lion etymology

Sri Lanka, previously known as Ceylon, was part of the British Empire which left a legacy of English language on the South Asian island. The vast majority of Sri Lankans speak Sinhalese (70% are ethnic Sinhala people), but a significant portion speak Tamil as their first language. Both Tamil and Sinhalese have loan words from English due to years of cultural exchange with the British.

Not only does Sri Lankan Tamil differ from Indian Tamil, but both Tamil dialects are spoken in Sri Lanka. “Sri Lankan Tamils” are people in Sri Lanka of Tamil descent who have ancestry in that country from before the British empire, while Tamils whose families only moved there in recent centuries have been recognised as a separate ethnic group since 1911 and are called Indian Tamils. But these “Indian Tamils” of Sri Lanka do not speak Tamil in the same way as Tamils in India either! Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka spoke mainland Tamil dialects but since they have frequently intermarried with the Sri Lankan Tamils, there are often overlaps of dialect. Nevertheless, as can be seen from the stand up comic video below, Indian Tamils have difficulty understanding Tamil dialects spoken in Sri Lanka as well as English dialects spoken by Tamils from Sri Lanka.

While the vast majority of Sri Lankans don’t speak much, if any Tamil, English is still a more popular second language taught at school and learned through pop culture. The Sri Lankan English (SLE) dialect resembles Indian English but with some unique differences. This amusing video below demonstrates how Sri Lankan English includes elements of colloquial British English and Sinhalese.

The public are permitted to communicate with government institutions using Sinhalese, Tamil or English but English is still the preferred official language. English has been used in Sri Lanka since the 16th century but some linguists debate the legitimacy of SLE as a separate dialect. Sri Lankan English does has many of the characteristics of a unique dialect and SLE words sometimes have different meanings than in British English (see examples below).

SLE                           English

Hotel                           Restaurant
Shorteats                    Snack
Cousin-brother         Male first-cousin
Petrol shed                Petrol station
Dickie                         Car boot
Ragging                      Raillery (banter)

There are also standardised alterations to syntax. For example, adjectives are doubled either for emphasis or to imply a greater quantity. The familial relation of “aunty” or “uncle” is sometimes applied to denote seniority and respect rather than relation by blood or marriage. There are numerous subtle differences of use in SLE but none so great as to prevent the language from being intelligible by native English speakers from other parts of the world; although Americans may struggle more than Britons to understand some of the dialect words.

Written by Tom Rowsell