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A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English - Newspaper articles and reviews

Review for the SLELTA Quarterly by Romola Rassool & Kaushalya Perera, English Language Teaching Unit, University of Kelaniya.

Review by Dylan Perera published in the Sunday Times Plus on 2 March 2008.
Reply by Dilini Algama published on 23 March 2008.

Review by Manuka Wijesinghe published in the Sunday Observer on 21 Feb 2010.

Review of this website by Richard Boyle, published in Serendib magazine in March/April 2009.

Other articles which appeared following publication of the dictionary:

Press release – Daily News and Daily Mirror 27/11/2007

For the first time in Sri Lanka – A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English

The first dictionary of Sri Lankan English will be launched on 27 November at the British Council auditorium. Compiled by Michael Meyler, a British national resident in Sri Lanka, this is the first ever comprehensive dictionary that records the way that English is spoken in the country. It includes over 2,500 words and phrases from day-to-day conversations, Sri Lankan newspapers and creative writing in English.

Dictionaries of varieties of English such as Sri Lankan English, Indian English and Singaporean English record the way people in English speaking countries change and adapt the language to make it reflect their own needs and their culture. The first dictionary of Indian English was published in 1903.

The dictionary, which includes illustrations, is a useful reference for anyone curious about the way we speak English in Sri Lanka, especially to teachers and students of English, visitors to the country, researchers and academics.

The compiler of the dictionary, Michael Meyler, formerly an English teacher, is now teaching a beginners course in Sinhala at the British Council. The dictionary is the culmination of 20 years of work.

It is available at the Sarasavi, Vijitha Yapa, Barefoot and other leading bookshops. More information can be found on

Editorial – Daily News 28/11/2007

Sri Lankan English

English is a living language that evolves with time. The so-called Olde English is now no longer in use. We use a more modern version of the language. Five hundred years hence, it will be another story.

English has the ability to absorb many words from other languages. Over the centuries, English has been enriched by numerous words 'borrowed' from French, Italian, Latin, German and other languages. Some of these words and terms survive in their original form while others have been 'corrupted' over time to become truly English words. The process is still continuing.

The English language was one of the lasting legacies of the British administration in Sri Lanka. It has become one of the official languages, widely used as a 'link' among various communities that call the island their home. Inevitably, English has also become 'Ceylonised' or 'Lankanised' much to the horror of purists.

In other words, there are English words and phrases which are used only by Sri Lankans. A native speaker would be flummoxed by some of these expressions, but for Sri Lankans it is part of their daily lives.

Some of these are straight Sinhala or Tamil words, but many others have a Dutch or Portuguese origin. Many of these words and phrases are so common that editors and journalists of all local English newspapers use them without having second thoughts and without providing any explanation for non-native readers.

If you are among the latter, help is literally at hand: Someone has at last published a 'Sri Lankan English' dictionary to unravel the mysteries of these words which we use every day. That someone is Michael Meyler, who knows all about Sri Lankan English.

The dictionary cover depicts a Miris Gala, a stone used to crush chilies to make pol sambol, in effect conjuring up two words which are not used anywhere else. The book covers a whole gamut of words of Sinhala and Tamil origin, from Achchaaru to Muspenthu to Rasthiyadu with examples of usage and complete sentences.

We take our hats off to Meyler for his effort to bring together these words and phrases and explain them to a wider audience.

The newly-launched dictionary not only shows the ingenuity of Lankans but also reaffirms our faith in the English language as a truly globalised language that can be nurtured by languages and peoples around the world.

Daily Mirror 01/12/2007

What is this whole “Jing Bang” about Sri Lankan English?

by Poornima Weerasekara

After 20 years of tuning his ears to the incongruities of the "English Language" that is spoken in Sri Lanka, Michael Meyler has launched Sri Lanka's first ever "Sri Lankan English Dictionary" which examines the nuisances of a unique language that has evolved over time. That this "someone" is a native speaker of British English is particularly fortuitous for us, because it enables him to observe our use of English objectively, as well as to offer us an informed point of comparison in relation to the language that SLE was originally derived from-that is, British English.

