The linguistic roots of the Sri Lankan civil war

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In the coverage of the civil war in Sri Lanka, I haven't seen much discussion of its linguistic aspects. In particular, the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 was a key event, whose causes and consequences are worth considering.

According to Michael Edward Brown and Sumit Ganguly, Fighting words: language policy and ethnic relations in Asia, 2003:

The passage of the Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 was a turning point in Sinhalese-Tamil relations. Tamil grievances subsequently grew because, in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, language policies had wide-ranging implications for educational and economic opportunities. By the 1970s many Tamil youth had become both radicalized and militarized. [...]

Both groups, in the main, enjoyed cordial relations for more than 2,000 years. Then, in the 1950s the Sinhalese abandoned the movement to make both Sinhala and Tamil the country's official language and instead instituted Sinhala as its sole official language. The Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 led to ethnic riots in that year and in 1958, marking the beginning of acute Sinahalese-Tamil animosity. The manner in which the Sinhala-Only Act and Sinhalese linguistic nationalism facilitated violent conflict, however, has not been fully appreciated.

The Sri Lanka article in the CIA World Factbook characterizes Sri Lanka's current distribution of languages this way:

Sinhala (official and national language) 74%, Tamil (national language) 18%, other 8% (note: English is commonly used in government and is spoken competently by about 10% of the population).

The Wikipedia article on Sri Lanka says that

Sinhalese and Tamil are the two official languages of Sri Lanka. English is spoken by approximately 10% of the population, and is widely used for education, scientific and commercial purposes. Members of the Burgher community speak variant forms of Portuguese Creole and Dutch with varying proficiency, while members of the Malay community speak a form of creole Malay that is unique to the island.

Ethnologue, using the 1993 census, gives 13.2M speakers of Sinhalese, 3M speakers of Tamil,  74K speakers of English, and 50K speakers of Sri Lankan Creole Malay.

The British East India Company took control of Sri Lanka in 1796; and the island remained a British colony for 150 years, until independence came in 1948. During this time, English was the language of the civil service and the judicial service.

According to Neil DeVotta, Blowback: linguistic nationalism, institutional decay, and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, 2004:

The Sinhala-only language movement ensued when hitherto politically and economically marginalized Sinhalese forces coalesced to demand preferential treatment from the government. [...]

The initial agitation surrounding the language issue was … called the swabasha (self-language) movement.

The swabasha movement included both Sinhalese and Tamils who campaigned for their respective languages to replace English. It must be recognized that the swabasha movement was not designed to revamp the [colonial] governmental structure. On the contrary, it was an attempt by the hitherto marginalized vernacular speakers to change the criteria by which the opportunities for socioecnomic upward mobility via education and  government employment were determined. The proponents of swabasha wanted the rules of the game tweaked so that they too could partake of the spoils. [...]

The excellent English education system instituted by American missionaries in the northern regions had taught many Tamils English. Indeed, by 1930, literacy in English in the Northern Province was second only to Columbo. [...] The paucity of industry and agriculture in the northern regions, the prestige and security stemming from state sector employment, and the opportunity thereby for upward social mobility in the rigidly casteist Tamil society encouraged many northern Tamils to migrate south seeking a university education and governmental careers. Tamils consequently became heavily overrepresented in the elite Ceylon Civil Service, the judicial service, and higher education. Two years prior to independence, for example, Tamils made up 33 percent of the civil service and 40 percent of the judicial service. They also accounted for 31 percent of the students in the university system. In the medical and engineering fields, Tamils numerically equaled the Sinhalese. Such overrrepresentation diminished the appeal of the swabasha movement for upper-class and upper-caste Tamils, and the movement to replace English with the vernacular languages was thus Sinhalese-led. [...]

Sinhalese nationalists, apparently agitated over the Tamils being overrepresented in the coveted civil service, began to adopt a communalist posture and demanded that swabasha mean Sinhala-only. This demand was the first real indication that the informal rules governing Sinhalese-Tamil coexistence could be undermined … What is important to recognize is that the socio-economic structures that encouraged government employment, given the security and prestige such employment afforded during an era of economic scarcity, were a major reason for the call for Sinhala-only. [...]

