Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1: 9 January 2002
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.

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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


During the years 1830-1833 English was introduced as a medium of instruction and the British decided to encourage the use of English language as the language of administration, education, and of the courts in Sri Lanka. In 1943-1944, J. R. Jayewardene introduced a resolution in the State Council that Sinhalese alone should replace English. However, the Sinhalese and Tamil parties worked out a compromise based on which the Council passed a resolution that English be replaced by Sinhala and Tamil as the official languages of the nation.

In 1951, a three member Language Commission was appointed by the Governor-General of Ceylon. This commission inquired into the steps taken so far for the introduction of Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages of the country. When the final report was submitted, the chairman of the commission recorded that "in my opinion the replacement of English by Swabhasha would have been very much easier if, instead of two Swabhasha languages as official language, one alone had been accepted in terms of the motion introduced by Mr. J. R. Jayawardene in the State Council on June 22, 1943." This was a shocking development, and the rider or the minute appeared to have been inserted at the last minute amidst the growing ethnic and religious divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils.

Justice Arthur Wijewardena who was the Chairman of the Official Language Commision, had served as the Chief Justice of Ceylon. K. M. de Silva wrote about this episode:

The terms of reference of the Commission of which he was the Chairman clearly referred to Sinhala and Tamil as the two official languages. He had been chosen by the Government of the day to head this distinguished Commission established to provide guidelines on a politically sensitive issue, in the hope that he would rise above the partisan passions of his times; he ended by succumbing to these easily as lesser mortals who were presumed to be less detached. (Quoted in Samarasinghe 1996)


The Ceylon government followed a policy of using Sinhala and Tamil as its official languages until the passage of the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956. This Act declared Sinhala to be the only official language. The Act dictated "Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon, and that if immediate implementation was impracticable, the language or languages currently in use may be continued until the necessary change is effected as early as possible before the expiry of the thirty-first of December, 1960" (Gunasekara 1996). The Act was not followed by subsidiary legislation in the form of regulations, as was the practice. However, the implementation was based on the policy statements and cabinet directives. This was the beginning of the decline in the "employment prospects for the Tamils in the state services. Their numbers have shown a sharp decline since the mid-1950s; at the moment they have dropped below 10%"


The Tamils opposed the implementation of the Sinhala Only policy of the government. As the resistance to the official language policy grew stronger, the Ceylon Parliament passed the the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act of 1958. The act provided for the use of Tamil in correspondence with the public for prescribed administrative work in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Tamil was accorded the status of an official language in the Northern and Eastern provinces without prejudice to the operation of Sinhala as the official language in those provinces.


With growing ethnic strife, the Tamils began their struggle for the restoration of their traditional homelands. As the divide between the Tamils and Sinhalese was growing, the language policies adopted by successive national governments tried to make suitable amends while doing everything to retain the pre-eminent position accorded to the Sinhala language.

The 1972 Constitution provided that Sinhala be the language of legislation with a Tamil translation. It also sanctioned that the Sinhala laws once published and laid before the National Assembly would supersede the corresponding law in English. While this constitution was an accommodation of some of the wishes of the Tamils, it did not go far enough. Meanwhile, the ethnic and religious divide between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority was growing and total distrust between the communities was by now well established. The severe contest for power among the Sinhala political parties helped harden the attitude of the people towards each other's language.


The 1978 constitution once again reiterated that the official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala. This position was somewhat a change from the hitherto accepted position of the 1956 Act that declared explicitly that the Sinhala language shall be the one official language in Ceylon. The 1978 constitution, in contrast, did not appear to have that emphatic statement, but it amounted to saying the same thing from the point of view of the Tamils.

The constitution also said that Tamil shall be an official language. It also declared that English be the link language. In another article, the constitution declared that the National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil. The constitution also declared through its 16th amendment passed in 1988 that Sinhala and Tamil be the languages of administration throughout Sri Lanka, and Sinhala shall be the language of administration of all the provinces in Sri Lanka other than the Northern and the Eastern provinces where Tamil shall be so used, etc. All laws and subordinate legislation shall be enacted or made and published in Sinhala and Tamil together with a translation thereof in English. Sinhala shall be used as the language of the courts situated in all the areas of Sri Lanka except those in any areas where Tamil is the language of administration.


