Language in Ethnic Group Relations in Sri Lanka
Option Essay for Sociolinguistics
MA Linguistics Course
27 April 2008
Language in Ethnic Group Relations in Sri Lanka
Language is perhaps the most salient and integral attribute contributing to the feeling of individual and group ethnic identity, and it is therefore not surprising that language and language change are often at the heart of inter-ethnic group relations. Language is vastly more than a means of communication- it is a very powerful symbol of ethnicity and a strongly perceived reality (verity) in its own right (Fishman, 1977).
Broadly speaking, the main purpose of this essay is to assess the salience of language in ethnicity and inter-ethnic relationships in Sri Lanka. In making this assessment, two well
known works are used as the main frames of reference: Fishman’s landmark article on Language and Ethnicity (1977) and the theoretical framework proposed by Giles, Bourhis and Taylor (1977) for studying language change and ethnic group relations. These two reference works are briefly reviewed first in section I. This is followed in section II by descriptions of the main ethnolinguistic groups in Sri Lanka, using the two reference models just alluded to for systematising the descriptions. In the third and final section a specific example of ethnic group interaction from the complex ethnolinguistic tapestry of Sri Lanka is looked at in detail, using the two reference frameworks flexibly and critically.
Section I: The reference Frameworks
Ethnicity and Language
Ethnicity has received increasing attention in recent decades in societies throughout the world. It has taken a central role in political debate and policy making, and often lies at the heart of national and inter-national conflict. Yet, ethnicity is one of the most important, enduring and positive aspects of an individual’s and group’s sense of identity.
The concept of Ethnicity subsumes a large number of interrelated and overlapping factors and for this reason, a rigorous understanding or definition of the concept has proved problematic. Fishman’s contribution has been to systematise the approach to our understanding of Ethnicity, to provide a classificatory system to identify and assess the salience of the factors which are subsumed under the concept of ethnicity. The salience of Language receives particular attention in Fishmans work. The factors contributing to ethnicity may be grouped under three broad headings: Paternity, Patrimony and Phenomenology.
The term ‘Paternity’ is used by Fishman to refer to the common biological, hereditary or descent-related origins of the ethnic group. It is a sense of kinship passed on from generation to generation. Paternity is the central chord around which all other factors contributing to ethnicity are clustered. While distinctive biological traits are obviously part of the paternity of an ethnic group, Fishman notes that language, by virtue of it being acquired naturally and inescapably ‘with the mother’s milk’, is also often regarded as a biological inheritance. Language is therefore frequently and powerfully associated with ethnic paternity.
The concept of ‘Patrimony’ encompasses dimensions of ethnicity which are ‘learned’ by members of the community, as opposed to the rather immutable inheritance that is paternity. The individual and the community has scope for enacting changes along the dimensions of Patrimony, but Paternity strongly influences how the ethnic group behaves and what their members do in order to express their membership. Patrimony and Paternity are therefore interlinked and constantly interacting. Language behaviour, though it may show aspects of alterability along dimensions of Patrimony, often shows the strong pull of unalterable paternity.
Fishman appears to use the term ‘Phenomenology’ to encompass the meaning or understanding that members of an ethnic group attach to their descent-related being (paternity) and learned behaviour (patrimony), and he contends that this attached meaning or understanding is in itself an important component of ethnicity.
The concept of ethnolinguistic vitality
Giles, Bourhis and Taylor (1977) have proposed a theoretical framework for studying language change and ethnic group relations. (This theoretical framework is referred to hereafter in this essay as GBT (1977)). In particular, they suggest a systematic approach to defining and studying the many variables in a given inter-group situation that may have a bearing on the outcome in terms of ethnolinguistic vitality. They define the vitality of an ethnolinguistic group as that which makes a group likely to behave as an active and collective entity in intergroup situations: an ethnolinguistic group that has little or no vitality would eventually cease to exist as a distinct group, and conversely, the more vitality a linguistic group has, the more likely that it will survive and thrive as a collective entity in an intergroup context. GBT (1977) refer to the relevant variables in their schema as ‘structural variables’, presumably to distinguish them from social-psychological considerations. These structural variables are based on certain political, historical, economic and linguistic realities and may therefore be expected to be more amenable to objective study. The variables are organised under three main headings, each consisting of cluster of related variables.
