Peace and Reconciliation

Language is a Bridge between Nations

Gayan Yaddehige

Although there are various theories about the origin of language, humans have used it since times immemorial. Humans have used language as a medium of communication and also to pass on knowledge from generation to generation. Language, which was initially sign language, evolved into verbal and written communication through words and letters with the evolution of humans. Humans have been able to develop the language effectively, creating new words with time to communicate effortlessly. As a result, about 6,500 languages have now evolved in the world.


There are plenty of examples of instances where the language of one country was nurtured by the language of another due to various reasons like foreign invasions and trade deals. Words like ‘Isthoppuwa, Rakkaya, Tholkaya, Wendesi, Kapirigna, and Almari’ in the Sinhala language are a few examples. When considering Tamil, many words they use in communication have been added to Sinhala. Some of them are used only in speaking. Some others are used both in speaking and writing. ‘Kappi’ in Tamil is ‘Kappiya’ in Sinhala. ‘Kodi’ in Tamil is ‘Kodiya’ in Sinhala. ‘Coin’ in English is ‘Kasi’ in Sinhala and ‘Kasu’ in Tamil. ‘Irattai’ in Tamil came to Sinhala as ‘Iratta’. ‘Kadaya’ in Sinhala is ‘Kadai’ in Tamil. There are plenty of other examples like this. Sometimes words are broken from one language to nurture another. Occasionally words from other languages are directly adapted to the mother tongue. The use of words like Salon and Mortuary in the Sinhala language are examples for this.

In addition, there are many other strange qualities of language. There, the tone of voice and pronunciation is vital. If you say come in a soft voice, it carries affection. If you say the same thing in a higher voice, it is a command. Even in the same word, there is a big difference in meaning depending on the tone of voice.

When someone says that this knife is good, we need to understand its meaning according to the context.  If a housewife made that statement, that knife is good for chopping vegetables or any other purpose in the kitchen. It has a different meaning when a murderer makes the same statement. Language has been used to trample on one nation by another in many instances throughout the history of Sri Lanka. Some used language to spread their hegemonic ideas over another ethnicity. The meaning of the words has been used to divide nations and destroy the fabric of society. Given the context in which words like ‘Hambaya, Para Demala’ are used, it is not difficult to find growing cells of ethnic crisis in it.

Language is a significant factor that can be identified as the carrier of culture in an age where culture has a decisive influence on the betterment of human society. It is an accepted fact that language is the fundamental factor in the development, which is identified as an essential destination for any country to achieve. It is even more special to a multicultural country like Sri Lanka. Language is the shortest path that can be taken to build an understanding of brotherhood among ethnicities. Learning the language spoken by one nation by another is a vital factor in national and religious reconciliation. Disrespecting another nationality, highlighting their errors in pronunciation is an obstacle to reconciliation. Stage dramas like “Sgt. Nallathambi” are examples of this. This situation can be seen in the cinema and teledramas even today. We must realize that there is more insult in them than comedy. 

The power to extinguish or fuel the fire that erupted with the Easter Sunday attack was vested in language. When someone tries to extinguish the fire with good language, another one tries to fuel it with hate speech. One of the best things understood from this context is that language has a great power to unite or divide nations. As hundreds of Christians died in the aftermath of the attack, many feared that the community would be outraged and attack Muslims. However, the Cardinal addressed the nation on several occasions, leaving no room for such conflict. He used language and religious teachings for this purpose. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the power of language in creating and resolving ethnic conflicts.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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