ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 24

Travesty of our place names

There is no reason why Colombo, Galle and Jaffna cannot revert to Kolamba, Gaalla and Yahapane, except that the political will to bring about such change is still missing

How important the proper pronunciation and spelling can be to a nation’s identity was demonstrated by the French Government when it prohibited the use of the British word jet or ‘jetliner’ by the French. The punishment for transgression was imprisonment. After the law came into effect a jetliner had to be called ‘le grande porteur’. The rest of the world may pronounce the name of their capital city as ‘Paris,’ but to the French it will always be ‘Paree’.

To what extent a successful modern state like France will go, in order to protect its national identity, is seen by this example. The assertion of one’s national identity is not chauvinism. It proceeds from the necessity to reassure oneself of one’s sense of self respect and self esteem.

Sri Lanka still wants to continue the servile mentality of the colonial era as seen by its toleration of the ridiculous pronunciation of local place names by inept radio and TV announcers.

Pataha or Patana?

The latest casualty in this list is Digampataha (also spelt as Diganpataha). This name became an unfortunate casualty along with the 97 unarmed sailors who became victims of the suicide bomb blast on October 16. All concerned, including armed forces spokesmen and the audiovisual media, pronounced this name incorrectly, as Digam-patana. The print media followed suit by spelling it as such. However, this last casualty seems to be recovering somewhat in the mass media, after the local population staged a mass protest against the whole incident. Ordinary folk like this writer, know that a ‘pataha’ is a natural pond or small lake. A ‘patana’ is a stretch of open land, covered with grasses like mana and illuk. ‘Digana’ is the name given to a long strip of flat uncultivated land bordering a stretch of paddy fields.


The Tamil name ‘Kandi’ is still being used almost exclusively for the Hill Capital in the heart of the country. A concerned Mayor, Tilak Ratnayake once changed the acronym KMC to MMC (Mahanuwara Municipal Council). Its use as such continued to be in force even after his death, but it has again been changed back to KMC. However, even now, letters addressed (in English) to Mahanuwara are recognised as valid by the Postal Department, which dutifully delivers all such letters.

The need for self-esteem

Is this servile mentality an outcome of a faulty education policy? Good educationists see the learning process as a form of need fulfilment. (“One man can lead a horse to the water but fifty cannot make it drink.”) Unless that need to learn is created in the child, all that it is taught will at best, be useful only for the purpose of passing examinations. It fails to be ‘internalised’. The American psychologist Maslow, saw that a child’s needs are arranged in a hierarchy. The need to learn comes only after the more basic needs have been satisfied. For instance a child suffering from hunger does not have the need to absorb what it is taught.

Therefore, some governments try to see that the child receives a midday meal in school and also provide the material for school uniforms. But that is not enough. A child who is not hungry also needs recognition in the form of ‘love and affection’. A good teacher knows how to do it, by appreciating the child’s work and praising its good efforts. That creates some ‘self-esteem’ in the child. That in turn leads to “self-actualisation” or creative stage, of a child’s learning process where what is learnt becomes internalised.

Developing every child’s self esteem may become a problem in crowded classes of today. But the state-centred French system seems to have achieved that and produced a nation justly proud of its own language. The lack of self esteem amongst the products of our education system becomes all too clear in the damage being wilfully caused to seating facilities provided in buses and the railway.

Some far-sighted visionaries have rightly seen the need to create self-esteem among our armed forces. They fight better and will even sacrifice their most precious lives, when they possess self-esteem. It is self-esteem that can prevent them from taking the law into their own hands even under conditions of extreme stress.

Coming back to place names, we were dismayed to see the way that even top brass of the armed forces pronounced some place names in the areas where fighting had taken place recently. For instance Mavil Ara was referred to as Mavil Aru. It is the stream issuing from Mavila or ‘Great Swamp’. The excuse may be that it has been marked in the map as Mavil Aru by Tamil surveyors. In Europe too we have ‘the Aar’ and in India ‘the Ganga’ both of which simply mean ‘the River’. Now that the name Sampur has been shown to be corrupt Tamil for Somapura, should we continue to call it Sampur?