The following classificatory table of structural factors affecting ethnolinguistic vitality is adapted from GBT (1977):
The GBT (1977) framework is widely recognised as a good working model and has been used not only for describing and comparing the relative vitality of individual languages and language communities, but has also been used for discussing what kind of measures may be deployed for promoting the long term survival of threatened languages (Meyerhoff, 2006). However, as the authors themselves freely acknowledge, this framework and the classificatory listing of variables is by no means exhaustive. It is also recognised that there is considerable overlap and cross-over between the individual variables.
While the GBT (1977) framework is undoubtedly useful, careful consideration should be given to adapting this framework by supplementing and expanding it appropriately before it can be applied to any particular context of ethnolinguistic intergroup relations. In this essay, an attempt is made to adapt and apply the GBT (1977) framework to selected aspects of the complex ethnolinguistic context in the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka.
Apart from matters relating to ethnolinguistic vitality, the richly multilinguistic history of Sri Lanka provides many interesting examples of other linguistic phenomena which arise during language contact. These include the emergence and decline of creole languages, and contact induced changes in the various dialects of the three main languages currently spoken in the Island, namely, Sinhala, Tamil and English. While matters pertaining to ethnolinguistic vitality are the main focus of this essay, these are often difficult to separate from other contact induced phenomena, and discussions in the essay would therefore occasionally encompass a wider focus to include these.
Section II: The Ethnolinguistic landscape in Sri Lanka
The peopling of the island of Sri Lanka
The historical period in Sri Lanka begins in the 5th century BCE with the arrival of settlers from north India speaking Indo-Aryan dialects. Little is known about the linguistic prehistory of Sri Lanka, but there are myths and legends and some archaeological evidence which indicate that much of the island was peopled by various tribes of aboriginal people before the arrival of the Indo-Aryan settlers. Descendants of these ‘indigenous’ people, known collectively as ‘Veddas’ survived as distinct ethnic communities of hunter gatherers or jungle cultivators until the early part of the last century (about 5,000 people in total for each of years 1901, 1911,1921 and 1931, Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka, 2006), but by then their language shift to Sinhala or Tamil was more or less complete. Very little of their language heritage has ever been recorded (Seligmann and Seligmann 1969). It is presumed however that the languages of these indigenous people made a substantial contribution lexically and morphosyntactically to the evolution of the Sinhala language.
The Sinhala language and Sinhalese ethnicities.
From the 4th century BCE onwards, the speech of the majority of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka has been dialects of Sinhala, which, together with the languages spoken in the Maldive and Laccadive archipelagos is considered to be the southernmost member of the Indo-European family of languages (De Silva, 1979). Modern Sinhala contains many loan words from the European colonial languages, particularly Portuguese and English, and it has also borrowed heavily from Tamil, its main contact language for more than a thousand years. At the 2001 census, there were 17 million people who declared their ethnicity as Sinhalese (the word ‘Sinhalese’ is used in this essay to refer to the ethnic group, and the word ‘Sinhala’ to the language), accounting for 74% of the Sri Lankan population (Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka, 2006). The Sri Lanka census recorded two ethnic groups among the Sinhalese from 1881 to 1971, but this practice has been discontinued since then. The two ethnic groups, known as the low country (or coastal) Sinhalese and the Kandyan (or up-country) Sinhalese were distinguished by paternity and language dialect.
The Tamil Language and the ethnicities of Tamil language speakers.
Apart from the numerically small ethnic groups composed of people of Malay and Eurasian descent, nearly everyone in Sri Lanka who is not of Sinhalese ethnicity speaks a dialect of Tamil as their first language. Many however are bilingual, with Sinhala or English as a second language.
Compared to the Sinhalese, there is far more variation in ethnicity among the people who speak Tamil as their first language. Each of these ethnic groups is associated with its distinctive dialect of Tamil, but language is only one of the factors which contribute to a group’s recognition of ethnic identity, both by itself and by those outside it in the wider national context. Among the more important non-linguistic factors are history of ancient or more recent settlement in Sri Lanka (recency), paternity (or putative genetic heritage), links to a geographically defined homeland within Sri Lanka and, last but not least, religious affiliation.