In resorting to chauvinistic rhetoric, Bandaranaike was well assisted by numerous lay Buddhists and activist Bhikkuhs, who together organized emotive and impressive processions demanding a Sinhala-only policy. Such bhikkus anathematized the Tamils as "parasites," argued that linguistic parity was undemocratic and unjust, since 80 percent of Ceylonese spoke Sinhala, and cliamed that the failure to institute a Sinhala-only policy "would be the death-knell of the Sinhalese". These monks evidenced no desire for compromise and instead suggested that Sri Lanka was for the Sinhalese only. For example, one leading monk thundered: "The Dravidians want parity or Tamilnad. We will give them neither. This country belongs to the Sinhalese. We can't give even an inch it to the Tamils." Other monks claimed that not just Sinhala but Buddhism too would disappear if parity was instituted. [...]

It was obvious that a Sinhala-only policy would have a radical effect on minorities' future employability, especially in the state sector. With the bill's passage, Suntharalingam complained, "the Sinhalese would hold all jobs from top to bottom and the Tamils would hold the scavenging and latrine cooly jobs."

In chapter 4 of the Brown and Ganguly collection cited above, DeVotta wrote that

The Tamil protests that accompanied the passage of the Sinhala-Only Act were unprecedented. When the bill was introduced on June 5, 1956, the Tamil Federal Party organized a satyagraha (peaceful protest) outside the parliament building. The Tamil protest was met by a counterprotest organized by the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna. A mob representing the latter attacked the Tamil protesters and was responsible for unleashing riots that killed nearly 150 Tamils. [...] Tamil leaders characterized the Sinhala-Only Act as a form of "apartheid,"…

On the other side, some Sinhalese felt that linguistic hegemony was essential to their linguistic survival. K.M. De Silva, William Howard Wriggins, J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, 1988, quote Jayewardene:

"The great fear I had was that Sinhalese being a language spoken by only 3,000,000 people in the whole world would suffer or may be entirely lost in time to come if Tamil is also placed on an equal footing with it in this country. The influence of Tamil literature, a literature used in India by over 40,000,000 and the influence of Tamil literature and Tamil culture in the country, I thought, might be deterimental to the future of the Sinhalese language."

Jayewardene played a key role in passing the 1956 Sinhala Only Act. When he came back into power as Prime Minister in 1977, at the same time that the Tamil United Liberation Front won in Tamil-speaking areas on a platform of secession, he orchestrated the passage of a new constitution (in 1978) which created the office of Executive President, with much broader powers. The 1978 constitution also offered a linguistic concession to the Tamils, in the form of Article 19:

18. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.

In the aftermath of the riots of 1977, the government also withdrew the controversial university-entrance policies of 1974. However, this seems to have too little and too late, especially given the uncertain meaning and apparently erratic implementation of articles 18 and 19. So the Thirteenth Amendment, certified 11/14/1987, four years after open civil war broke out in 1983, said that

2. Article 18 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (hereinafter referred to as the "Constitution") is hereby amended as follows:-
(a) by the renumbering of that Article as paragraph (1) of that Article;
(b) by the addition immediately after paragraph (1) of that Article of the following paragraphs:
(2) Tamil shall also be an official language.
(3) English shall be the link language.
(4) Parliament shall by law provide for the implementation of the provisions of this Chapter.

By that time, however, it was far too late to end the civil war by making concessions on linguistic issues.

This is all reminiscent of what happened 2000 kilometers to the north at about the same time, when post-colonial apprehensions about linguistic aspects of cultural capital led to the partition of India and the later division of Pakistan. See "Language in Pakistan", 8/28/2007; "Camp language", 12/31/2007; "Scripts, scriptures and scribes", 1/3/2008.

[My morning's research for this post (thank you, Google books!) introduced me to a term that surprised me, though it shoudn't have: Buddhist fundamentalism. Nothing in this post, however, should be construed as offering support for the LTTE, a brutal and corrupt terrorist organization whose destruction seems to me to have been a necessary condition for progress.]



43 Comments

  1. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    Scary how similar this is to the situation in Canada. Luckily we've been able to avoid warfare, so far.

  2. Tlönista said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    @Mr. Shiny & New: Ha, I was about to say, "French on cereal boxes doesn't sound so trivial now, does it?"

    Thanks for this very thorough post; this is indeed an aspect of the conflict that doesn't get into the papers.

