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Review by Manuka Wijesinghe

Wonderful representation of the nation's soul
A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, by Michael Meyler
Reviewed by Manuka Wijesinghe
Sunday Observer 21/02/2010

Shortly after Michael Meyler's Dictionary of Sri Lankan English was released, one of the first remarks made to me by a fellow Lankan was, does this chap have nothing else to do?

In retrospect, it is not the ignorance of a fellow countryman that saddens me, but my own inertia in not giving an adequate response.

What would have been an adequate response?

That it was about time that someone made a dictionary of Sri Lankan English, which is spoken by a linguistic minority of an ethnically diverse nation of 18 million people extremely protective and vocal about a supposedly archaic Indo-European mother tongue. Every son and daughter born and bred in this soil longs to speak Sri Lankan English which, despite all the connotations of colonialism, elitism, favouritism and nepotism is undoubtedly colonialism's greatest gift to Sri Lanka. It is our window to the world.

It is Sri Lankan English that enables the upward mobility of the Lankan Everyman. It is that which facilitates the Lankan's comprehension, participation and integration in a changing world. It brings a Lankan in contact with changing technologies, changing trends and changing moods. And it opens the world of study, offering a wide spectrum of literature and research material on any given subject in the world. Sri Lankan English is that which gives us access to the lingua franca of the modern world, English. And it is our lingua franca!

murder the King/Queen
(dated) speak incorrect English → The concept of 'murdering the King', which is completely outdated in BSE, survives in SLE, though it is probably restricted to the older generation.

Sri Lankan English is not the Queen's English. It is the English that has grown from British colonial legacy. It is the language that has taken its own life and form from the historical diversity of a geographical entity, with its brand of humour, its soul of pluralism, its tolerance between creeds and the diversity of its culture.

Malay pickle
a mixed pickle traditionally served with buriyani (> achcharu)

As Michael Meyler writes in his introduction, SLE includes many non-English words, the majority of which are of Sinhala and Tamil origin. Others derive from Dutch and Portuguese, the languages of the pre-British colonial powers; from Hindi and other Indian languages; or from Malay and Arabic.

Maldive fish
(= umbalakada) a type of dry fish commonly used for flavouring dishes

Michael Meyler has proved that SLE is as mutative and adaptable as British Standard English (BSE), whose vocabulary has become so dense not merely by its numerous colonial expeditions, but due to its amazing ability to integrate exotic words into its expanding vocabulary. Thereby giving the English language not just new words; but a greater spectrum of expression and comprehension that expands the human mind.

(coll.) miserable, morose; noun: muspenthuwa (Sinhala) (> moosala)
° He has a muspenthu look. ° He's such a muspenthuwa.

Words such as anaconda (from Sinhalese), bonsai (Japanese), sequin (Italian) and tsunami (Japanese), have enriched the language. The Sri Lankan English dictionary is the first step in giving Sri Lankan English its own place in the sun. By establishing our vocabulary and nuances in the pages of the Sri Lankan English dictionary, Michael Meyler has raised our island jargon to the status of established language with its own body of grammatical, literary and lexical documentation.

naki visey
(coll.) an expression used to refer to an old man flirting with younger women (Sinhala)

To quote Prof. Ryhana Raheem of the Open University of Sri Lanka:

"This dictionary is an important contribution to the development of English in this country. It charts the social and the cultural nuances and the words and phrases that we use. It pinpoints the Sri Lankan use of grammatical structures and compares it with British usage, vividly demonstrating that our English is distinct in a number of ways. It reflects and illustrates Sri Lankan phonology, reinforcing the notion that our variety of English is a variety with its own features. It is a language shaped by its users, bringing in to it Sri Lankan habits, customs, expressions, interests and experience. It is a timely contribution for it attempts to introduce uniformity and accuracy to the multicultural vocabulary of Sri Lankan English."

Michael Meyler even goes beyond a traditional lexicographer. He has not just documented 'Sri Lankan English vocabulary' but he has also highlighted the way a word has been used with many illustrative examples using books by renowned authors of Sri Lankan English. As in the example below which describes that typically Lankan garment which covers and accentuates the bodies of Lanka's women purifying themselves in our numerous public bathing places:

diya redda
a cloth worn by women for bathing (Sinhala) (> redda)
She undressed by the well, unstrapped her watch and got into the diya reddha cloth, and dropped the bucket into the depths. (Anil's Ghost page 90)

Michael Meyler shows that Sri Lankan English is the unique creation of Sri Lanka. It has no 'Made in England' tag. One can proudly ask the 'Juki girl' to sew upon its lapels not the tag 'Made in England,' but 'Made in Sri Lanka.'

