13 April, 2024


Siri Gunasinghe, Tradition, And Language Reform

By Garrett Field –

Dr. Garrett Field

Dr. Garrett Field

In this article, I would like to discuss Siri Gunasinghe’s conception of “tradition.” I then explore how it relates to his ideas about the reform of written Sinhala. In the first essay of Gunasinghe’s chirantana sampradāya saha pragatiya (Ancient Tradition and Progress, 1986), Gunasinghe asks whether progress is truly antithetical to tradition and vice versa (p. 26). Scholars and pundits, Gunasinghe argues, tend to conceptualize “tradition” as the antithesis of “progress.” These scholars believe that the ancient tradition of Sinhala literature should be respected and protected because of its antiquity. They further regard anyone who creates something radically different from the literary tradition as someone who betrays the nation or commits an unforgiveable crime.

In Gunasinghe’s judgment, a tradition is an ongoing process. He finds evidence in the history of Sinhala poetry. The styles and diction of ninth-century Sigiriya poetry, fifteenth-century Kotte poetry, and nineteenth-century Matara poetry, are completely different. According to the pundits, however, all these forms constitute the so-called “Sinhala poetic tradition” (p. 28).

Siri Gunasinghe Colombo Telegraph 21Such scholars also regard new poetic forms like Gunasinghe’s nisaňdäs (free verse) as an insult to the tradition. One would laugh, Gunasinghe counters, if he or she could listen to similar criticisms that pundits voiced in ancient times when Sinhala poets changed the meters to eli sama and samudraghōṣā (pp. 28–9).[1] It is ironic that the very forms of art scholars today consider to be canonical were deemed antithetical to tradition when originally put in circulation. Gunasinghe concludes by stressing that an artistic tradition that does not progress becomes lifeless (p. 32).

One area of Gunasinghe’s oeuvre intimately connected to his thoughts on tradition is his work on the reform of written Sinhala. His reflections on this matter can be found in two essays that he originally published in 1961 and 1997, respectively. He later contributed these essays to Ajith Thilakasena’s edited volume devoted to language reform, entitled adaṭa obina basa (The Language Suitable for Today, 2011).[2]

Gunasinghe argues in these essays that the progress of the Sinhala language comes to a halt because the gap between spoken and written Sinhala has become so wide to the extent that the two linguistic registers are like two different languages (2011, p. 49). He recommends that the written language should reject the old, traditional, and complex grammatical forms in favor of the spoken language’s simple and dynamic grammar (p. 64). For example, Gunasinghe proposes that Sinhala writers relinquish subject-object agreement found only in traditional written Sinhala (p. 55). He also advocates for the use of a more colloquial lexicon. Thus, instead of this literary phrase: venat kavara viṣaya kṣētrayak sambandhayen vuva da, he suggests writing the phrase as it would be spoken: vena koyima viṣayak gäna unat. Gunasinghe likewise maintains that there is no need to retain the mūrdhaja letters in Sinhala since these letters—the mūrdhaja na-yanna (K) and la-yanna (<)—are only used in written language and pronounced the same way as the dantaja na-yanna (k) and la-yanna (,). Gunasinghe recommends only employing the dantaja forms to reduce the difference between the colloquial and literary registers of Sinhala (p. 73).

In this article, I maintained that Gunasinghe’s interest in reforming written Sinhala language is closely related to his argument that an artistic tradition that does not progress becomes lifeless. In Gunasinghe’s judgment, language and the arts are evolving forms of culture, and efforts to preserve the older forms while denouncing newer forms amount to arresting the process of change.


[1] meters are quatrains with lines comprising uneven amounts of syllabic instants. Eli sama is the practice of ending poetic lines with a like-phoneme. In the samudraghōṣā meter, quatrains consist of eighteen syllabic instants per line.

[2] The two essays are entitled “sinhalayē liyana basa” (“Written Sinhala,” 1961) and “katā karana bāsāvē viyākaranayak tiyenavā, ē vagēma śailiyakut tiyenavā” (“Spoken Sinhala has its Own Grammar and Style,” 1997).

*Garrett Field – Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology/Musicology – Ohio University, Athens, USA

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  • 1

    There is little or no no difference between the written and spoken English. Then again, the Americans went one step ahead and rationalized that language. So, as Prof. Siri Gunasinghe said, the wide gap that exists between the written and spoken Sinhalese too should be incrementally narrowed down, if it is to become a dynamic progressive language. In fact, slowly but surely, this has been and is happening. The internet, for sure, will expedite this process.

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