  3. Ole Stig Andersen said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    The blog of the Danish Language Museum (www.sprogmuseet.dk) carried a lengthy article on this subject a couple of weeks ago. It's in Danish but can be read with an automatic translation service, e.g. Google's.

  4. Ole Stig Andersen said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    And the link is

    http://sprogmuseet.dk/sprogpolitik/sinhala-only-%E2%80%93-kampen-om-sri-lankas-sprogpolitik/

  5. cameron said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    In the background here, and alluded to in the quotation from J.R. Jayewardene above, is the inferiority complex many in South Asia have with regard to the languages with the impressive literary traditions. Even native Hindi speakers, I've noticed, seem to hold Tamil and Bengali in a sort of awe, because of their great literary histories. Hindi could claim a sort of literary heritage as well, but that literature was in a highly Persianized form of courtly Urdu, which was probably never anyone's native tongue. The presence of the riches of classical Sanskrit literature is cold comfort to anyone, since it's equally difficult for speakers of the modern South Asian languages to gain access to.

  6. Jonathan Badger said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    "Buddhist fundamentalism" indeed. In the West we too often tend to see Buddhism as a "religion-lite" full of happy thoughts of tolerance. It's worth being reminded that where it has the power, it can just as brutal as any other dogma.

  7. Sili said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    I'm embarassed that I have to come here to learn that there is such a thing as a Danish Language Museum.

  8. jva said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    That gives me a new perspective on the state of Russian in eastern Europe. It used to be the official language in USSR and now is thought of as the language of invaders in former USSR countries and is a source of much discontent.

  9. John Cowan said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    The comment I just posted on Jabal al-Lughat is entirely relevant here.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    A hypothetical parallel to the Sri Lanka situation is this: What if Finland, after liberation from Russian rule (under which the Swedish-speaking minority enjoyed privileges roughly comparable to those of the Tamils in British Ceylon), had adopted a Finnish-only policy?

    That this didn't happen may be due at least in part to the absence of a religious divide like the Hindu-Buddhist split between Tamils and Sinhalese; in Finland practically everybody was Lutheran, a fact that facilitated close social relations, including intermarriage, between ethnic Swedes and Finns, and led the former to a self-identification (except perhaps in the Åland Islands) as Finlanders, including the adoption of Finnish and Karelian folklore as their own (witness Sibelius); the Finnish-language scholar Elias Lönnrot was of mixed ancestry.

    Conversely the ethnic Finns saw no reason to deprive their Swedish-speaking fellow citizens (among whom was Gustaf Mannerheim, the leader of the fight for independence) of their ancestral language, and linguistic peace seems to reign in Finland to this day.

  11. dr pepper said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    I have long thought that it may be time to bring back Greater India. It would probably be prudent to give it an inoffensive name like "The Ferderated States of Southwest Asia" Its constituent members would be all the states that currently make up India, Pakistan, Banglidesh, Sri Lanka, and possibly Nepal. Every citizen would be a minority in some category, which should even out the resentments.

  12. Michael Farris said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    "English is commonly used in government and is spoken competently by about 10% of the population…. English is spoken by approximately 10% of the population, and is widely used for education, scientific and commercial purposes"

    I'm trying to figure out how a language that's spoken "competently" by only 10% of the population can be "widely used for education, scientific and commercial purposes".

    Either the 10 % figure is a very wide underestimate or the educational, scientific and commercial situations in Sri Lanka aren't ….very ….good.

  13. dr pepper said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    Or the stats have been skewed by Arthur C Clarke's presence.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    @Michael Ferris: I've seen estimates as low as 3% for the proportion of India's population that is literate in English. No doubt the true value is higher than this, but 10% is probably the right order of magnitude for India, where English is certainly also important in science, commerce & education.

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Either the 10 % figure is a very wide underestimate or the educational, scientific and commercial situations in Sri Lanka aren't ….very ….good.

    What proportion of the population in the US is involved in scientific research, Higher Education or Import and Export?

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    Oh, and the figure of 10% is correct for Lanka if you have a fairly low idea of competence.

  17. Nigel Greenwood said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    @ Coby Lubliner: Conversely the ethnic Finns saw no reason to deprive their Swedish-speaking fellow citizens … of their ancestral language, and linguistic peace seems to reign in Finland to this day.

