Sinhala one of the world’s most creative scripts

RANDOM THOUGHTS By Neville de Silva

Unknown to the media and most in Sri Lanka the Sinhala language has won international recognition.
More precisely, it is the Sinhala script rather than the language itself that has been named as one of the world’s 16 most creative alphabets among today’s functioning languages, some of them among the oldest in the world. Though the elevation of the Sinhala script to this position of significance happened early last month it has gone unsung and unhonoured even by scholars and academics, leave alone the average Sri Lankan who seems to have more mundane matters to think about than the esoteric intricacies of script and sound.

The individual responsible for gaining the Sinhala alphabet this eminence among the written scripts of the world is J.B. Disanayaka, a former Professor of Sinhala at the University of Colombo who made an irrefutable case for placing the Sinhala alphabet among the world’s most creative ones. The nine international scholars who acted as judges at the first World Character Conference in Seoul, South Korea last month could not but agree with Disanayaka, currently Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Thailand, and recognize some unique features in the Sinhala alphabet and so place it on the world list.

It is significant that of the 16 alphabets listed as the most creative in the world, 13 are what could be called Asian languages in that they originated in what is geographically the Asian continent. The three European languages are Greek, Italian (Roman) and Armenian. The Asian languages are Arabic, Burmese (Myanmar), Cambodian, Chinese, Hebrew, Indian Devanagari, Indian Tamil, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Mongolian and Thai. The fact that in such a galaxy of Asian languages, some of the oldest languages still in use, the Sinhala script should find recognition speaks for its uniqueness. So Sinhala and Tamil, the two main languages in use in Sri Lanka, find themselves in the distilled list of scripts considered the most creative in the world.

The founder of this World Character Conference is a Korean academic Soon Jick Bae who spent nearly 25 years travelling the world trying to identify countries that have created their own alphabets. He narrowed it down to 16 that included Sri Lanka. It was during his travels that he went to the Sri Lanka diplomatic mission in Chennai (Madras) last year to get a visa to go to Colombo and met Deputy high commissioner P.M. Amza.

Amza suggested that instead of going to Colombo in search of an expert in the subject he should go to Bangkok and talk to Sri Lanka’s ambassador there J.B. Disanayaka which he did. That is how Ambassador Disanayaka, still pursuing his love for linguistics and scholarship, found himself centre stage defending before the nine-judge international panel of scholars, Korean Soon Jick Bae’s instinctive appreciation that Sinhala deserved a place among the select group of scripts.

Once Soon Jick Bae identified what he thought were distinctive scripts, he had his impressions confirmed by scholars. He then invited the chosen scholars to attend the conference and convince the judges of the uniqueness of the respective scripts. Disanayaka in his presentation said that Sinhala has been in continuous use for 2500 years at least. Genetically Sinhala is related to classical Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Pali. Sinhala occupies a unique position within the Indo-Aryan family of languages.

The official introduction of the script by the Buddhist monk Mahinda who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, goes back to the mid- 3rd century BC. That script was known as the Brahmi script and was one of the two ancient scripts used in India at the time. Historical and archaeological evidence points to the fact that writing existed in Sri Lanka before the introduction of the Brahmi script. Evidence of this is the discovery of several symbols in the earliest Brahmi inscriptions found here that do not rightly belong to the Brahmi script. For well over two millennia this Brahmi script passed through the evolutionary process leading to the eventual birth of the modern Sinhala script.

The latest Sinhala alphabet is that which has been approved by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and consists of 61 letters (though only 58 are in use), a process in which Disanayaka played a leading role at a conference in Greece.

So what is it that makes the Sinhala script unique and deserving of a place among the most creative alphabets in the world?

Disanayaka in presenting the case in Seoul identified two unique features.

  • existence of 2 unique vowel characters
  • existence of 5 unique consonant characters

Unfortunately limited space and my computer keyboard inhibit me from reproducing these particular Sinhala characters which would have shown more clearly the uniqueness. Suffice it to say that while the English letter “a” stands for both the short “a” (as in at) and the long “a” (as in ass), the Sinhala alphabet has two sets of special characters to represent these two vowel sounds.

As for the five consonant letters, they are not found in any other Indo-European or Dravidian language. But they are found in the Maldivian language Divehi which is an off-shoot of the Old Sinhala.

The significance of the evolution of the Sinhala script is that it has a complete set of visual symbols to represent sounds. Apart from the fact that Sinhala has created its own alphabet, it has helped the evolution of other languages such as Thai. It happened in the 11th century during the Sukhothai period when Sri Lankan Buddhist monks resident in the then Thai capital city inspired the creation of the Thai script by King Ramkhamhaeng.

It seems a curious coincidence that the Sri Lanka ambassador to Thailand is also accredited to Cambodia and Laos for the languages of all four countries are now recognized as among the most creative in the world.

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