The ethnic riots in the early 1980s and subsequent civil war conditions in Sri Lanka have further compounded the problem of arriving at an amicable solution to the linguistic problem. The spark of division between the ethnic communities began to grow stronger with the Sinhala Only act of 1956. Sri Lankan politicians and statesmen have tried to arrive at a balance since the late 1970s when they recognized the damage done to the nation because of their Sinhala Only policy. The same leaders who were responsible for the growth of the Sinhala Only movement had been forced by the circumstances to find ways to bring some balance to the body politic. As Dharmadasa writes, "Needless to say 'language' per se is not the bone of contention. It is what language stands for and what it represents that goad communities and individuals to take it up as a cause" (Dharmadasa 1996).


Because of the distrust between the Tamils and Sinhalese, the tremendous creative and energetic work done by the Tamil and Sinhala administrators and scholars for the implementation of Sri Lankan official languages policy remains ineffective. The records show that the Tamil scholars in Sri Lanka identified and coined over 48,000 terms by 1955 and the Sinhala scholars indexed 43,000 terms (Samarasinghe 1996)! Not much work had been done in Indian languages at this point of time in India! The work done by the Sri Lankan Tamil administrators and scholars had greatly helped Tamils in India to enrich their own language of administration. The terms coined by the Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil identified the essential elements of the concepts behind the English terms, and revealed the linguistic processes of coinage and thought for the Tamil scholars in India to follow! I wish that there were more discussions published on how the Tamil and Sinhala administrators and translators learned from each other in accomplishing such pioneering tasks. Meanwhile, both in India and Sri Lanka, English has re-established itself as the most influential medium.


The politicians and statesmen from India and Pakistan, or even of all the nations of South Asia, need to study the linguistic problem of Sri Lanka in depth in a dispassionate manner, and do their best to avoid situations in their own nations so that the linguistic and religious minorities will not be forced to resort to extreme methods to realize their legitimate aspirations.

One notices certain common elements in the language policies of the South Asian nations, mostly modeled after the Official Language provisions of the Constitution of India. The provisions of the Constitution may be in favor of introducing only one language as the Official Language of the nation, but its implementation would be modulated by ground realities that demand or demanded the acceptance of some role for the other competing languages.

The claims for the pre-eminence of a language or linguistic people group based on population strength are often questioned by counter-claims based on the historical evolution of the modern nation as a single political unit. Often the conflicting concepts of nationhood come to the fore when these issues are debated. If the national leadership is not wise, patient, and sensitive to the issues, and is carried by the aspirations of the linguistic majority alone, the nation is bound to suffer soon. The problem is that the linguistic majority often tries to define what shall be the legitimate aspirations for the minority!

It is also important for the linguistic and religious minorities to recognize that in a pluralistic nation there would always be some pre-eminence given to the majority, and that so long as such pre-eminence is not a hindrance for their own freedom for growth, they should bear with the pre-eminence given to the majority.

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Dharmadasa, K.N.O. 1996. "Language Policy in a Multi-Ethnic Society: The Case of Sri Lanka.". In Gunasekera, Olcott R.G.G., Samarasinghe, S.G., and Vamadevan, V. 1996. National Language Policy in Sri Lanka: 1956 to 1996 Three Studies in its Implementation. Ed. K.N.O.Dharmadasa. International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Samarasinghe, S.G. 1996. "Language Policy in Public Administration, 1956-1994: An Implementor's Perspective.". In Gunasekera, Olcott R.G.G., Samarasinghe, S.G., and Vamadevan, V. 1996. National Language Policy in Sri Lanka: 1956 to 1996 Three Studies in Its Implementation. Ed. K.N.O.Dharmadasa. International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
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