By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
My series on the history and development of the language called Sinhala (of which this is the third episode preceded by Episode 1 and Episode 2) would have been dry as dust if not for the fallible scholars of Sri Lanka. If those worthies hadn’t gazed upon it through the glass darkly of their flawed comprehension, Sinhala wouldn’t have been half as interesting. Today, we have Leslie (R.A.L.H) Gunawardana with his glass darkly act.
In 1995[i], discussing the Vallipuram inscription he said “The identification (by Paranavitana in 1939 in Epigraphia Zeylanica Vol. IV, pp.229-237, parenthesis mine) of the language of the inscription as Sinhala runs counter to opinions which have remained dominant in the field of historical linguistics for more than half a century”. Then after giving a brief description of these opinions, Leslie Gunawardana concluded;
“It will have been evident from the preceding discussion that, according to the periodization of the evolution of the Sinhala language which came to gain general acceptance among scholars, the appearance of the Sinhala language as a clearly distinguishable linguistic form was dated in the eighth or the ninth century. It has also come to be accepted that the language of the early Brahmi inscriptions in the island should be classified as Prakrit. Since Paranavitana was not a scholar who limited his scholarly activities merely to epigraphy but had also studied the development of the language, it would be justified to expect that these views would come to bear a modifying influence on his original opinions on the identity of the language of the Vallipuram inscription several decades later. In the introduction to his second edition of the record, Paranavitana (1983:79-81[ii]) does not refer to the language of the Vallipuram record as Sinhala or even as Old Sinhala.”- (pp14, “Historiography in a time of Ethnic Conflict”-)
Read the last two sentences carefully. Underline it, highlight it in the most glaring neon colour you have, burn it into your minds, get it autographed by a Professor of Sri Lankan history and keep it as a memento of fallibility. For here, Leslie Gunawardana, Professor of History at University of Peradeniya was lying. Not dissembling via a sophisticated, combination of suppression and decontextualization as is par for the course, but lying in a simple, frank and forthright manner.
Far from NOT referring “to the language of the Vallipuram record as Sinhala or even as Old Sinhala”, in “the introduction to his second edition of the record”, as Leslie claims, Paranavitana (1983:79-81) starts the introduction with the sentence; “THIS is the only example, so far known, of an early Sinhalese inscription engraved on a sheet of gold. It was brought to me by…” Since this sentence fairly leaps to the eye occurring right under the relevant heading, ‘NO. 53. VALLIPURAM GOLD SHEET INSCRIPTION’, we can discount the possibility that Leslie Gunawardana missed it. Indeed such a possibility shouldn’t even be considered because we are not talking about some decrepit and isolated old man who has to struggle his way into a public library using public transport to get hold of the relevant book and write an article to a local newspaper because he needs the Rs. 2000/- or so. We are talking about a Professor Emeritus, whose research that produced the above paragraph was facilitated (as he informs us in the preface) by an invitation from the University of Chicago to be Numata Visiting Professor in 1993 and the award of a Rockefeller Fellowship at the same university, which provided him “the opportunity for utilizing the magnificent resources of the University of Chicago Library”.
Clearly Leslie Gunawardana needed the guidance of a supervisor to help him maximize the magnificent resources of the University of Chicago library. None would have thought that he needed one nearly 30 years after his Ph.D. days. If I had been his supervisor, I would have chided him sharply for blatantly misrepresenting a dead man (Paranavitana) in order to use his authority to buttress his own (Leslie’s) uninformed and untenable stand on linguistics.
For even after the passage quoted above Leslie’s dependence on the fantasy of “Paranavitana’s revised views” continues; “It is interesting to note that, in the Sri Lankan case, groups on both sides of the barricades have found Paranavitana’s views of 1939 more useful for their purposes in comparison to his revised views of 1983. In more recent times, with the gathering momentum of the ethnic conflict, most writers have tended to ignore the change in Paranavitana’s views and his earlier statements are continually cited by rival groups embroiled in contemporary controversies…In his recent comments on the Vallipuram inscription, Professor Veluppillai (1990) objects to Paranavitana’s use of the term “Old Sinhala”, but he makes no mention of the change in the latter’s views.”- (ibid, pp.15, 16)
If I had been R.A.L.H Gunawardana’s supervisor, I would have been overcome with distaste by this repetition of falsehood and started to cut him socially. But perhaps a real supervisor would have been content merely to instruct and clarify. He would have started with “Leslie, before trying to comprehend the concept of Periodization, (which it is important to understand, is only an academic device) let’s use the magnificent resources of the University to find out whether as you claim, classifying the language of the earliest stone inscriptions of Lanka (and of the gold sheet inscription, which you have understood to be of the same language) as ‘Sinhala’ “runs counter to opinions which have remained dominant in the field of historical linguistics for more than half a century”.
I see that you have quoted D. E Hettiaratchi: 1974, saying that he agrees with the scheme of periodization devised by Geiger andJayatilaka. You say that “he reserves the term “the Period of Sinhala Proper” (niyama simhala yugaya) for the third stage in what had by then become the generally accepted scheme of periodization.” You say that Hettiaratchi carefully emphasizes the distinction between the period of Sinhalese Proper and the periods preceding it. Your understanding Leslie seems to be that the term Sinhala can’t be used for the periods preceding this “period of Sinhalese Proper”. But is that the right understanding? Let’s dig into these magnificent resources Leslie. Here is D. E. Hettiaratchi in “Current Trends in Linguistics, 1973[iii], page736 (go to page ):
“Sinhala possesses besides literary works dating from about the 10th century A.D, a wealth of lithic records from about the 3rd or the 2nd century B.C., enabling us to trace the development of Sinhalese from century to century.”
