Sandagomi Coperahewa. Language purity is claptrap!
Language purity is claptrap!
Analyzing sociopolitical aspects of a certain subject could often lead to fascinating revelations. As the scholarly linguist Sandagomi Coperahewa analytically points out, it was the post-independence language problem that later paved the way to an ethnically charged issue. According to him, the blueprints to change Sri Lankan language policy were discussed way before Bandaranaike era, during 1944.
Picture by Wimal Karunathilaka http://www.dailynews.lk/2013/06/05/fea20.asp
As Coperahewa analyzes, the main issue we had back then was not an environmental or political problem, but a language one. Inquired as to whether Bandaranaike made the correct move in changing the official language to ‘Sinhala’, Coperahewa clarifies that the then Prime Minister had the support and backing to implement the decision, and that it wasn’t his solitary decision that took place. “There was social movement to declare Sinhala as the official language even before independence. In 1944 there were a political agreement and a need to declare both Sinahla and Tamil as official languages,” Coperhewa says.
Similarly, as we move into a new post-war period, he feels a strong need to promote ‘trilingualism’. “The idea of trilingualism is something that we need to promote now. In Kotte period we had scholars like Sri Rahula who knew six languages. The idea of multi-lingualism is not something completely alien to us. We need to do such proper language planning now,” he explains.
With such insightful thoughts to share with ‘Artscope’, the linguist, language scholar and the writer of many language related books, Sandagomi Coperahewa joined us for this week’s ‘Encounter’.
Q: Critics point out that the constant tampering of Sinahala Language has contributed to its degeneration. Do you agree? Do you consider this change as a form of degeneration or evolution?
A: Language is something that evolves constantly. You could call it language change. Gurulugomi’s language is different than mine, but it is still the same language. Sinhala is a living language, and it is subject to constant change. You cannot consider that as the language corruption or degeneration. It is a social attitude towards language. For instance, the field of advertising is an area where new terms are coined, at some point some of those new terms will remain. New words are needed to develop the language.
For instance, Gurulugomi wouldn’t have been able to understand a technical term like ‘prabasanshelanaya’, which is the technical term for photosynthesis, because it is a new word. For the last few years, language specialists coined all these technical terms for special purposes. If we want to develop language, we want new words. The purity won’t remain.
Q: How important is this evolution for survival of the language?
A: Sinhala language had the tradition of burrowing a lot of words from other languages. At the same time we need to find new words, and new terms. English became a global language because of its lexical expansion.
If the central bank report is only in English, the economic jargon will only be in English and we won’t be able to engage in an economic discussion in Sinhala. That is why we need the language to evolve. There is a need to combine language and technology together.
Q: Do you feel that the social attitude towards English has had an adverse effect on ‘Sinhala’ language?
A: Sinhala is our first language and because we are the native speakers of Sinhala, we don’t give the same attention to first language. But when we make a mistake in the second language we are very concerned about it which is a common attitude towards second language learning.
If the second language is a world language like English, the impact that it has on our motivations are greater. But I don’t think people will stop talking or using ‘Sinhala’, just because they learn another language. But in any language, there is a certain standard which you have to follow. There is a standard Sinhala used for academic and educational purposes.
If the proper standard is not maintained, then there is an issue. Also if ‘Sinhala is not used at decision-making level, that too becomes an issue.
Q: What made you focus on the social aspects of the language?
A: Sri Lanka has a rich tradition of learning language. Sri Lanka is a multilingual country. Both Sinhala and Tamil languages have coexisted for many years. There is a wide scope that a language scholar can explore in Sri Lanka. I even learnt Tamil, worked with a Tamil visiting lecturer and compiled a dictionary of Tamil words in Sinhala language. There are so many Tamil words in Sinhala language, for instance Sinhala words such as ‘ilandari’, ‘thavalama’, ‘thalluva’, ‘kanisama’, ‘adithalama’ are all taken from Tamil language.
Q: What are the aspects that we need to focus on when doing post-war language planning?
A: The idea of trilingualism is something that we need to promote now. In Kotte period we had scholars like Sri Rahula who knew six languages.
The idea of multilingualism is not something completely alien to us. We need to do such proper language planning and formulate a policy as to how we proceed.
Q: As a writer who has studied and written on Sri Lankan journalism, do you feel that the standard of Sri Lankan journalism has come down? If so what has contributed to this degeneration?
A: Journalists are the people who develop language. That is why journalists should be given proper language in language. Most Sinhala writers like Martin Wickramasinghe, Munidasa Cumaratunga, Hemapala Munidasa, Chandrarathna Manawasinghe were good writers and leading journalists at that time. Also people have to read. They should have a passion for writing.
The apprentice journalists enter the field without much background in language or literature. A proper training should be given to help them develop their language skills.
Q: Your father was a member of the ‘Hela Hauvla Movement’, how inspiring was it to grow up in such a scholarly atmosphere?
A: My home environment was a scholarly one. My father, Sandadas Coperahewa, was a member of the ‘Hela Hauvla’ or the ‘Pure Sinhala Fraternity’. He inspired me not only as a father, but also as a scholar.
And he was a great follower of Cumaratunga Munidasa. He had a rich collection of books, which I was able to read during my childhood.
I remember reading ‘Piyasamara’ when I was eight or nine years old. Also many leading member of Hela Havula visited our home.
Professor Sandagomi Coperahewa
Professor Sandagomi Coperahewa, PhD (Cambridge)
Department of Sinhala
Director | Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies(CCIS)
University of Colombo
Tel. 0094112500453(office) 0718381142 (mobile)
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