By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
Where the mainstream academics are not very alert, discerning or prolific, the lunatic fringe will soon grow like a cancer and outweigh them in respectability. This happened in Sri Lanka to an unbelievable degree across a wide swath of social sciences including history, linguistics and anthropology. The mainstream was not vigilant enough in watching out for the mutant. Maybe there were just too many mutants. Mutants backed by other mutants, who fronted for yet bigger mutants.
In the 1990s, which was much more the day of the mutants than the 2010s can ever be, International Centre for Ethnic Studies (Colombo) engaged on a project to promote the official languages provisions in the 13th and 16th amendments to the constitution. They organized workshops in collaboration with the Department of Official Languages, made some films and last but not least, commissioned a study[i] by Mr. Theva Rajan, who now enjoys the distinction of being one of the two elected members allocated to New Zealand in the Transnational Constituent Assembly of Tamil Elam. ICES (Colombo) published Mr. Theva Rajan’s study (text) with a foreword by ‘Editor, ICES (Colombo)’, a ghost title[ii].
This study deals with the important subject of Tamil as official language. In its early pages, it manipulates ancient linguistic history to ruthlessly edit out the Sinhalese language from the equation. Clearly, ICES (Colombo), which was then going through its mutant phase,[iii] felt that such an enterprise deserved support and placed their institutional resources and reputation behind it. Nothing is more gallant than the way Mr. Theva Rajan acts to defend the honour of Tamil whenever Sinhalese obtrudes historically to an unpleasant degree. To appreciate how gallant he is being, let me give some background.
The earliest extant texts of this country, written on stone in the Brahmi script, dated from 3rd century BC onwards are in Sinhalese. Sometimes, a medievalist will feel compelled to explain; “Er.. by Sinhalese, I don’t mean “Sinhalese Sinhalese” but the Middle Indo Aryan (MIA) phase of Sinhalese.” A classic example is Charles Hallisey in ‘Works and Persons in Sinhala Literary Culture’, 2003[iv];
“There is evidence for the documentary use of the Sinhala language (or, perhaps more accurately, a Sinhala “Prakrit”) in inscriptions from as early as the third century B.C.E., but none are literature by any definition of the term, as a single example can make clear: upasaka devaha lene, “the cave of the lay devotee Deva”…”.-( p721, fn. 117)
Behind that bashful, skittish parenthetical clause; “or, perhaps more accurately a Sinhala “Prakrit”” lurks the belief that the name Sinhala is only kosher for the New Indo Aryan (NIA) phase of the language and not so much for the MIA phase. It is ignorance, which causes that belief. We do know that the language was known as Sinhalese even during its MIA phase (3rd century BCE to 8/9th century AD) because Buddhaghosa writing in the early 5th century AD calls it Sihala Bhasa[v]. More importantly, the term “Sihala Bhasa” is used by this monk not only for the language at his own point (5th century AD) in the time stream. When he says (K. R Norman: 1978, p32, full text) that his commentaries are based on the commentaries which Maha Mahinda brought to Sihaladipa and put into Sihalabhasa for the benefit of the Dipavasin, Buddhaghosa is using the term Sihala Bhasa in such a way as to be applicable to a long stretch in the time stream extending from his own time (500 AD) to the time of Maha Mahinda (300 BC).
The worst faux pas anyone can commit is to mix up the terms modern linguists use to distinguish the different phases of a language with the names used for that language by its speech community. For example, no competent linguist would want to time travel into the 5th century AD, and tell Buddhaghosa: “Don’t you get it? You can’t call it ‘Sihala Bhasa’ yet. Call it Proto Sinhala, because it’s still a MIA form or a Sinhales Prakrit”. Linguists (and most historians) can switch easily between the artificial names such as “Sinhalese Prakrit”, “Proto-Sinhalese”, “Sinhalese Proper”, coined for periodization purposes and the real names of the Sinhalese language without falling into absurdities.