The settlement of Tamil speaking peoples in Sri Lanka took place episodically over a very long time frame, under a variety of different historical circumstances. The ethnic group known as Sri Lankan Tamils mostly occupy and claim as their homeland the northern and eastern provinces of the country, and are descended from settlers who arrived from various parts of South India as colonisers, traders, artisans or as part of invading armies or mercenaries in the employ of Singhalese kings. These movements occurred episodically from the 3rd century BCE to the 12th century CE (Indrapala, 2005; Wijetunga, 2003). The language of these settlers was Tamil, a major language of the Dravidian family. The dialect of Tamil currently spoken by this ethnic group (Sri Lankan Tamil), particularly in the Northern Province, is quite distinct from the Tamil dialects of South India. It conserves many of the lexical, phonological and morphosyntactic features of medieval and classical Tamil. The Sri Lankan census of 1981 reported the Sri Lankan Tamil population at 1.9 million or 12.7% of the national total. Subsequent figures are not available since much of the northeast has been outside central government control. Language is currently the most prominent contributor to ethnicity in this group, to the extent of being the main rallying point for a powerful separatist movement (Canagarajah, 2005; Thirumalai, 2002). But this does not appear to have been the case in the long history of Tamil ethnicity in Sri Lanka. Though the Tamil language had very strong vitality, based on strong support from institutional factors from pre-medieval times (Indrapala, 2005), the medieval period (Wijetunga, 2003) and even through the European colonial periods (Perera GS, 1941), its powerful salience to ethnicity is a more recent development, largely in response to the discriminatory language policies adopted by the Sinhalese dominated national government (Tambiah, 1967; Canagarajah, 2005). This is partly a reflection of the change in salience of ethnicity itself, as is recognised in the Fishman model, but this Sri Lankan example illustrates the relatively rapid mutability of the language constituent within ethnicity. This is also seen within Sinhalese ethnicity (see section III, below), and perhaps needs to be incorporated explicitly in the model frameworks used for contexts similar to that of Sri Lanka.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British colonial administration allowed the migration of people from South India as indentured labourers to work in the coffee, tea and rubber plantations of the central hill country. They are listed in census reports as Indian Tamils and constituted 5.5% of the total Sri Lankan population in 1981. Their dialect of Tamil is similar to dialects currently spoken in parts of South India, and is quite distinct from the Sri Lankan Tamil dialect. However, the recognition of the ethnic identity of the Indian Tamils, both by themselves and by those outside the group, owes much to factors other than language, the more important ones being the relative recency of their immigration and their virtual confinement to plantation agricultural labour in the central hill country districts.
The third major ethnic group of native Tamil speakers is known as the
Sri Lanka Moors. With this group also, ethnic identity owes much to non-linguistic factors, in this case the putative Arab/Moorish biological inheritance and the ancestral allegiance to Islam. The dialect of Tamil spoken has many borrowed words from Arabic. It is claimed by some activists in the community that Arabic is their heritage language, but the role of Arabic hardly extends beyond ritual use in religion (Sri Lanka Online Muslim Community, last accessed 11 April 2008). The year 2001 census recorded 1.33 million Sri Lanka Moors (7.9% of the total Sri Lankan population), distributed across many districts of the country (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2006). Though there are currently significant changes adversely affecting the ethnolinguistic vitality of Tamil in this ethnic group (McGilvray, 1998), objective data is hard to come by and this issue is not explored further in this essay.
A fourth Tamil speaking ethnic group, known as Negombo Tamils has been recognised in the North Western coastal areas of the country. Their language and ethnolinguistic group relations with the Sinhalese ethnic groups that they are in contact with is the subject selected for detailed description and analysis in section III.
Ethnolinguistic groups speaking languages from outside the South Asian region.