And I see that you have brought out Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe: 1912[iv], in support of your understanding of “current trends in linguistics”. Leslie, look at that calendar. It’s 1995. If your attempt was to show that Wickremasinghe: 1912 was current while Paranavitana: 1939 was un-current, I wash my hands of you. But I am glad Wickremasinghe: 1912 came up, because he can be used to show that the current remained unchanged since 1904/1912 to the present times with regards to the identification of the language in the earliest stone Brahmi inscriptions of Lanka. This is what Wickremasighe: 1912 says:
“The question to which of the Pali dialects[v], the ancient Sinhalese of the cave and rock inscriptions is most related should, in my opinion be left open until more reliable material than we at present possess can be had by the publication of more inscriptions and texts.”- (pp.13, fn.1)
Also Leslie I am curious. In setting down the current trends in historical linguistics you quote from publications of 1912, 1935 and 1974. Yet, I see from the calendar, that this is 1995. You seem to be wholly unaware of Jim Gair[vi], who can be said to represent the most current trend as he has a publication coming out next year. Shall we take a peek at him too as we have this magnificent resource at our disposal and it would be a crime to waste it?”
“Sinhala tradition has it that the group that brought the languages with them arrived on the date of the parinibbana (final passing away) of the Buddha, traditionally 544-543 B.C. As a matter of fact somewhere around that time does appear to be a reasonable date, since we have inscriptions in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C., and by that time the language had already undergone important changes that made it distinct from any of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India”- (Gair:1996, full text here[vii])
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[i] Historiography In a Time of Ethnic Conflict, Construction of the Past in Contemporary Sri Lanka, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo, 1995.
[ii] Inscriptions of Ceylon, Volume 2, Part 1, Containing Rock and Other Inscriptions From The Reign of Kutakanna Abhaya (41 B.C.- 19 B.C.) to Bhatiya II (140-164 A.D.), Paranavitana, Published 11 years after his death.
[iii] Current Trends in Linguistics: Diachronic, areal and typological linguistics / Associate editors: Henry M. Hoenigswald, Robert E. Longacre, 1973: Linguistics in Ceylon 1, Sinhalese, D.E. Hettiaratchi (pp736- )
[v] In the dark ages of (1904-1912), the word Pali was used not only for the language of the Theravada Cannon, but for all the Prakrit dialects of the Asokan Edicts too.
[vi] Gair is a contemporary of the late Leslie Gunawardana with an age gap maybe as small as two years between them. The distance between Cornell (Gair’s University) and Uni of Chicago (Where Leslie was during his research stint) was also not much in terms of American distances. Not popping into Cornell for instructive chats on linguistics with Gair could be interpreted as another magnificent resource underutilized by Gunawardana.
As light relief to dilute the tragedy of Gunawardana, I give you Ken Roberts, a character who comments quite often on my articles. He suffers from delusions. On one comment thread he claims to be a medical doctor with a busy medical practice just starting to read a book on linguistics suggested by another commenter. Just months after he pops up in another comment thread with insinuations of being a linguist (“but I do have a pecuniary interest in linguistics”).
On the same comment thread he says; “Roshan De Mel Please read the reference provided by Dharshanie Prof Gair clearly says in his introduction that he was not an expert in Tamil”
Now Gair does not say this at all. My guess is that Ken Roberts can read. But, due to his condition what he reads and what he assumes get hopelessly mixed up in his head.
What Gair does say is that the paper on Jaffna Tamil was co-authored with S. Suseendirajah. And that the paper was originally published on the sole responsibility of one author (Gair) because the co-author was inaccessible. Also that at a later date an addendum was added also on the sole responsibility of one author (Gair) because the co-author continued to be unavailable. If shown a paper by Robin Coningham and Allchin, Ken Roberts will say, “In that paper Robin Coningham says that he is not an expert in archaeology and he wrote the paper after discussing with Allchin.” The fact that he can’t grasp the concept of co-authorship makes even his medical doctor claims doubtful.
Ken Roberts says “He (Gair) also notes Jaffna tamil is difficult to master because of unusual coining of pronouns to verbs”. Nowhere has Gair said this. I am unable even to find a catalyst phrase in the paper which may have given rise to this delusion.
Also my guess is some of these senior citizens such as Ken Roberts find Google search quite challenging and as result can’t find even most basic information freely available on the net. For example here, Ken Roberts lumps Gair and Caldwell together and categorizes them as language scholars of the past. Caldwell is a 19th century scholar and is old enough to be Gair’s great-great-great-great (4 greats) grandfather. And the people Ken thinks are current scholars, Suseendirajah and Karunatilake are Gair’s colleagues and contemporaries. (Even without Googling Ken Roberts could have found this out by the reference to “Gair, Suseendirajah and Karunatilake 1978”. We need not dwell too much on the Ken Robertses of the world. Any of us could end up like that at a particular age.
[vii] “Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan Isolate”: James W. Gair in “Studies in South Asian Linguistics. Sinhala and Other South Asian Languages”. The PDF I have uploaded has two more good articles; “How Dravidianized was Sinhala Phonology? Some Conclusions and Cautions” and “Some Aspects of the Jaffna Tamil Verbal System”