The Sinhala language, often called Sinhalese or Helabasa, is an Indo-European language belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch of this language family. It is the mother tongue of the Sinhalese people, who come from Sri Lanka. The word Sinhala itself is a Sanskrit word, meaning lion people. This phrase comes from a Sinhalese myth surrounding the first King of the Sinhalese people, King Vijaya the Conqueror.
It was around 500BC that settlers from the North East of India first began to populate the island of Sri Lanka, led by King Vijaya. The native tribes of Hela mixed relatively well with the new settlers, and the combination of their languages of Elu (spoken by the Hela tribes) and Prakrits together became Proto-Sinhala over the next thousand years.
This era of language lasted until the Medieval Sinhala period, which stemmed from the 7th to the 12th centuries AD. Interestingly enough, what we know as Modern Sinhala was the next period of language in the Sinhala language itself, and this is still spoken today. The version of the Sinhala language that existed nearly a thousand years ago is still in use today, meaning that modern speakers of the Sinhala language can understand texts that were written as far back as the 12th century AD.
There are around 16 million speakers of the Sinhalese language, with most of them living in Sri Lanka itself. The Sinhalese people, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, make up the vast majority of these speakers, though there are around 3 million Sinhalese speakers that are not of the Sinhalese ethnic group themselves. No other country in the world has the Sinhala language as a minority language, or even a significant number of speakers. The language has remained very much in one place of the world.
The literary and the spoken versions of the Sinhala language differ rather a lot, but this is very normal for many Asian languages, particularly those of South Asia. While the written language is used for all written endeavors, it is also spoken at formal events. The spoken language is used primarily as a language for communication, and is used in day to day speech, and is not considered to be as prestigious as the written language.
The Sinhala language has its own alphabet and writing system. This writing system is part of the Brahmic script family, and as such is a descendent, with many other languages, of the ancient Indian Brahmi script. In tone and sound, the closest language to the Sinhala language is those of the Maldives and Minicoy Island. The Sinhala language had a strong influence on the Macanese language, which is a Creole language derived not only from Sinhala, but from Malay, Cantonese and Portuguese as well.
Despite the Sinhala language remaining almost exclusively in one area of the world, there have still been influences to the language itself. Tamil, for example, has given the Sinhala language many loanwords, as well as several grammatical features. Due to colonial rule, modern Sinhala has within it many Portuguese, English and Dutch loanwords. Portuguese settlers, for example, would often marry women from Sri Lanka and Malacca instead of the nearby China.
Why Learn The Sinhala Language?
The Sinhala language is useful for those who wish to explore Sri Lankan history. The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka has a rich and intricate history, with many occupations and exports such as tea, coffee, coconuts and cinnamon. As a naval link between South East Asia and West Asia, Sri Lanka has taken much of the varied cultural aspects from each of these places into itself, with many festivals and folk traditions. There are also many pockets of other communities than the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples, which makes the island of Sri Lanka beautiful and diverse. Buddhism also remains a strong religion here, so if you are a practicing Buddhist, then the country of Sri Lanka would be an excellent one to visit.