Sri Lankan English
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Higher category: Language
Sri Lankan English (SLE, en-LK) or Ceylonese English is the English language as it is spoken in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka it is colloquially known as Singlish, a term dating from 1972. The classification of SLE as a separate dialect of English is controversial. English in Sri Lanka is spoken by approximately 1.8% of the population (2019 est.), and widely used for official and commercial purposes. It is the native language of approximately 5400 people.
The British colonial presence in South Asia led to the introduction of English to Sri Lanka. Since 1681, some words have been borrowed from the Sinhala and Tamil language by English. In 1948, Sri Lanka gained independence from the United Kingdom and English was no longer the only official language. In subsequent years, inequality in access to education, and national conflict have confounded the development and use of SLE, particularly in Sri Lankan literature. SLE may vary from British or American English in elements such as colloquialisms, vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation and emphasis of syllables.
Sri Lankan words that were borrowed by the English and are used in the language are recorded in A Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies. Such words often relate to flora and fauna:
Attitudes to Sri Lankan English
Having taken root in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1796, Sri Lankan English has gone through over two centuries of development. In terms of its socio-cultural setting, Sri Lankan English can be explored largely in terms of different stages of the country’s class and racial tension, economy, social disparity as well as post-war rehabilitation and reconciliation. For instance, the country witnessed a general lowering in the standard of English following the Sinhala Only Act that was introduced in 1956. English as a medium of education in schools were dropped and the Act also prompted the emigration of the predominantly English-speaking Burger community of Sri Lanka. However, while this resulted in the Sinhalese language gaining more prominence in all domains of Sri Lanka, its influence on Sri Lankan English also increased. In fact, the merging of the two languages resulted in a so-called “Singlish” which remains a significant feature of Sri Lankan English.
This period was followed by the 1970s revival of an open-market economy, increased exposure to foreign media and the internet, rising expatriate community as well as the growth of English-medium “international schools.” The government also recognized the importance of English, not just as a life skill needed to maintain contact with the outside world but also as a necessary link language in a country that is home to several cultures and ethnicities.
Just like the other languages spoken in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan English has also to come have its own classification of both regional and class dialects. According to one study, it was found that colloquial features and pronunciations that distinguish Sri Lankan English from the standard form is highly influenced by the country’s mother tongue. One such example is the notably large number of Sinhalese loanwords used in SLE. Apart from Sinhalese, SLE also consists of a relative number of loanwords borrowed from Tamil, Malay, Arabic, Hindi, Dutch and Portuguese languages.
Moreover, it is hard to point out an exact number of Sri Lankan English speakers. A relatively small portion of Sri Lankans – namely the Colombo elite, consider English their first language. This community arguably makes up a prominent part of Sri Lanka’s social, cultural, political and commercial circles.
Additionally, just like any other language, SLE is constantly evolving with the new generation. This is particularly noticeable when one compares the English used by older generations who spoke a more ‘colonial’ English that was highly influenced by the British during and after independence. Despite such changes, the question of what constitutes a standard form of Sri Lankan English remains unanswered. Within certain social circles, the term ‘Sri Lankan English’ is closely referred to a form of ‘broken’ English, one that is not spoken fluently. However, others disagree with this notion and acknowledges that SLE is a valid form.
In terms of class distinctions, the so-called Colombo elite of the “Colombo 07” families of Sri Lanka consider English to be their first language and the variety of English spoken by them is considered to be closer to the international standard of English. However, the further one goes away from the main areas of Colombo, there is a greater influence of Sinhalese and Tamil on the English spoken there, with varying degrees of bilingualism.