"Michael is able, from his objective stance, to comment that SLE shows a more marked difference between speech and writing than British English does-not an observation that most of us would have been able to make, not having any other variety of English to compare with," Colombo University Department of English Senior Lecturer Dr. Dushyanthi Mendis said. "For example, it was only after talking to Michael that I realized that we have made the noun "horn" into a verb in SLE. We think nothing of saying "Don't horn so loudly" or "Why is he horning so loudly?" in everyday conversation. But in Britain, I have learnt, "horn" is a noun, not a verb. So you would say "toot your horn" or "blow your horn" but you would never drive up to someone's gate and (just) horn," she added.

"This dictionary, with its definitions, descriptions and examples serves two very important functions in my mind. First, I see it as a significant move towards obtaining international recognition for SLE as a distinct South Asian variety. Secondly, and more importantly, I hope that it will contribute towards the process of acceptance-within ourselves - of the existence of SLE. I continue to meet people--even teachers of English-who still insist that the English we speak is British English, and in some alarming cases, even RP or received pronunciation which even in Britain, is becoming increasingly uncommon," she said. The dictionary was launched on Wednesday (November 28). The author invites comments on new words or phrases to be submitted via his website as a language is always evolving and therefore his dictionary is still a "work in progress".

The author's journey

"I first came to Sri Lanka in 1985 as an English Language teacher at CIS (Colombo International School). I soon started learning colloquial Sinhala, and became interested in the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka. I also worked as a Sinhala interpreter with ICRC, and then spent two years in Edinburgh, where I did a Diploma in English Language Teaching, worked as a contributor to the Oxford Wordfinder Dictionary, and also worked on my own dictionary of Sri Lankan English," Michael Meyler says, trying to recall what inspired him to compile the dictionary.

"I returned to Sri Lanka in 1995 and joined the British Council in Colombo as a full-time English teacher. Since 1996 I have been teaching the popular beginners' course in spoken Sinhala at the British Council, as well as private Sinhala conversation classes. For the past two years I have also been teaching beginners' Tamil together with a native speaker of Tamil," he added.

"May be it started off as a way of documenting the queer ways in which people use the language here. The dictionary is not based on any formal academic research. However, later on it grew into an intellectual passion that was driven by a need to understand how language patterns from Singhalese and Tamil influenced English," Mr. Meyler said.

Why is it important to recognise SLE as a unique language?

"It is important because having native speakers is a significant step for a language to gain recognition as a language. Outside Sri Lanka, in countries like Britain, America and Australia, we are all considered to be non-native speakers of English, no matter how fluent we might be in Sri Lankan English. We need to gain recognition for SLE as a language of its own, as a language that allows us to communicate efficiently in all possible spheres and it is important to recognise that the fluent speaker of SLE is able to switch between "Sri Lankan mode" and "international mode" when the context demands it," Dr. Dushyanthi Mendis added.

The Nation 02/12/2007

The ‘other’ English

by Vindya Amaranayake

Michael Meyler, a Britisher resident and teaching English in Sri Lanka for over a decade, has compiled a ‘dictionary’ of ‘Sri Lankan English’ unique to Sri Lanka. Even though Sri Lankans who speak English as a first language, consider its usage as being correct, it is definitely not Standard English.

The existence of a Sri Lankan variety of English is a disputed fact. Although there are a considerable number of Sri Lankans who use English as their first language, the establishment of Sri Lankan English as a separate variety has not been realised so far. On the other hand, even a slight deviation from the Standard norm, is perceived by many as a desecration of the language.

In such a context, the recent launch of A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English compiled by Michael Meyler, catches the interest of many.

“There are many who believe that the Standard English is the only correct usage of English. Any deviation in the form of a variety is considered incorrect. It is the same with the Sri Lankan variety,” Meyler said in a brief interview with The Nation.

This dictionary is a compilation of words and expressions, slight grammar differences and pronunciation that could be termed as salient features of Sri Lankan English.

“I used three main sources to gather data for this compilation: Sri Lankan newspapers, TV and radio commercials and through simply overhearing,” Meyler said.

Although there are many who have been conducting research on this subject, their studies are confined to academic circles, especially, due to their focus on theory, rather than practical application.

Meyler’s attempt is simpler and has a specific target audience: “This work is intended for learners and teachers of English in Sri Lanka. It is also meant for Sri Lankan and foreign linguists interested in the increasingly popular field of international varieties of English.”

English used in different parts of the world, especially, in post colonial times, have evolved into different varieties by absorbing certain elements of the vernaculars. There are Indian, South African and Jamaican varieties, which have been established as being separate from the Standard norm, for quite some time.