Currently in Sri Lanka, there are only a small number of people who are native speakers of languages other than Sinhala or Tamil. Though the year 2001 census records that 14% of Sri Lankans are able to speak English, the only significant ethnic group which currently speaks it as the first language is the group labelled in the census reports as Burghers and Eurasians. This group numbered only 35,000 (or 0.2%) in the 2001 census. As is the case historically with many other groups in Sri Lanka, putative biological inheritance (mainly from Dutch colonisers and settlers) and religious affiliation are the major factors that constitute their ethnicity. Prior to the ascendancy of English in the early nineteenth century, the everyday language of this group was a Portuguese Creole known as Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole. Though this creole originated during the Portuguese colonial period during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it continued to show high vitality and was the everyday language of many mixed race communities throughout the subsequent Dutch and English colonial periods (Jayasuriya, 2000; Jackson, 1991; McGilvray, 1982). In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries however language shift to English occurred among members of the community who continued to identify themselves as Burghers on paternity grounds.
The only other significant ethnic group in Sri Lanka who are native speakers of a language from outside the Indo-Sri Lankan area are the Sri Lankan Malays who form 0.3% of the Sri Lankan population (Sri Lanka census report, 2001). Though recorded as a single ethnic group, they are descended from diverse migrants from various parts of the Indonesian archipelago. Most of this migration took place during the Dutch colonial period in the eighteenth century and consisted of exiled noblemen, mercenaries, transported convicts, artisans and labourers (Hussainmiya, 2001; Ansaldo, 2005). There are five established Sri Lanka Malay communities at present, and these vary markedly in socio-economic status and in the vitality of the Malay dialect. The community in Kirinda on the south coast is the only one where a Malay dialect still forms the native speech of the community, and their dialect (known locally as ‘Kirinda Java’) has been well studied (DobeS (Dokumentation Bedrohter Sprachen) Programme, 2005; Ansaldo, 2005).Though often referred to as a Malay creole, Kirinda Java is in fact a remarkable example of structural realignment. The Malay lexicon is largely retained, but many morphosyntactic features are realigned so as to converge with Tamil and Sinhala. These contact induced linguistic changes are discussed in detail in Ansaldo, 2005.
That a Malay dialect has survived this far (for over 250 years) as the native speech is remarkable, since it had almost none of the pillars of language vitality identified in GBT 1977: as the language of a relatively small and powerless immigrant community, it was hardly associated with prestige; the descendants of the Malays were relatively small in number and dispersed; the language never had any administrative, economic or religious status, and it was never used in schools and only rarely in the mass media. The survival of the Malay language may be regarded as a corollary of the survival of Malay ethnicity, the latter being largely rooted on paternity and cultural patrimony, both reinforced by the tradition of marrying within the community.
Section III: Sinhala and Tamil languages and ethnic group interactions in the Negombo area
In this section we look in some detail at a specific ethnolinguistic context in a geographical area on and near the North Western coast around the town of Negombo. Sinhalese and Tamil languages and ethnicities have co-existed in this part of Sri Lanka over a long period. The historical data and background information used in this section come mainly from two bibliographic sources, Perera (1941) and Wijetunga, (2003), and is supplemented by internet sources and direct personal experience in the area during the 1970s.
From the 16th century onward until the early 20th century, there seems to have been two major ethnicities in the Negombo area. These groups have not had explicit labels, and indeed have now lost much the distinction in their identities over the latter half of the last century. For the purposes of this discussion they will be referred to here as Negombo group 1 and Negombo group 2.
Negombo Group 1 are those who have always considered themselves to be of Sinhalese ethnicity, mainly on the basis of Paternity or putative biological heritage. They were more numerous in the interior of these districts than along the coast. As a result of dedicated Jesuit and Franciscan missionary activity, supported by Portuguese colonial authority, the vast majority of this population were converted to the Roman Catholic faith and have staunchly remained so over centuries. Many of the European missionaries were fluent in Tamil, and Tamil had strong institutional support throughout most of this period, being the language preferred at that time by the Roman Catholic Missions for religious and secular instruction, and as the language of wider commerce and diplomacy in the region. Tamil was favoured in literacy and in social contexts requiring ‘High speech’ (Perera, 1941, pages 69-79). Though they were native speakers of Sinhala, many members of Negombo group 1 were bilingual speakers of Tamil. However the Sinhala language had high vitality even in this context, largely for three reasons: its recognition (by members of this ethnic group themselves and by others) as the heritage language of this group; its overwhelming demographic dominance, particularly in areas away from the immediate coastal areas of the district; and its extensive use for social and everyday commercial purposes in the district and in the surrounding districts of the country. This ethnolinguistic situation seems to have been stable for a long time, almost to the end of the British colonial period in the middle of the last century, the Sinhala language holding its own in spite of protracted lack of support from institutional factors. In this example, and indeed generally with regard to the question of the salience of Sinhala language for Sinhalese ethnicity in the historical period we are considering just now, it is striking how large Paternity or putative biological inheritance looms. Religion also looms large, for both Negombo groups, and assumed great patrimonial force. It seems that while the Sinhala language itself had enough vitality to easily hold its own, its salience for ethnicity during this period was perhaps not as strong as it is implied in Fishman’s colourful prose (Fishman, 1977, pages 19, 21 and 25). Inter-ethnic communication using the ‘rival’ language of Tamil (and among the educated classes the colonial languages of Portuguese and later English) seems to have been rather effortless and common place (Perera, 1941). This of course may also indicate that feelings of local ethnicity were themselves somewhat quiescent under the overall colonial dominance.
