12th March 2000

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Language and linguistics: What it's all about

Book review

The much awaited issue of Vaagvidya has been published after a long lapse but is more qualitative this time around. Most of the papers contributed are from eminent scholars in both language and linguistics. A major feature of this issue is that it is a commemorative volume of the silver jubilee of the Department of Linguistics and the 40th anniversary of the University of Kelaniya. This issue begins with a paper written in Sinhala by Professor J. B. Disanayaka which documents the history of the Department of Modern Linguistics during the Peradeniya and Colombo eras. Initially, the embryo of the subject of grammar or historical linguistics was only a part of lectures that were designed for language studies at Peradeniya.

But the pioneer who began lectures in linguistics as far back as 1958 was none other than the late Professor Sugathapala de Silva. However, study of linguistics was earlier meant to be a component of the major in Sinhala. Prof. Disanayaka identifies a few phases in the development of the subject of linguistics at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.

The second era of linguistic studies in Sri Lanka began in the University of Colombo in 1969 with the establishment of the Department of Linguistics that conducted majors in linguistics for both the degrees of BA and B Phil. Further, this department inaugurated for the first time lectures in the Tamil medium for such degrees.

Consequent upon the university reforms that were launched following the uprising in 1971, all the universities in Sri Lanka were amalgamated into one in 1972 and the Faculty of Humanities that also included the subject of linguistics was transferred to the campus of Vidyalankara.

Although Disanayaka's paper is mainly confined to the developments of linguistic studies in the Peradeniya and Colombo eras, he lists a number of theses submitted by Lankan lecturers for postgraduate degrees abroad\'d1from 1964 to 1980.

The second paper in the issue by Professor R.M.W. Rajapakse is a continuation of what J.B. Disanayaka dealt with, the history of the Department of Linguistics in the Kelaniya era. S.L. Kekulawala was appointed the first Professor of Linguistics in 1973. Although this campus conducted lectures in both Sinhala and Tamil, the Tamil stream was transferred to the University of Jaffna in 1980, leaving only the Sinhala medium at Kelaniya.

The department at Kelaniya made a humble but solid start in the early seventies with courses leading to general (Linguistics as one subject) and special degrees (Linguistics as major). A special feature of this issue is Appendix I which lists all the theses and dissertations submitted by staff members and students.

The paper by S.L. Kekulawala - also published in the first issue of Vaagvidya in 1982 - is an important one dealing with the trends of linguistics, mostly from a historical angle. It deals with structural linguistics in the traditions of Saussure, Sapir, Bloomfield, etc. and some scholars in Sanskrit.

The psychological analysis of language and grammar is a recent development, particularly with emphasis placed on it by Noam Chomsky, who effected a revolution in linguistics. Dr. Sunil Kariyakarawana is one of the few linguists in Sri Lanka who has been moulded in Chomskyan linguistics, but, instead of examining the psychological basis of grammar which is rather a complex phenomenon, he defines what grammar is with reference to its patterns such as words, sentences, meanings, etc. There are of course many classifications of grammar, but the writer of the article settles down with the basics by classifying grammar into natural and conventional, the latter as an outgrowth of the former. This aspect needs further elucidation and I am sure he should be able to undertake many other studies underlying the psychological base of both linguistics and grammar.

One important paper written in Sinhala by a Tamil lecturer, K. Yogarajah, is on language planning, mostly based on its theoretical perspectives. He has taken up this issue in the context of Sri Lanka and elsewhere in his British English, American English and Sri Lankan English (1999, Volume Three, 439-451).

Other papers written in Sinhala are mostly on various aspects of grammar or usage defined in a conventional manner. Professor Tissa Jayawardena's classification of verbs in terms of passives and actives, Rev. Dr. Nagita's treatment of Sinhala in terms of definiteness and indefiniteness, Dr. A.C. Premaratna's examination of the present verb in Medieval Sinhala, and Professor Piyaseeli Wijemanne's stress on the absence of verbs of future tense, are supportive of this assertion. A short paper by Professor R.M.W. Rajapakse on analysis of language rules in the context of Sinhala is worth mentioning.

