A-Z of Sri Lankan English: L is for link language

The A-Z of Sri Lankan English is back after a break. These short pieces focus on different aspects of the way English is used in Sri Lanka. Collectively they provide a cross-section of the type of features that comprise Sri Lankan English, and demonstrate its unique identity as a distinct variety of English. The whole A-Z can be found here; and more on Sri Lankan English can be found here.

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When my daughter was studying at “a leading girls’ school in Colombo”, she had a subject called “Link”. She used to talk about “Link homework” and “the Link exam”, rarely referring to the subject by its other name – Tamil. “Link” had become shorthand for the slot in the timetable where Sinhala-medium girls study Tamil, and Tamil-medium girls study Sinhala.

It seems odd to refer to Tamil as a “link language”. The reason for learning Tamil is to communicate with Tamil speakers, not as a “link” to anyone else. Outside the school context of course, it is English which is commonly, and more logically, referred to as the link language. This is how it is defined in the Sri Lankan constitution, while Sinhala and Tamil are defined as “official languages” and “national languages”. Exactly what is meant by these terms is of course a matter of heated debate; and the constitution itself is not very helpful:

18. (1) The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.

(2) Tamil shall also be an official language.
(3) English shall be the link language.
19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.

http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_04_Amd.html#3#3

But English is much more than just a “link language” in the Sri Lankan context. The term makes more sense in a country such as India or Nigeria, with hundreds of local languages, where English can function as a genuine lingua franca. Here in Sri Lanka, English is the first language of a small but significant percentage of the population, and it is widely used between people of a certain class and/or educational background, in certain social and/or professional contexts, irrespective of whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, etc. These people are mostly bilingual or trilingual, and in other situations they would tend to use Sinhala or Tamil when speaking with non-English speakers. In other words, the determining factor is social rather than communicative necessity. Which is why English is also referred to as the kaduwa – a sword, the antithesis of a “link”, a metaphor for the power wielded by those who possess it over those who don’t.

The terms vernacular and mother tongue are also used somewhat differently in Sri Lankan English. The word vernacular, meaning indigenous language (as in vernacular school), is a colonial term which is still used in the Subcontinent, more or less synonymously with the Sanskrit word swabasha. But this usage is rather outdated in the UK, where the word has come to refer to the informal everyday language of ordinary people, in contrast to more formal educated language. And the expression mother tongue usually equates with first language, but in Sri Lanka there are people whose first language is (and always has been) English, but who still refer to Sinhala or Tamil as their mother tongue. In other words, they associate the term with their ethnic identity rather than their own linguistic competence.

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A-Z Sri Lankan English

A-Z of Sri Lankan English is“an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip“into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on“Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.

  • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

    @Michael Meyler

    “And the expression mother tongue usually equates with first language, but in Sri Lanka there are people whose first language is (and always has been) English, but who still refer to Sinhala or Tamil as their mother tongue. In other words, they associate the term with their ethnic identity rather than their own linguistic competence.”

    I agree whole heartedly with the last 4 lines of your article. Most of these people eat, drink, think,dream and breath in English but due to some funny sense of patriotism will not accept that their mother tongue is indeed English. That is why, day by day this country is turning more and more into ‘Hypocrisy’ rather than a ‘Democracy.’

    That part you quoted from the Constitution is a good example of what hypocrites we have become. How easy it would have been to simply state that:

    18. (1) The Official Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil and these 2 languages shall also be National Languages of Sri Lanka.

    (2) English shall be the link language.

    …instead of that we get the Sinhalese trying to show their dominance by saying

    18. (1) The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
    (2) Tamil shall also be an official language.

    …this is just common sense…but there are many Sinhalese who will disagree and justify it. Sad.

  • sabbe laban

    Michael

    ” Here in Sri Lanka, English is the first language of a small but significant percentage of the population, and it is widely used between people of a certain class and/or educational background, in certain social and/or professional contexts, irrespective of whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, etc.”

    Here the use of the word “between” is grammatically incorrect and instead it should have been “among”! Maybe that’s also a an influence of “talking” too much of Sri Lankan English at home!

  • http://n/a hewayalage

    english language must be official language, sinhala and tamil second languge,then all done, people can speak with whole world,

    • sabbe laban

      hewayalage

      Why do you think people have to feel inferior about their language? Have the Korians or Japanese done that in order to “speak with the world”?

      • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

        my dear laban…

        the Koreans and Japanese are tec savy and industrially developed. All we idiots have is the often harked about “2500 year old culture.”

      • Lakshan

        Why should we elevate English over our mother tongue ?
        Its all right to excel in English. But it must not be given precedence over the Sinhala/Tamil.
        Some “pundits” believe superior command in English is analogues to superior intelligence :)

  • sabbe laban

    My dear PresiDunce Bean

    You should ask yourself how the Japanese and the Koreans became “tec savy” without knowing English!

    And don’t you know about the ancient history of Japan and Korea? Do you think that they aren’t proud about their history? When the British are proud about their 1000+ years of history why shouldn’t we?