How Sinhala place names have been continuously modified to look like Tamil names (with the blessings of an unconcerned Survey Department) can be illustrated by just one example. Everybody’s attention was recently focussed on a place referred to as ‘Kanjikudichchi Aru’. In fact there has been no such name (unless it has been so altered to in the recent metric scale maps). It was marked on the one inch-to-a mile (Pottuvil) map published in 1968, as ‘Kangikadichi Aar’. The spelling especially that of Aru as ‘Aar’ and not Tamil ‘Aru’, shows that it is a Sinhala name. Kangikadichi Aar as such, has even found a place in the Gazetteer on Ceylon published by the United States Board on Geographic Names.

What had happened here was that Sinhala people who lived in this sparsely populated area had provided the name of this stream to the Tamil surveyor.

The Tamil for Sinhala ‘kandiya’ is ‘kangu.’ Hence the name was recorded as beginning with ‘Kangi’– half Tamil and half Sinhala. That the actual Sinhala name was Kandi-kaedichcha Ara becomes very clear when one looks at the survey map which shows that this is a stream once had two bunds or ‘kandi’ built across its course, to form the two tanks (now abandoned) also shown in the map. Today we find that these bunds have been breached by the force of the current when the stream was in spate, after a heavy rainy season thus giving rise to its correct proper name. Looking for the etymology of that name, going only by the present pronunciation of it as Kanjikudichchiaru, will lead one only to some semantic trash! The same applies to Mutur when it is incorrectly spelt as Muttur by the print media.

At least two other place names in the Madakalapuwa District points to the fact that it was held by Sinhala residents as a royal fief or ‘Biso(bandara)-gama’ during the Kandyan Period. The present name ‘Vandara-moolai’ is the same as ‘Bandara-gedara’ in Sinhala. ‘Gedara’ and ‘gama’ are sometimes interchangeable (e.g. in ‘malagama’ for ‘malagedara’). Hence Vandaramoolai is the same as Bandaragama found in other parts of the island.

Another such name pronounced as ‘Kaaththaan-kudi’ is simply ‘Kaaval-kutiya’ in Sinhala, or ‘Watch Hut’ in English.

Only ‘Ceylon’ to ‘Sri Lanka’

Other countries in this region like India and Bangladesh have quite rightly asserted their individuality by gaining international recognition of pre-colonial names like Chennai and Mumbai for Madras and Bombay, as well as Kolkata for Calcutta. We have only managed to change ‘Ceylon’ back to Sri Lanka. There is no reason why Colombo, Galle and Jaffna cannot revert to Kolamba, Gaalla and Yahapane, except that the political will to bring about such change is still missing. So much for building up a Sri Lanka national identity.A map of Sri Lanka where place names are marked in Tamil will depict them as Kolompu, Kali and Yalppanam.

In fact, not many current place names could be recognised in such a map printed in Tamil. However, most place names in the Northern and Eastern Provinces have already been changed so as to look like Tamil names. However, a country can have only one set of officially recognised place names in order to avoid legal issues. Whatever their other faults were, the British left behind lists of place names for each Province with standardised spellings for the most part. English spelling is conventional and does not reflect the sound of the spoken word phonetically. As such these lists (not easily found today,) do not depict the correct pronunciation of Sinhala place names.

What the Census and Statistics Dept. has been able to achieve since independence is to transliterate the names in these lists back to Sinhala script, resulting in some glaring pronunciation mistakes. Even for that list of less than 30,000 place names, we are obliged to the United States Board on Geographic Names. This does not speak much for a country where King Pandukabhaya demarcated all village boundaries, and recorded them, as far back as the year 427 BC.

Officially recognised list

It is high time that the State in Sri Lanka study the place names that have undergone unwarranted changes in how they came to be pronounced after the periods of Portuguese, Dutch and English Rule. Sinhala language and its nomenclature was precise and meaningful. That was why even the English and Burgher lawyers are known to have preferred to have their land deeds drawn up in the Sinhala language.

Therefore, giving attention to the preparation of an officially recognised list of all place names in the island, is of paramount importance.

The Tamils can continue to pronounce the place names in their own way if they choose to do so, but the official spelling remains unchanged. Under British rule, the original Sinhala names of tea, rubber (and even coconut) estates were replaced by English ones, for the most part. But the Tamil estate workers who came from India coined their own names for each of these estates.
The Ferguson’s Directory listed all these estate names in English and Tamil, while most of the original Sinhala names were allowed to be forgotten.

~ By D. G. A. Perera.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.