ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 30

Living language in crisis!

By Ayesha Inoon

His was a lifelong affair with beautiful works of classical literature – a love which finally led him to create his own masterpiece. K.K. Alwis, this year’s winner of the D.R. Wijewardene Memorial Award for the best unpublished manuscript in Sinhala, says it was his fascination with books of both English and Sinhala literature as well as a desire to contribute his own bit to society, which inspired him to write.

His book, ‘Palayaama’, portrays the story of a Professor in Jaffna who is forced to leave his home and seek refuge with his family in Colombo, abandoning all that is familiar to him and trying to fit into a new way of life. In doing so, the Professor, unable to bear the bleakness of his existence, tries to find consolation and satisfaction in a relationship with a stranger.

K.K. Alwis receiving the D.R. Wijewardene Memorial Award from Ranil Wickremesinghe

“When reality becomes too harsh to cope with, there are those who flee from it and create their own refuge,” says the soft-spoken author whose book ‘Kindura Gosin Vatunai Pura Mandulle’ won the second prize last year. He adds that while ‘Palayaama’ is mainly a character study, it is also a look at how society can affect certain choices we make. Written in an old classical style reminiscent of works such as Sadhdharmarathnavaliya or Guththilaya, the book has been commended for its skilful use of language as well as sensitive portrayal of contemporary themes.

Alwis, a teacher of Sinhala language and literature, was an avid reader from childhood, absorbing the works of authors such as Tolstoy, Chekhov and Maupassant in addition to the Sinhala classics. Having studied Western Philosophy at Peradeniya University, he went on to turn his love of language into a teaching career, never imagining that he would one day write his own books.

“The D.R. Wijewardene awards are a great encouragement to writers in the Sinhala language,” he says, adding that apart from the awards themselves, the publicity given by the media and the support of the organisers is a further motivation to them.The 22nd D.R. Wijewardene Memorial Awards ceremony was held on December 6 at the BMICH, with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the chief guest. This ceremony has been taking place since 1984, under the sponsorship of Lake House Publishers.

Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, Prof. J.B. Disanayaka and Prof. Gamini Dela Bandara, president of the panel of judges, were also present.

The second prize of Rs 40,000 and the award was won by Bodhitunga Madalakanda, author of ‘Imagira’, while the third prize of Rs. 25,000 and the award went to Piyaseeli Wijenayaka for the manuscript of ‘Demansala’.

Mass media and Sinhala

How will mass media affect the future of the Sinhala language? Will it contribute to its decline – or perhaps create a positive development? This was one of the issues raised at the D.R. Wijewardene Memorial Awards ceremony this year. While Professor J.B. Disanayaka made a presentation to the effect that change was inevitable in a living language such as Sinhala, and discussed the positive aspects of the media’s role in the future of the Sinhala language, Professor Gamini Dela Bandara spoke on the decline of the language and its causes.

Prof. Disanayake, in his speech said that the word ‘jana maadya’ or ‘mass media’ is one that entered the Sinhala language only recently. It has various dimensions such as print and electronic – and language is the medium that transmits communication across all these media. With this close relationship between the two, there is no doubt that the future of the Sinhala language will be influenced by the media.

Although one cannot foretell future developments with certainty, he said, we could make certain predictions based on present drifts in modern linguistics. He went on to identify seven trends with regard to the influence of the media on the future of the language.

The first was that the Sinhala language will have greater efficiency and flexibility as a medium of expression. Although it was initially used for the transmission of religious knowledge, after the advent of the printing industry it was also used to transmit thoughts and ideas relating to other subjects. Radio and television took the language into further new dimensions. Novels and short stories that were put out in the early twentieth century used ‘spoken Sinhala’ rather than the ‘written Sinhala’ that was used previously, to make them more realistic.

Spoken and written word

The language that has been created by the blending of spoken and written Sinhala has grown through innovative ways and its current direction is sure to take it to greater heights in the future.

The second point was that spoken Sinhala will take precedence over written Sinhala. In any language it is a fact that the spoken idiom is closer to life than the written. Since radio and television are closer to the audience than newspapers they tend to use spoken Sinhala more. Newspapers too are increasingly using the spoken language especially in certain columns or cartoons. Thus it is unavoidable that spoken Sinhala will assume greater importance – not only because of its closer relationship to real life experiences, but also because many journalists do not have sufficient knowledge of the written language. Therefore it is more sensible for them to use spoken Sinhala rather than an erroneous written version.

