Sinhala language is not complex to learn for people of other countries. Like every other language, Sinhala has some different tone to it, that’s all. 

Also, the availability of online materials and courses makes it much easier for anyone to learn Sinhala by themselves.

Is Sinhala a Dying Language?

Sinhala is not a dying language. Almost 16 million Sri Lankans speak it. Also, many Sri Lankans worldwide still talk in their native Sinhala language. Sinhala is not considered as one of the world’s most endangered languages. 

What are some common Sinhalese Phrases?

As a tourist in Sri Lanka, you may want to learn some easy-to-learn Sinhalese phrases to communicate with the Sri Lankan people.

Learning some basic phrases will give you an edge over not knowing the language at all. 

Also, if you add some Sinhalese phrases while interacting with the people of Sri Lanka, you will earn respect from Sri Lankans. 

Here are some Sinhala phrases to make daily communications easy: 

  1. Hello – āyubūvan
  2. Thank You – istuti, bohoma stutiyi
  3. How are you? – kohomadha?; kohomadha saepa sanīpa?; saepa sanīpa kohomadha?
  4. My name is… – magē nama …
  5. Yes- ow
  6. No – naa
  7. Welcome – sadarayen piligannawa
  8. Please- karunakarala
  9. Do you speak English? – oba ingreesi kathaa karanavadha?
  10. I don’t understand- mata obava therum ganna baha
  11. Do you understand? – tērenavā da?
  12. Good Morning- subha udhāsanak
  13. Good Afternoon- subha dhavalak
  14. Good Evening- subha sandhavak
  15. Good Night- subha rāhthriyak
  16. Good Bye- gihillā ennam (when leaving); mama yanawā (“I’m going”)
  17. I’m from- mama … ven/yen
  18. Help!- mata udaw ōna!

Sign Language in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, Sinhala sign language is the main mode of communication for deaf people. With the use of modern technology, the communication process has become steady and fluent.  

Do People Speak Hindi in Sri Lanka?

The truth is almost 99% of Sri Lankans don’t speak or understand Hindi. 

Yet, Bollywood is quite famous in Sri Lanka, and most Sri Lankans are fans of Bollywood. 

Even though Sri Lankans don’t understand Hindi much, Bollywood movies are not usually dubbed in different languages. The films are played in Hindi with English or Sinhala subtitles.