“I’m surprised that no one has taken up this task until now. Ideally, it should have done by a Sri Lankan,” Meyler pointed out. He, however, added that being a British it gave him an outsider’s perspective into the differences in the usage.

“Being British, I could pick on certain differences in the pronunciation and use of grammar. These may not be major differences, yet uncommon to the Standard usage,” he explained.

Those who speak English as their first language in Sri Lanka, are quite few. The majority are second language users, and their standards are quite low: “There is a growing divide between these two extremes. Yet, if the majority expect to study and seek employment in Sri Lanka, it is essential that they learn to speak the Sri Lankan variety,” Meyler said.

He added that this work could prove useful to school children, who are in the process of learning the English language, to know the difference between Standard English and Sri Lankan English.

An English language teacher in Sri Lanka for nearly 12 years, his experience with Sri Lankan students and their English usage has given him ample opportunity to gauge the status of English in Sri Lanka.

The dictionary comprises approximately 2,500 examples of words. Supported with illustrations and examples, the presentation of facts is quite simple. The introductory remarks and the brief explanation on the perceivable differences in the Sri Lankan variety, is written clearly and simply.

Some of the most striking examples highlighted in the dictionary are as follows:
‘Ancestral home,’ ‘anicut,’ ‘arecanet,’ ‘bed sheet,’ ‘bed tea,’ ‘bio-data,’ ‘pharmacy,’ ‘plantain,’ ‘playground,’ ‘record bar,’ ‘ribbon cake,’ rice mill,’ ruggerite,’ ‘saffron,’ ‘schooling,’ ‘scrape,’ ‘servant,’ settle down,’ ‘shock.’

Some of these words are entirely new to the Standard English lexicon. A word such as ‘ruggerite’ is specifically Sri Lankan. On the other hand, to use a term such as ‘servant’ would be considered politically incorrect in the Standard form.

In most instances, the words that already exist in Standard English maybe used in different contexts to denote contrasting concepts.

The book comprises many such examples, which justifies the existence of a separate variety of English in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, Meyler says that there are sub varieties within Sri Lankan English, as different vernaculars such as Sinhala, Tamil and Malay have rendered their own flavour to the English language.

A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English is a timely work. According to Meyler, the response so far has been very positive. “I am surprised and very happy for the response I have received so far, from academics and media,” he said.

Sunday Times Plus 16/12/2007

This is the way we speak English no!

by Smriti Daniel

“What’s the difference between samba, sambur, sambhur and sambol? A molgaha and a miris gala? Malu miris and miris malu? A mudalali and a mudaliyar?” I’m only on the jacket blurb of Michael Meyler’s ‘A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English’, and I can already tell that it is going to be the best kind of educational experience. In fact, if I read his dictionary from cover to cover, I should be able to provide satisfactory answers to where you could find a floor patient, a cake structure, and an umbrella couple; I should be able to tell you what a soft corner is, what a dead rope is, and who would be deserving of the title ‘Forward Peter’.

All these handy, heavily localised words and phrases are essential tools for the average Sri Lankan expressing himself or herself in English; so much so that very often you may not even be aware that you’ve adopted them. 22 years of living in this country, has given Michael – a lexicographer and teacher of both English and basic Sinhala – an interesting perspective on the use of English in the island. As an “informed outsider” living among us, Michael has been able to “chart the social and cultural nuances of the words and phrases that we use, nuances that we as Sri Lankans are scarcely aware of,” notes Prof. Rhyana Raheem in her introduction to the book.

Michael himself keeps things simple with his definition of Sri Lankan English (SLE). He says, “Sri Lankan English is the language spoken and understood by those Sri Lankans who speak English as their first language, and/or who are bilingual in English, Sinhala or Tamil.” While Michael himself ruefully admits to obvious inadequacies in his knowledge of Sinhala, his is a practical approach to the language. Street talk, with its blend of languages, colloquialisms, allusions to current events and constant transformations, is his arena, and his offering is a reflection of this.

The dictionary, which is the first of its kind, began in the late 1980’s with few words jotted down on the back of an envelope, the result of his fascination with the way “English is spoken and written here.” When he ran out of space, Michael copied out his collection, and then as it grew, began to type lists of words, he says. Today, this manuscript has swelled to include over 2,500 examples of words and expressions which are characteristic of spoken English in Sri Lanka. Many of these words may be unique to this country - “kendirify” (a word of Sinhala origins, which means to complain or grumble) is an example – while others, like “by-heart,” (as in “we had to by-heart the whole poem”) are commonly used in other countries like neighbouring India.