There will also be a broadening of the Sinhala vocabulary. The vocabulary of a language corresponds to the subjects that take up the attention of its users. Since ‘mass media’ is a new field, it has strengthened the Sinhala language’s capacity for expression by the addition of new words.

Professor Disanayaka further stated that the media will contribute towards the simplification of the literary style of the language. Although previously, writers followed the grammatical canons to the letter, mass media changed all that. The newcomers who entered the media, despite having the ability to write may not have had a sound grounding in the grammar of the language. Also, the many new subjects that had to be written about could not be effectively communicated when bound by the stringent rules of grammar. Having to meet deadlines and word limits has also affected the use of grammar by modern writers.

The English Language, being for a period, the national language as well as the medium of education, has influenced Sinhala a great deal. Apart from the addition of new words, it has also created a new style of speech within the existing framework – for example, phrases such as ‘column eka’ ‘office eka’ and ‘artist kenek’ or ‘clerk kenek’. Professor Disanayaka opined that this ‘Singlish’ which was common among the urban middle class population, was only suited for commonplace conversation and not for the media.

Sinhala too has influenced English to some extent, particularly by the addition of words related to Buddhism, and will continue to do so in the future. Professor Disanayaka also said that a literature on media studies is being built from the Sinhala language. One reason for the formation of this literature was the establishment of media and communications as an independent field of study in universities. It has been enriched by the numerous text books written by various authors on the subject.

As it is a fast expanding field, there should be more books and articles on the new aspects of the media added to Sinhala literature in future. Accordingly, he added, the role of the media in enriching the future of the Sinhala language should be greatly appreciated, and because of it the efficacy of Sinhala as a living language will be brought out.

The decline

Professor Gamini Dela Bandara on the other hand, drew attention to the decline of the Sinhala language and the many obstacles to its future existence.

Speaking about the rich history of the Sinhala language – a history as old as the Sinhalese race – he said that a language cannot exist without literature. In the past, the fortification and enrichment of the language was closely linked with the stability of the kingdom. Many Sinhalese kings contributed to Sinhala literature as both patrons and writers. However, he stated, the unique identity of the Sinhala language, which not even decades of colonialism could harm, has been degraded during the past half century of independence in this country. According to a forecast made by UNESCO, the Sinhalese will diminish as a race by the end of the 21st century – and it is already possible to see the truth of that prediction now.

No longer is Sinhala literature an integral part of the school syllabus. Since the Government took over the publication of school text books, there has been a lowering of the quality in these texts, he said. Added to that, the JVP uprising in 1971 caused the Government to bring in educational reforms which gave greater importance to vocational education rather than to literature and history – when it was these which being based on the Buddhist philosophy - had helped to create a cultured, sensitive population. This, he said, was one of the greatest follies of Sri Lanka during the twentieth century.

The ill consequences of this decision were apparent just a decade later in the eighties when, the activities of terrorism that took place then, showed how a generation of desensitised, irrational young people had been born out of the new system of education.

The declining of interest among today’s youth in the study of Sinhala language and literature as subjects will affect the teaching of them in the future as well, he warned.

He further said that, although it is indisputable that English is essential at present for education, the fact that it is becoming a medium of education surpassing the mother-tongue will have negative effects on the creative growth and development of children, and recent reports have given evidence of this. Is it then wrong, he questioned, to suppose that this system of education will result in not only Sinhala, but the race as a whole being led to destruction?

Negative role of journalism

According to Prof. Dela Bandara, modern journalists have contributed much to the decline of the language. Whereas in the past, it was newspapers that were epitome of the perfect use of language, that reliance has been broken today. He pointed out with reluctance, that the language of newspapers was among the degrading things in our society. The meanings of words and phrases have been twisted beyond recognition, and ethics of society were being corrupted along with the language.

Many presenters in the electronic media, unschooled in the pure literature of our country, have hardly any knowledge of the correct use of the language, he said. Television presenters who think that Sinhala is insufficient to express their views tend to pad their statements with English words. This will only lead to the loss of knowledge of both languages, he said.

Modern mass media is a powerful tool that can be used for the betterment of society. Yet, the present day journalists seem determined to hasten the destruction of the language.

He cautioned that if anything is to be done to save the language from complete demolition, it had to be done immediately, by the Government showing such concern for the language as was shown by rulers in the past.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.