Juki girl
(= factory girl) (coll.) a garment factory worker (> girl)

It is a fundamental right of every son or daughter of the nation to be taught Sri Lankan English, despite the nation's pathological fear of losing its mother tongue. A mother tongue and tradition will never be lost, it will mutate according to the spirit of the times. For it is the living language that changes while dead languages remain staid.It is the duty of parents and religious institutions to inculcate and nurture tradition and culture. It is not the duty of schools!

Institutes of modern education are meant to equip these youngsters to fit into the job market and expand their horizons; not make them into temples that nurture nationalism and linguistic atavism.

a derogatory term for people who feel socially superior (Sinhala = an aristocratic caste)
° putting on radala airs

Unfortunately in Lanka the reversal occurred with the opening chapter of the Bandaranaike trilogy. An Oxbridge son of a wealthy family implemented 'Sinhala Only' in 1956. Fortunately the implementation and enactment did not follow as promised. But in 1960, the part 2 of the trilogy, Mrs. Bandaranaike implemented 'Sinhala Only' with immediate force - 'Sinhala Only in 24 hours beginning on the 1st of January 1960.' Thus began the retardation of the nation and of her youth.

Instead of advancement, the nation faced youth terrorism and linguistic chauvinism. For the tragedy of 'Sinhala Only' was such that every son and daughter who was taught in Sinhalese only yearned to learn the language of the so-called elite, the language of job opportunity and market viability.

Sinhala, Sinhalese
(n/adj.) the people and language of the majority community in Sri Lanka, of Aryan/North Indian origin (mainly Buddhist) ° the Sinhala kings ° SWRD Bandaranaike's 'Sinhala only' policy ° a Sinhala-speaking family ° He's trying to learn Sinhala. ° She's a Sinhalese.

For those who may criticise Sri Lankan English let me inform you 'neither English nor the Sinhala language was a result of spontaneous creation upon this island. 'Spoken Sinhala' is that which has evolved from the ancient Dravidian and Indo-Aryan influences. The Sinhalese script on the other hand is the artistically cursive development which has evolved from the angularity of ancient languages; Tamil, and the latter development of Grantha and Malayalam.

an irrigation channel created by damming a river (Anglo-Indian, from Tamil)

a very large rat (also India, from Telugu)

(= hunu) lime paste which is used in the preparation of betel; also used for whitewashing houses, etc. (Tamil chunnambu; also India, from Portuguese) (> betel, arecanut)

Sri Lankan English is that which was born from British legacy. It is the language that has grown from centuries of Ceylonese pluralism. It has had no parallel developments for geography does not enable that.

But it has grown with the traders and settlers who sailed and rested upon Lanka's shores. SLE is not just a language that opens a door to the world, it is the language that opens our eyes to ourselves to our ethnic diversities. And above all SLE has no tags of linguistic chauvinism or nationalism attached to it. Sri Lankan English is that which encompasses the Lankan spirit, pluralism.

hooniyam, hooniyama
an evil spell or charm (Sinhala; Tamil sooniyam)

Three things have made this nation unique. The Sinhala language, unique to the island. The Tamil language, distinctly different to that of India; and now, Michael Meyler has given us the Sri Lankan English language. All three languages have developed despite insularity.

Sinhalese and Tamil have taken much from Sanskrit, while Sri Lankan English has taken from everything else under the sun.

miris gala
grinding stone, a flat stone used for grinding chillies, spices, etc. (Sinhala)

This dictionary is valuable not only for its lexicographical benefits but a wonderful representation of the nation's soul. Its cover illustrates a mirisgala, the grinding stone, an essential prerequisite for the creation of the island's diverse cuisine. It is an apt representation of the mingling of diverse cultures that has created Sri Lankan English.

The SLE Dictionary is easy to use. In the generous introduction Michael Meyler has explained the features of SLE and the art of using the dictionary. He has also paid attention to pronunciation, spelling conventions, the generation gap and the class distinctions that affect SLE.

There is a bibliography to the literature used by SLE authors and finally a key to the use of the dictionary. Though meticulously detailed, it is perhaps not necessary. For it has been tastefully and simply conceived and illustrated, so that even without explanation anyone of average intelligence is capable of reaping its benefits.

The Sri Lankan English dictionary is a tremendous piece of work. The author keeps renewing and increasing the words through his website As a SLE speaker and author I commend and recommend Michael Meyler's work - his dedication, his perseverance, and his fondness for this language and its speakers. He has given to us Sri Lankans our third language, Sri Lankan English.

The book is concise, precise and easy to use. A must for teachers and students of English.




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