There is also one other short paper by Dr. Nimal Parawahera on the changing rules of language. Dr. Parawahera's emphasis is more on the evolution of sounds examined mostly from an angle of historical linguistics though he notes that the new grammarians who engaged in the study of Indo-European languages have made use of two analyses: sound evolution and analogic change. He summarily describes the developments made in this regard in the fields of historical linguistics, structural linguistics and generative linguistics.

Professor W.S. Karunatilleka's paper is on a brief analysis of the Classical Sinhala glossaries and commentaries against the historical perspective of Sanskrit and Mid Indo-Aryan literature of lexicography.

Another area that has still not caught the attention of some linguists in Sri Lanka is the study of sign language. Professor Daya Wickramasinghe's paper deals with an examination of the linguistic value in sign language, a pioneering one on the subject.

There are two other short papers dealing with baby talk or rather motherese and development of child language. One paper is by Janaki Wijesekera who examines a kind of artificial speech system used by adults for the children.

The other paper by Rev. Tapovanaye Suthadhara is a review of a Sinhala book written by Daya Wickramasinghe and R.M.W. Rajapakse on the linguistic study of the acquisition of language by children.

There are also a few essays written in English, the most important of which is one on morphosyntactic errors of fluent speakers of English in Sri Lanka by Dr. Manique Gunesekera.

Mrs. R. Kailainathan\'d5s paper is on the problems of learning Sinhala and Tamil as second languages.

The other two papers that the present reviewer wishes to mention are those that relate to some aspects of Sinhala and Tamil. Professor K.N.O. Dharmadasa dwells on the Sinhalese diglossia or the use of two codes, one for speaking and the other for writing, against a historical perspective.

All in all, Volume 7 of Vaagvidya is a valuable contribution to the furtherance of linguistic studies in Sri Lanka.

The difficulty for the editors is how to strike a balance between the general and advanced readership.


A little boy's courageous tale and how women dressed up

Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha releases a few titles on interesting and varied topics at regular intervals. Among the recent releases are a novel for young adults and a book on dress and ornaments of Sinhala womenfolk. Last month a monthly journal was also launched.

The novel 'Supu' is written by Anoma Ratnayake from Kuruvita. Someone well versed in rural life, Anoma's story is about a courageous young boy, called Supurnitha (Supu is the shortened form). It is the story of a father and son who suddenly face a string of unfortunate circumstances - family getting into debt, properties being auctioned, a mother meeting with an untimely death and the father and son deciding to leave the village for an unknown destination. Supu turns out to be a patient young man who begins to understand the realities of life.

Supu realises that although money means everything to so many, the genuine villager thinks otherwise. Accustomed to a simple lifestyle, Supu decides to follow this path to the end.

'Nethiwada Uturu Salupata' is the title of Piyasena Wickremage's study on dress and ornaments of Sinhala women. What the writer has done is to try and illustrate that the traditional Sinhala woman selected her dress and ornaments to suit the environment around her and how with foreign invasions and influences, women's dress and styles have undergone a complete transformation.

The book starts with a description from Ananda Coomaraswamy's 'Medieval Sinhalese Art' on 'Nari Lata Vela', accompanying a decoration of a painted box in Ridi Vihara. 'Of strictly mythical vegetable ornament, the ' Nari Lata Vela' is the most remarkable and most often used. It is a mythical climbing vine of which the flower has the appearance of a woman, glorious in grace; like other mythical things, it grows in the Himalayas; and has been known to shake the resolution of hermits dwelling there.'

Going back to tradition, the author quotes extensively from studies on how careful our ancestors were in selecting their dress and what an important role dress played in society.

It was a significant element in our culture. Today it's different. Western influences have changed the entire system. It has become a symbol of class distinction and the rich follow the latest trends in international fashion.

- Ranat

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