The government has announced that 2012 will be the year of trilinguality; a key plank of the platform of Mano Ganeshan who placed third in the preference vote tally in the recent Colombo Municipal council elections, was equality of language. It is rare for a government and opposition to agree on anything, but in relation to the this vexed question that has fissured and broken apart this country for so long, there seems to be agreement. But still, even though the equality of Sinhala and Tamil has been constitutional since the 13th amendment of 1987, the reports of the Official Language Commission tell us, we have not made much progress in this regard. Why? Will we ever? What really at bottom holds back language equality?
The way the story is commonly told, it simply goes back 1956, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s MEP government, and the Sinhala Only Act. I think we need to dig deeper, if we are to find out why language divides Sri Lankans, we need to go back another 100 years, to 1866, and consider one of Bandaranaike’s great kinsmen, James d’Alwis’ classic paper, “the Origins of the Sinhalese Language,” which was pubished in that year, and becomes the authoritative paper on the subject in later years.
As I pointed out in a previous column, by 1833, the British who ruled Ceylon, had settled on a logic of racial political representation in the legislative council, with European, Burger, Sinhala and Tamil representatives. In the received wisdom of the day, Sinhalese and Tamils were thought to be distinct races, and and their languages different, of course. But philologically, that is to say technically, the languages were thought to be quite similar. Sir James Emerson Tennant, who while he was colonial secretary of the colony had researched and then written, when he was sent back to England a massive two volume of study of the island, which was, beyond any doubt at the time, the authority on everything to do with Ceylon had written: “Sinhalese, as it is spoken at the present day, and still more strikingly as it exists as a written language in the literature of the Island, presents unequivocal proof of an affinity with the group languages still in use in the Dakken;- Tamil, Telingu and Malayalim (sic).”
It is this very line that D’Alwis sets out to disprove in his paper, the first part of which was presented to the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon in 1863. In laying the foundation for his argument, D’Alwis make a profound claim that has haunted us sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly until today. Sinhalese he claims is radically different from Tamil because the Sinhalese are radically racially different from the people of south India. What counts as ‘racial’ features here are ‘complexion,’ ‘the shape of the head,’ and ‘peculiarity of features,’ that are the most permanent. A ‘copper color’ prevails in Sinhalese complexion he says, and more, “the features of the inhabitants of the Dekkan are certainly distinguishable from those of the Sinhalese even by a casual observer.” And then in an even more striking racialization of linguistic ability, he says, “European teachers have frequently observed the facility with which the Sinhalese pronounce European tongues, presenting in this respect a quality distinguishable from every other South-Indian people.”
Thus, the languages of Ceylon were racilized. This of course, was also a politicization since a seat of the legislative Council was reserved for the Sinhalese. Not only was James D’Alwis an erudite linguist and scholar, he together with his kinsmen, Obeyesekere and Solomon Bandaranaike(senior), held in turn that very seat for the Sinhalese member of the legislative council in later years.
His views presented here, were amplified, hardened, and rearticulated, throughout the decades; by the 1940s, after the introduction of free education in Sinhala and Tamil, the question of language became central to the economic life of the lower middle classes. That we know. What we may have forgotten is how racilized that centrality was. Accepting that this idea of race, based on bad science, has to be dismantled, should be part of any effort, oppositional or governmental, to build a trilingual nation.