Knowing the Sinhala letter | Daily News


Knowing the Sinhala letter

The subject areas denoted as palaeography, linguistics, philology, grammar and semantics, though are interlinked, the contents tend to explain the origins or genesis of a particular language in relation to communication factors embedded therein. I was reminded of the well known saying of Ludwig Wittgenstein that goes as the limitation of one’s language is the limitation of one’s knowledge, when I was reading the scholarly work of Professor Sandagomi Coperahewa titled as Sinhala Akuru Puranaya.

The possible English title is given as ‘Chronicle of Sinhala Letters’. Though the average reader of the present day literature may not be aware of some of the nuances of the said areas related to language and its growth it looks quite useful to know what is so far undiscovered in these subject areas. The findings may presumably lead to the understanding of the use of language and towards a better understanding of the creativity that could lead to the growth of literature.


To this category of research belongs to the university don Coperahewa, who to his credit has extended the study of linguistics over a period of two decades producing research books both in Sinhala and English. His interest in the language studies has been extended to the study, the contents and the form in pioneer newspaper as well as periodicals. In this direction, he has carved a niche for himself not deviating from the stance of a teacher of linguistics.

The intention of the researcher cum scholar could be discerned as an enquiring into the growth of the Sinhala letter from the very origins to the modern day computer typesetting and the alternative forms of visible writing modes and introduced as a result of the technological developments like the computer and some new trendy means.

On reading 35 short chapters enclosed in the work, I am beginning to learn from some of the unknown facts pertaining to the growth and origins of my own mother tongue. We go on to speak and write what we have learnt from our childhood days from the parents as well as class teachers. But how much do we know of our own tongue, leaving aside the other languages we speak and write in our day to day life? Initially, this factor is disclosed in the first chapter titled as Language, Writing and the Alphabet. As far as possible, Professor Coperahewa attempts to present the historical bypaths and sources enabling the reader to trace more on the subject areas. The most significant factor is that he envelopes quite a number of pictorial representations culled from previous sources of scholarship.


This is quite visible in the comparison he makes in the development of Sinhala letter from the Brahmi Script. Having laid down the comparison the scholar traces in Chapter Four the various stages in the growth of the Sinhala script or letter.

This he categorises into five groups that go as:

1. Ancient Brahmi period

2. Later Brahmi period

3. Medieval Period

4. Pre-modern period

5. The modern period since the 18th century.

Followed by these facts, he introduces the writings as found in the palm leaf manuscripts as a prologue to the advent of the printing systems in the country.

Quite a good space is devoted to the interpretation on the growth of the printed letter as founded by a number of indigenous scholars of the calibre of C Don Bastian, N J Cooray, Munidasa Cumaratunga, Martin Wickramasinghe and Senarat Paranavitana. The services rendered by them via their stages of appearance into the print medium and the various research performed are laid down in order to clarify the growth of the varying forms of writing as one observes today. The forms to teaching and learning a language with special reference to the teacher-student link comes as a creative interpretation as seen in the work.

Sand plank

The ancient teachers made use of several ways to teach the right way to ‘right’ the letters. One of the basic forms is writing on a sand plank known as Valipille Livilla. A reader may feel that these findings are factors that stimulate one’s mind as they are quite ancient as well as quite modern day findings like the ‘tablet’ and ‘typesetter’ and ‘keyboard’ etc. The reader is allowed to trace back and come back with not only information but with knowledge on the language he speaks and writes today.

The chapters on the advent of the newspapers and periodicals in Sinhala too are fascinating as the development of the stages of writing and expression of ideas are given prominence. The influence of a language like English on the expressive forms and written forms in Sinhala too are brought to the forefront with a number of examples.

The ongoing changes in the writing of letters as a result of technological changes too is traced. These controversial issues pertaining to the use of letters traditionally brought down the centuries tend to get either modified and/or rearranged. Scholar Coperahewa scientifically traces the varying forms of ideologies that had gone to a stance. 

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