Many of the words that Michael picked up in the beginning were initially discovered in conversations with his friends. By the time the manuscript had begun to take shape, however, he had begun to cast his net further afield, drawing in data on the use of English in newspapers, magazines, advertisements, radio, conversations and more recently in books. He found that SLE included many non-English words. While a majority of these had their roots in Sinhala, there were many others which could be attributed to Tamil, and a smaller number that were derived from Dutch, Portuguese, Malay, Arabic, and Hindi, among other Indian languages.

The borders that divide languages are incredibly porous, or so it seems. English words like “shape” will cross over with impunity, adopting new identities in Sinhala, only to sneak back across the border, hauling their new meanings with them. In other cases, non-English words are anglicised by the addition of an English ending ( as in ‘rasthiyadufy’), nouns becomes verbs (as in ‘horn’), articles get abandoned by the wayside, sentences bend and twist to accommodate new syntax (“They anyway won’t come”) and non-standard collocations or combinations of words settle in with the grim determination of illegal immigrants.

Speaking with appreciation, Michael points out that in addition to such features, Sri Lankan English often cuts right through the idiosyncrasies of British English for a more streamlined, whittled down form of communication. Case in point: instead of the three words it takes to “toot your horn” or “sound your horn” many locals will simply say “horn”. In addition, when a speaker responds to a question like “can you come to my house afterward?” with a monosyllabic “can” or a double “can, can,” his or her brevity may be the result of the transfer of Sinhala or Tamil grammar or phrasing to spoken English.

While some of these adaptations would be considered incorrect by strict advocates of British English, Prof. Dushyanthi Mendis explains that space must be made for this sub-category of English. “This dictionary, with its definitions, descriptions and examples serves two very important functions in my mind. First, I see it as a significant move towards obtaining international recognition for SLE as a distinct South Asian variety. Secondly, and more importantly, I hope that it will contribute towards the process of acceptance - within ourselves - of the existence of SLE,” she said.

Michael succeeds in adding to this desired credibility when he ropes in quotations from 30 books by authors like Shyam Selvadurai, Karen Roberts, Carl Muller, and Ameena Hussein to illustrate the nitty-gritty of such usage. Under each entry in the dictionary, a reader will also find a pronunciation guide, the derivation of the word, cross references to other entries, as well as notes comparing Sri Lankan and British usage.

So when you consider that even aside from its name, the book gives every appearance of being a dictionary, it seems a little unexpected that Michael himself is not particularly keen on categorising it as precisely that. He emphasises that the dictionary is an attempt to describe the use of English in this country, rather than to prescribe the correct usage, or even to assign static meanings to locally used words and phrases.

Pointing out that the language itself remains fluid and evolving, Michael adds that while the dictionary may make for a good beginning, there are several controversial, complex issues that must also be considered; the dictionary cannot be considered definitive. Sri Lankan English itself is a constantly evolving entity, affected greatly by several factors, including the popular influences, socio-economic backgrounds, schools of religious belief and the racial lineage its speakers claim. In spite of the obvious truth of this, in reading the dictionary, it is impossible not to enjoy and learn from the delightful quirks, and clever adaptations of SLE. As Michael himself notes, they serve to “greatly enrich the language, helping to relieve the drudge of a lexicographer’s toil, and hopefully entertain the curious reader.”

Daily News Artscope 07/05/2008

New Dictionary of Sri Lankan English:
Comparing Sri Lankan Usage with that of the British

by Sachitra Mahendra

He speaks English with a crystal clear accent, typically uncommon for a native speaker. The British-born Michael Meyler has been an English language teacher in Sri Lanka for 23 years; first posted at Colombo International School and then at British Council, Colombo since 1995.

Over the period of 23 years, Michael has not been just another Britisher teaching his native language. Towering over-six-feet Michael worked through the night to see how his native language gets on with that of a land far away from his motherland. The subject kept on exciting him ever since he first set foot here in 1985: Sri Lankan English (SLE).

SLE makes sense if you have read English at a Sri Lankan university; almost every Sri Lankan university offers lectures on SLE for students reading English for their degrees.