For example take D.E Hettiaratchi. As R.A.L.H Gunawardana noted in ‘Historiography in a time of Ethnic Conflict[vi]’, p13-14, this linguist accepted the Geiger-Jayatilaka periodization, reserved the term “Sinhala Proper” only for the third stage (between the 8th and 13th centuries AD) of the scheme, and carefully emphasized the distinction between Sinhala Proper and the preceding state by consistently using the term “praksimhala yugaya” or “the Period of Proto-Sinhala” for the latter. But (as R.A.L.H typically did not note) Hettiaratchi also had no trouble in stating in “Current Trends in Linguistics[vii]”, 1973, 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.”
Another example of the striking limberness with which linguists switch between artificial and real names for Sinhalese is afforded by K. R Norman: 1978[viii], p33;
“…An examination of the Asokan inscriptions shows that the Sinhalese inscriptions are written in a Prakrit which does not agree with any of the extant Asokan dialects, but which seems to have deviated much more from the norm of Sanskrit than any of them…”
R.A.L.H was utterly unable to grasp this distinction. He was a man who would have seen no absurdity in taking a time machine to the 5th century AD Lanka, cornering Buddhaghosa and shouting in his face;
“Monk, regarding your careless use of the term ‘Sihala Bhasa’, listen to this passage from my ‘Historiography in a time of Ethnic Conflict’- “Geiger and Jayatilaka (1935:xxiv – xxix) characterized the period from the third or fourth century to the eighth century AD as one of transition from the Prakritic genre to Sinhala. It is important to note that the two scholars carefully refrained from calling the language of this period Sinhala: instead they chose the term “Proto-Sinhalese.” Got that? Geiger and Jayatilaka carefully refrained from calling the language of the period- from the 3/4th to 8th centuries AD (that’s your period monk) – Sinhala. Who are you to counter them and call it ‘Sihala Bhasa’. I suggest you start calling it Proto-Sinhala pronto monk, without becoming the laughing stock of the academic community of all time”
I have often fantasized about this hypothetical time-travel scene. What a delightful learning experience it would have been for R.A.L.H. “Who” Buddhaghosa would have demanded drawing himself up haughtily “are Geiger and Jayatilake to call my Sihala Bhasa ‘Proto-Sinhalese’? You can tell them (if such beings as Geiger and Jayatilaka actually exist outside your imagination) that for me ‘Sinhalese Proper’ is the Sihala Bhasa of my time. I will probably use a term like ‘Post-Sinhalese’ or ‘Future Sinhalese’ for their Sihala Bhasa. Not that I actually blame them for calling their Sihala Bhasa ‘Sinhalese Proper’ while relegating my Sihala Bhasa as ‘Proto-Sinhalese’. And I am sure they will not blame me for calling my Sihala Bhasa ‘Sinhalese Proper’ while, relegating their Sihala Bhasa as ‘Post/Future Sinhalese’. Not if they have any sense of subjectivities of perceptions, which you, my man seem to lack completely. What did you say your occupation was in the land of ‘Post/Future Sinhalese’?”
That a credentialed historian ever came to that state is dismal. Still, R.A.L.H is a far cry from the dismality of the lunatic fringe represented by Theva Rajan and endorsed by the mutant ICES (Colombo). To summarize the Theva Rajan credo given in p1-2 of his study; ‘The Brahmi inscriptions of Lanka are in Prakrit. The term rather than denoting a particular language just means ‘Old Language’. The ‘Old Language’ of Lanka is a mixture in the very least of Tamil, Dravidian or Proto-Dravidian languages and testifies to the popular use of Tamil in 3rd Century BC, if not earlier. Velupillai has skillfully demonstrated the influence of Tamil even on the linguistic aspects of this Old language’. Doesn’t this deserve a unique place among ICES commissioned papers’ hall of fame?
@ http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/ and email@example.com
[i] Foreword of Mr. Theva Rajan’s paper; “Tamil as Official Language, Retrospect and Prospect”, First Edition 1995, Second Edition 1998, ISBN- 955-580-006-5
[ii] See last week’s “When ICES Colombo made excursions into the lunatic fringe”
[iii] During this phase ICES (Colombo) was under the stewardship of Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy
[vi] “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.
[vii] 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- )
[viii] Norman, K. R “The Role of Pāli in Early Sinhalese Buddhism” in Heinz Bechert (ed.): Buddhism in Ceylon and Studies on religious syncretism in Buddhist Countries, Göttingen, 1978, p28-47- (Full text)