Negombo Group 2: These people were descended from immigrants from the south eastern fishery coast of India who came during the Portuguese colonial period in the 16th and 17th centuries variously as Christian converts fleeing persecution, fishery workers to labour in the famous pearl fisheries and other coastal fisheries, agricultural workers and artisans. They spoke Tamil, which was the dominant language of Southern India and continued to speak it in their new home. As described above, Tamil had strong institutional support in this region. While we know from historical accounts that Tamil was used in inter-ethnic communication in the area, it is not clear what role Sinhala played in inter-ethnic communication by members of group 2 in colonial times. However, since the two ethnic groups were in close and prolonged contact, and, given the demographic dominance of Sinhala speakers in the area, bilingualism may have been common. That is speculation, but we do know that over time, there developed in the Negombo area a distinctive dialect of Tamil which is still in use in the home by some bilingual people in this group. This dialect has been labelled the Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil (NFT) and has been described as a good example of contact induced morphosyntactic realignment (Stevens, 2003). Lexically, NFT remains very largely Tamil, but it has converged strongly with morphosyntactic features characteristic of spoken Sinhala. It has for example largely lost the subject-verb agreement features for person, number and gender that are characteristic of all dialects of Tamil, but are largely lacking in spoken Sinhala. When NFT does retain finite verb inflections marking agreement (as when indicating intentionality or possibility), it is in line with similar features in spoken Sinhala rather than with any dialect of Tamil (see Stevens, 2003 for examples).
The more or less stable ethnolinguistic equilibrium which held in this district during much of the period of European Colonial rule began to change in the post colonial period. Hitherto quiescent ethnicities, both Sinhalese and Tamil and both within the district and in the country at large, began to become activated. Locally in the district, institutional support for Tamil began to wane dramatically when the Church administration moved to ‘Sinhalise’ not only religious practice and instruction but also all institutions of secular education under its control (Jeyaraj DBS, 2005). And at the national level, official support was swinging decisively in favour of the use of Sinhala across the board in all branches of central and local government: administrative, judicial and educational (Tambiah, 1967; Thirumalai , 2002). The language vitality of Sinhala also benefited, as ever, from the numerical predominance of Sinhalese in the district. Statistical reports of census data do not provide figures for the precise area we are interested in, but the most relevant area level data (Puttalam) for the year 1981 census shows 407,000 ethnic Sinhalese, 34,600 ethnic Tamils and 49000 Moors. Data on languages spoken, available for the year 2001 only, show the stark decline in the relative proportion of speakers of Tamil: 98.5 % of the population are reported to be able to speak Sinhala and only 9% Tamil (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2006) These figures suggest that there are now relatively few bilinguals left among those who are reported in the census data as ethnic Sinhalese. Though accurate census data for languages and ethnicity are not available at district level for the years prior to independence from colonial rule, it is clear that there has been a massive language shift among some previously Tamil speaking ethnicities in this district in the decades following independence. This language shift seems to have been accompanied by a corresponding ‘shift’ in self declared ethnicity (from a ‘Tamil’ ethnicity to a ‘Sinhalese’ ethnicity). This ethnic and language shift has mainly affected the communities descended from Tamil speaking Roman Catholics descended from immigrants from the southeast coastal regions of India (described above as Negombo group 2). The result of this shift appears to be the creation of a new Sinhala speaking and Roman Catholic ethnicity, merging the two groups described previously in this essay as Negombo Groups 1 &2. The most notable ethnolinguistic consideration in this process is the paramount importance of the role that language seems to have taken in constituting the ethnic identity of the new merged group. In Sri Lanka as a whole, Buddhist religion and being ‘sons of the soil’ were the two defining factors of Sinhalese ethnicity during the colonial and pre-colonial (and pre-nationalist) ‘Kingship’ periods (Tambiah, 1967; Wijetunga, 