What is Sri Lankan English? Meyler explains: "Sri Lankan English is the language spoken and understood by those Sri Lankans who speak English as their first language, and/or who are bilingual in English and Sinhala or Tamil."

Is Sri Lankan English so important? It seems simple. When you share with somebody a story about your cousin sister, not female cousin, attended the funeral house, not the funeral, with Cutex, not nail polish, heavily painted on her fingers, you are in for Sri Lankan English. Cousin sister, funeral house, Cutex, - the list goes on - all these are not used in British Standard English (BSE), but are distinctively featured in SLE.

English - because it is an international language - has a large number of dialects: eight dialects in Asian region and nine dialects in India alone. SLE is one of the Asian dialects of English and obviously it made Michael mad about the subject. He has been eavesdropping on conversations, collecting newspaper cuttings, reading Sri Lankan English authors and jotting down words on the backs of envelopes.

However the task was not that easy. It took him well over 20 years to see his efforts in print form: A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English.

Sri Lankan English however is not only about words. Studying Sri Lankan English means studying its history, both colonial and post-colonial. Prof. Manique Gunasekara in her The Post-Colonial Identity of Sri Lankan English (2004) explores the social and historical roots of Sri Lankan English.

Prof. Gunasekara's book is a rare asset for an SLE student, especially because of its annexed glossary of SLE terms. Meyler's compilation seems the offshoot of Prof. Gunasekara's initiative.

If you take Michael as a language student, he has that knack of picking up languages swiftly. In fact he enjoys studying languages. Not only English, but he can handle languages like French and German as well.

He saw a shortage of books written on Sri Lankan English, and it turned out that Michael should try out on a compilation. If Richard Boyle could make a basic list of Sri Lankan English words as used by Robert Knox (Words by Knox by Richard Boyle; 2004), why not Michael Meyler give it a try?

"My major task was reading Sri Lankan English novels. Sri Lankan authors have varying styles, because they live in varying environments. I have basically divided them into three categories."

The three categories: Sri Lankans born and bred locally, Sri Lankans born but bred abroad, Sri Lankans born and bred both abroad. There are exceptions too like in the case of Ashok Ferrey, who was brought up in many lands, mainly Africa and Britain, apart from Sri Lanka.

The likes of Tissa Abeysekara, Lal Medawattegedara and late Nihal de Silva come under the first category. Romesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai are born, bred for some time in Sri Lanka and took wings in their adult life. Michelle de Kretser and Michael Ondaatje are more likely outsiders.

"Tissa Abeysekara's category loves using Sri Lankan idioms more than other categories. Shyam Selvadurai's sounds more Canadian English, because he spent most of his adult life there. The third category hardly has the touch of common Sri Lankan community."

"Some, probably many, Sri Lankans write complicated long sentences full of hard words. Comparatively speaking, British and Americans write much simpler English. I am talking about the modern language."

However, R L Trask, an American born British Professor of English, in his Mind the Gaffe has listed a number of ambiguities even a native speaker would make, especially in European writing. The ambiguities include long sentences with sloppy words.

"I would not say British and Americans have totally kept away from it, they make ambiguities now and then. But this is largely seen among many Sri Lankan English writing. They construct complicated sentences. Sometimes it must be because they want to display a scholarly look on their writing." Michael says with a grin.

With his British Council teaching experience, Michael says Sri Lankan students have no problem with vocabulary.

"A student comes to a class already equipped with basic vocabulary. Words like car, bus, pantry and fridge are already in day-to-day Sinhala conversation. Their major problems are grammar and speech fluency."

Michael has mentioned a special word of thanks to his assistants - Editors - Vivimarie VanderPoorten and Dinali Fernando. Both, lecturers in English, have played a major role in research on Sri Lankan English, hence they are authorities on the subject.

VanderPoorten was recently awarded with 2007 Gratien prize for her poetry collection nothing prepares you.

Michael's expertise on Sri Lankan English is now becoming history; he has started concentrating on colloquial Sinhalese!

"I am not conversant in Sinhalese. I can read akuru, but hardly gather any meaning. But I think I can get something done in Sri Lanka with my 'colloquial Sinhala'. I have started teaching colloquial Sinhala to foreigners as well." Probably it signals Michael's next job set in motion: A Dictionary of Colloquial Sinhalese!






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