|SLE word or phrase||English equivalent||Notes|
|bugger||person||Used in informal speech, but not always in the usual pejorative sense of the word: sometimes similar to "guy" in American English.|
|Shape!||It's alright!||Used to say someone is okay with something, mainly around urban areas|
|confinement||pregnancy||Not just the last trimester.|
|lady's fingers||okra||Not Lady finger bananas.|
|shorteats||snacks||Sometimes shortened to sorties. This is usually due to mispronunciation.|
|cover||Something that envelops something like a bag|
|pattice or pattis||a vegetable patty cake|
|stay||reside||Not, "Where are you lodging for the time being?" This usage also occurs in Scotland and in the United States.|
|batchmate||classmate||Meaning a student contemporary.|
|cousin-brother||a first male cousin|
|cousin-sister||a first female cousin|
|petrol shed||gas station (US)
filling station (UK)
petrol station (Aus)
|in vain||unnecessarily||or "a shame"|
|"Keep it on the table" means "put it on the table"|
|too much||naughty, pushy, forward, etc.||Expressing excess.|
|fully worth||good value|
|get down from the [bus]||alight|
|get [them] down||invite [them] over|
|played [me] out||deceived [me]|
|ask from||ask||Meaning "ask something of someone".|
|put||make||For example, "put a complaint" means "make a complaint".|
|today morning||this morning|
|yesterday night||last night|
Words and tags may be added, subtracted, overused, or changed in order and tense in SLE.
|SLE phrase||Mechanism||Notes and examples|
|"isn't it?" and "no?"||tag added to a question||For example, "He's here, no?"|
|"He went to different different places"||Doubling adjectives for emphasis||Meaning, "He went to many different places."|
|"Don't worry about small small things."||Doubling adjectives for emphasis||Meaning, "Don't worry about inconsequential things."|
|"Different different worries."||Doubling adjectives to imply number||"Various worries."|
|"Let's go to city."||Omission of definite article||Meaning, "Let's go to the city."|
|"The driver is new. He is driving fast also."||Use of "also" instead of "and" or "both"||Meaning, "The driver is new and he drives fast."|
|"uncle", "aunty"||Added suffix||A form of address to show respect to an older person.|
|"even"||added at end of sentence||For example, "He didn't call even" meaning "he didn't even call" and not "He even, didn't call" or "Even he didn't call."|
|"only"||Changed word order||"Yesterday only they came" meaning "It was only yesterday that they came."|
|"Why they are here?"||Changed word order in questions||"Why are they here?"|
|"If you came here yesterday, you could meet her".||Changed use of tense||For example, "If you had come here yesterday, you could have met her."|
Speakers of Sri Lankan English may have varying ability in producing some sounds. Again, the sound of // in "father" and // in "luck"are absent in Sinhala and so are variably difficult for people from Sri Lanka to pronounce in SLE.
Metathesis occur, as they do in many languages. For instance, "exercise" may be pronounced as "ex-cise".
Additionally, some differences in pronunciation may relate to socioeconomic background and level of education. For example, a word like "note" is pronounced with a diphthong, // in standard English. In SLE, it is pronounced /noːt/ with the monophthong; /oː/ and is accepted as normal in Sri Lanka. However, pronouncing a word like "hall" (//) as */hoːl/ is not accepted. Other words pronounced with a monophthong include: take and made.
Those unfamiliar with English may add an involuntary /i-/ prior to words like "skill" and "smell". However, this is not standard in SLE.
|Example||RP||GA||Sri Lankan English|
|"e" in "net"||[e ~ ɛ]||[ɛ]||[e]|
|"i" in "lid"||[ɪ]||[ɪ]||[i]|
|"oo" in "book"||[ʊ]||[ʊ]||[u]|
|"oo" in "boot"||[uː ~ ʉː]||[uː]|
|"o" in "ok"||[əʊ ~ əʉ]||[oʊ]||[oː]|
|Example||English||American||Sri Lankan English||Notes|
|"t" in "cat"||/t/||/t/||/ʈ/|
|"d" in "lad"||/d/||/d/||/ɖ/|
|"p" in "pull"||/pʰʊl/||/pʰʊl/||/pʊl/||the same applies to "t" and "k" at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable.|
|"th" in "this"||/ð/||/ð/||/d̪/|
|"th" in "thin"||/θ/||/θ/||/t̪/|
|"sh" in "ship"||/ʃ/||/ʃ/||/ɕ-/|
|"ch" in "chin"||/tʃ/||/tʃ/||/ɕ-/|
|"s" in "vision"||/ʒ/||/ʒ/||/ɕ-/||/ʒ/ is uncommon in Sinhala.|
|"z" in "zip"||/z/||/z/||/s/||/z/ is uncommon in Sinhala.|
|"w" and "v"||/w/, /v/||/w/, /v/||/ʋ/|
The speaker of SLE may not use contractions as readily as English. For example, "What is the matter?" would be used over "What's the matter?"