2003). These two factors appear to have been more salient than the Sinhala language itself during these periods, as shown by the ease and extent of the use of Tamil and European languages during these periods by groups who were acutely conscious of their Singhalese ethnicity (Wijetunga, 2003). The relatively new and enhanced salience of the Sinhala language to Sinhalese ethnicity has been reinforced by the post-colonial language planning efforts to enhance the status and usage of Sinhala versus the colonial language of English (Canagarajah, 2005). Over the last few decades, another factor which has perhaps contributed to the ethnic shift from group 2 and their merger with group 1 has been a desire to distance themselves from the Tamil language based separatist campaign which has been led by the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic group.
The ethnolinguistic dynamic within Negombo group 2 resulting in the decline in the vitality of Tamil language in this group is in marked contrast to the continued vitality of the Tamil language among the Sri Lankan Tamils in this district who are mainly Hindus by religion. In this group, allegiance to the Hindu religion, ancestral connection to a Tamil Homeland within Sri Lanka, and the Tamil language continue to hold firm as closely integrated ethnic Paternity factors.
The dynamics of how political processes primarily aimed at enhancing the status of the majority language can have consequences ranging from the relatively benign mutability of ethnicity and language salience to outright separatist wars, is beyond the scope of this essay. However, the present description and analysis of the ethnolinguistic contexts and processes in Negombo demonstrates not only the usefulness of the models proposed in Fishman, 1977 and GBT 1977, but also demonstrates the need to extend the range of factors and calibrate their relative salience to suit individual contexts.
This has been a selective survey of the ethnolinguistic scene in Sri Lanka, picking out some relatively small and restricted contexts for rather disproportionate attention, while affording the major language and ethnic groups and their current ethnolinguistic dynamic only broad-brush treatment. This has partly to do with the availability of relevant, dispassionate and credible sources in the academic literature, and with my own lack of personal exposure to events in Sri Lanka in the more recent decades. But the main basis for the choice of examples has been their usefulness in illustrating and evaluating the model frameworks.
It is clear that the frameworks are very useful as templates for structuring and systematising the description of an ethnolinguistic context. Once the key terminology is understood and familiar, the models facilitate succinct descriptions.
However, a general criticism regarding both of the model frameworks is to do with the breadth of their scope. Though both models are clear in identifying and delineating the core components of their schemata, the combined and broadened scope of these core components is such that they encompass the full range of possible contributory factors without providing guidance on assigning weightage to individual components that are operative in a given ethnolinguistic context. This seems to limit the value of the models in analysing and explaining individual contexts. The problem of explaining the vitality of Kirinda Java in the face of an almost a total lack of support from the core factors that are given prominence in GBT (1977) is a case in point.
Another general observation which arises from reflecting on the Sri Lankan data is the need to keep concepts of language vitality somewhat separate from concepts of language salience in ethnicity, that is, to try and delineate the territories of the two frameworks. This is rather hard to do, since they both have broad scope and overlapping purposes. This difficulty is another reason which seems to limit the use of the models for analysis and explanation. As an example, we may site the difficulty we have in applying either of the models to explain the apparent de-coupling of the vitality of the Sinhala language from Sinhalese ethnicity during most of its history.
In summary then, this study of some aspect of the complex ethnolinguistic landscape in Sri Lanka shows that the standard models of ethnolinguistic vitality and language salience in ethnicity are very useful for description of specific ethnolinguistic contexts. But for providing analysis or explanation, they are less useful, and need extension by the inclusion of factors which are not given prominence in the standard models and by providing guiding principles for calibrating the relative importance of the component factors.
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