Sinhala 6000 years ago

Aelian de Silva

Extracted from The Sunday Observer, dated 08th July 2001

Mr. Asiff Hussein writing, under the caption “Sinhala, 6000 years ago”. In the Sunday Observer of first July, 2001, states, among other things, ” Sinhala language being an Aryan speech has undergone two significant phases before assuming its present form, viz. Indo-Aryan stage represented by Sanskrit (C 2000- 800 B.C.) and the middle Indo-Aryan stage represented by Prakrit (C 800 B.C. – 400 A.D.)” Also he points out that words in the Sinhala language can be traced back to Sanskrit.

When Mr. Hussein refers to “Sanskrit” no one knows to what of the many Indo-Aryan languages he is referring. The reason for this confusion arises from the under mentioned circumstances.

Grammarians such as Panini straight-jacketed an already existing Prakrit language by incorporating a formal grammar. The resulting new language was appropriately called Sanskrit: the term “Sanskrit” literally meaning “revised”. Therefore, it is noteworthy that prior to the time of Panini, that is, prior to 400 B.C, neither the word “Sanskrit” nor a language by the name of “Sanskrit” was in existence. Before Panini there were many.

Indo-Aryan languages called Prakrits. It is therefore ludicrous to pretend that “Sanskrit” is the original language from which all other Indo-Aryan languages were derived. T. Burrows, in his work entitled “The Sanskrit Language”, attempts to gloss over this aspect by referring to the following curious statement.

“Sanskrit in its narrower sense applies to the standard classical Sanskrit as regulated by the grammarians but may be conveniently used more widely as equivalent to the old Indo-Aryan. In this sense it covers both classical Sanskrit and the pre-classical or Vedic language.”

The implication of the above statement is that since the “Sanskrit” language created by Panini was based on a preceding Indo-Aryan language, we may, for the sake of convenience, refer to all other Indo-Aryan languages prior to Panini as “Sanskrit’. This is a very specious argument. For instance, English was largely based on Latin and Greek. Therefore, in line with this argument we should not hesitate to refer to the Latin language as the English language and the Greek language as the English language!

Those who were fascinated and enamoured by the grammar of Panini considered that language as the “Deva Basha” or the “Divine Language”. Perhaps, they wanted to create the impression that this “Divine Language” was the fountain-head of all Indo-Aryan languages and therefore resorted to the aforesaid camouflage. Now, due to this subterfuge, if anyone were to refer to “Sanskrit”, none can be sure whether the reference is to the Panini Sanskrit or to any one of the other Prakrit languages including the Veda itself since such languages existed before the time of Panini. In other words, the term “Sanskrit” has no clear and definite meaning. Therefore it cannot he used in a discussion which calls for scientific reflection.

On the other hand, Mr. Hussein refers to persons such as Franz Bopp and August Scheicher who dabbled in language research being the nineteenth century ‘comparatists.’ They established similarities between sounds and meanings of words in the European, Iranian and Indian languages and pronounced as to what language was derived from what. Today, the similarity of words is not considered as a scientific basis to predict the genealogy of languages. The structure of the language is considered to be appropriate in determining the inter relationship between languages. Since the time of Franz Bopp much water has flowed under the bridge of language study. It has made considerable strides and in the hands of Claude Shannon lead us to the information theory attracting concepts such as “enthropy” borrowed from a subject in engineering called applied thermodynamics.

Regarding the work done by Franz Bopp and others, Simeon Potter, in his book entitled “The language of the modern world”, has this to say.

“Is it surprising that the nineteenth century comparative philologists were fascinated by such discoveries? Their intellectual output was certainly most impressive and meritorious, and yet, according to present day standards, their work fell short of perfection in two respects. First, they did not always free themselves from error of confusing written letters with spoken sounds; and secondly, they were too prone in their exuberance to indulge in dreamy speculation instead of exercising observation at every step…. The scientific observer must, of course, show imagination and enterprise, but he should be careful to differentiate between surmise and fact at every step. When evidence is inadequate, he, must say so. In their over-confidence and enthusiasm, nineteenth century ‘comparatists’ thought that they could explain everything, with sometimes disastrous results, specially in the field of etymology…”

This is illustrated by the theories of Professor Wilhelm Gieger, a German comparative philologist brought down by the Sri Lanka Government to compile an etymological dictionary of the Sinhala language. The local scholar Munidasa Cumaratunge had much to say in his series of articles by which he critically examined many conclusions arrived at by Geiger. Space does not permit a lengthy description of the observations of Cumaratunge, but to keep the record straight a single example may be mentioned.

Geiger points out that the Sinhala term ‘koti’, meaning a cheetah, had been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘krostu’. In Sanskrit, the word ‘krostu’ means not a cheetah but a ‘jackal’. Apart from anything else, Geiger implies that our forefathers had difficulty in differentiating a jackal from a cheetah!

In line with the thinking of the nineteenth century comparatists, such as Franz Bopp, we should conclude that the similarities in sound and meaning between the two English words “mud’’ and “water” and the corresponding two Sinhala words “mada” and “wathura” prove that English was derived from Sinhala or vice versa!

However. Mr. Hussein quotes some Sinhala words which are similar to the corresponding words in Sanskrit to show how Sinhala was derived from Sanskrit. If by “Sanskrit” he means the language founded by Panini, then it is surprising as to how the Sinhala language (which is supposed to have been 6000 years old) could have been derived from a language which came 3000 odd years later!

An important feature in Sinhala is the fact that there happens to be couplets where one word is Sinhala and the other is Sanskrit, both words having the same meaning. Gate Mudaliyar W. S. Gunewardena, in his book written in Sinhala and entitled “Elements of Sinhala linguistics”, gives a large number of such couplets. The Sinhala synonyms are not found in the Sanskrit language of Panini nor in any Prakrit language and not even in the Veda which is considered to be the earliest language in the Indo-Aryan group. Can Mr. Hussein please enlighten us as to where these indigenous words came from?

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