Some elided syllables in English are pronounced in SLE. For example, "different" would be pronounced "diff-er-ent" (/ˈɖifərənʈ/). Also, some syllables normally unstressed and sounded as /ə/ may be sounded as /a(ː)/ (or, /o/, /u/, /e/ or /i/). For example, the word "camera" (//) may become /ˈkæməra(ː)/.
In SLE, the first syllable may be emphasised rather than the usual second or third. Examples include, "address", "cassette", "dessert", "museum", "hotel" and "gazette". One may also see differences in the allocation of primary and secondary syllable stresses.
|Example||English||American||Sri Lankan English||Notes|
|"a" in "villa"||/ˈvɪlə/||/ˈvɪlə/||/ˈʋila(ː)/|
|"w" in "welcome"||/ˈwɛlkəm/||/ˈwɛlkəm/||/ˈʋelkam/|
|"s" in "cabs"||/kæbz/||/kæbz/||/kæbs/||the "s" of at the end of plurals is pronounced with an "s" sound rather than the usual "z" sound. Other examples are, "rings", "clothes", "mangoes", "discos". The same applies to "is", "nose" and "houses".|
|"es" in "masses"||/ˈmæsɪz/||/ˈmæsɪz/||–||Where a plural ends in "es", "/-ɪz/" tends to be used. Other examples include, "wishes" and "judges".|
|"ed" in "knocked"||/nɒkt/||/nɒkt/||/nɒkɖ/||Similar change is heard with "passed", "finished", "wanted" and "landed".|
|"ed" in "landed"||/ˈlændɪd/||/ˈlændɪd/||/lænɖəɖ/||the same may apply after "t", "s", "g" and "n".|
|"et" in "pocket"||/ˈpɒkɪt/||/ˈpɒkɪt/||/ˈpɒkəʈ/||Other examples where "et" is unstressed and pronounced in this way include, "market" and "biscuit".|
|"th" in "healthy"||/ˈhɛlθi/||/ˈhɛlθi/||/ˈhelði/||Also, "wealthy".|
|"r" in "care"||/kɛə(r)/||/kɛər/||/kea(r)/||Also, "air", "fare", "pear" and so on.|
|"w" in "power"||/ˈpaʊə(r)/||/ˈpaʊə(r)/||/ˈpaʋə(r)/||Also, "tower" and "flower"|
|"w" in "twist"||/twɪst/||/twɪst/||/ʈʋisʈ/||Applies also to "quick".|
|"a" in "damage"||/ˈdæmɪdʒ/||/ˈdæmɪdʒ/||/ˈɖæmeːdʒ/||Other examples include "marriage", "manager", "village" and "college".|
|"a" in "delicate"||/ˈdɛlɪkɪt/||/ˈdɛlɪkɪt/||/ˈɖelikeːʈ/||Other examples include "accurate", "examine", "example" and "enamel".|
|"i" in "video"||/ˈvɪdiˌəʊ/||/ˈvɪdiˌoʊ/||/ˈʋiːɖiˌoː/||Other examples include "competition" and "electrician".|
- The Postcolonial Identity of Sri Lankan English by Manique Gunesekera
- A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English by Michael Meyler
en-LKis the language code for Sri Lankan English, as defined by ISO standards (see ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) and Internet standards (see IETF language tag).
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