    Of course you're right to imply that the Finns aren't at each others' throats. But you tell only half the story when you say that Swedish-speaking Finns are allowed to speak Swedish. Pakkoruotsi, ie compulsory Swedish at school for the 94% whose mother-tongue is Finnish, is pretty widely disliked.

  18. iakon said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    I have wondered for decades how a Buddhist people could wage bloody war. Now I am enlightened. Yet how ironic that Buddhist fundamentalism exists because of British imperial policy, and these Buddhist apply the same policy against the Tamil. And look at the inflamatory illogic of the Bhikkus and Dr da Silva!

    In the early years of this war I thought that a federal solution was the answer, and I have liked the idea of a federated greater India, but just as the former didn't happen, I don't think the latter will either.

    As for French on cereal boxes, Tlonista, why is it English-speaking Canadians think this happened only because French-speakers took over the Federal Government and Civil Service? I remember enjoying trying to figure out French on cereal boxes in the Forties and Fifties. And why, do you think, the French-speakers took over and created the Two Founding Nations policy? Because of asshole English-speakers' imperialism inherited from the British, that's why!

    And why can't you blind people see that we have the strongest federal (meaning strongest federal units, the provinces) country on the planet? Unless the paranoid white-assed English-speaking idiots in power create an Orwellian state of fear with security laws created by Order-in-Council, as the Sinhalese Only Law was created. I bet you didn't notice they ordered our U. N. representative to vote No against the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or embedded in the Budget a clause limiting pay increases for women and denying them the right of appeal to the Ombudsman or Human Rights, did you?

    Who is this guy? I hear you cry. A white, English-speaking Canadian male who respects and loves diversity, surprise! surprise! The only thing I can't tolerate is the intolerance of the ignorant.

  19. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    @iakon: I, for one, never thought that French on cereal boxes was because the French-speakers took over the government or civil service. I was taught that Canada was simply a bilingual country. Granted, I am half-French-Canadian. But it always seemed to make sense to me that since we have French speaking people and English speaking people, we should have a bilingual country. Later on I learned about people who speak other languages…. well, I guess there weren't enough of them around at Confederation :)

    @Nigel Greenwood: Pakkoruotsi sounds a lot like the situation in Ontario, where French is taught as a mandatory subject from about Grade 3 (age 8) to Grade 9 (age 14). Many students hate it, but then many students hate Geography or English or whatever. Ironically the most benefit I got out of French class (given that I can already speak French) was grammar instruction, since we didn't get any of that in English.

  20. joanne salton said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 2:45 am

    I believe the British were mostly partial to the idea of leaving behind a "greater India". It was always a very nice idea, but not an especially practical one.

    Unfortunately, perhaps, linguistics is essentially a rather serious business, rather than a quaint hobby, and language matters are probably a serious component of most ethnic conflicts.

    Therefore imposition of strict language laws advocating a local majority tongue, in partial response to linguistic repression, as in the case of Quebec, is also not a matter to be taken lightly either. Smaller minorities still usually suffer.

  21. michael farris said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 2:58 am

    "What proportion of the population in the US is involved in scientific research, Higher Education or Import and Export?"

    Well by 'involved' I would include anyone who's ever attended an institution of higher learning, so I would assume a lot more than 10 %.
    I also wonder whose interests are served in using a language for those fields that excludes 90% of the population.

  22. Picky said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 4:18 am

    Welsh speakers in Wales suffered English imperialism; Irish speakers in Ireland suffered British imperialism; but to describe French Canadians as victims of imperialism requires some sort of redefinition of terms, I'd have thought.

  23. Terry Collmann said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    The situation with teaching French to reluctant students in Ontario and Swedish to reluctant students in Finland is pretty much paralleled, I understand by the teaching of Irish to reluctant students in Ireland: little benefit is seen by school pupils in learning a language few around them speak. And that's despite the Irish government trying to make it advantageous to speak Irish: you can't get a job in the civil service, or as a teacher, without a degree of fluency in Irish. My wife, for example, is a qualified teacher in the UK, but despite being Irish, couldn't get a job in Ireland because she didn't get a high enough grade in her Irish exams 30 years ago.

  24. [links] Link salad hangs out in Dover | jlake.com said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 6:35 am

    [...] The linguistic roots of the Sri Lankan civil war — Kind of makes you think about those "English only" idiots. [...]

  25. russ said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 7:32 am

    The majority of people in a poor developing country like India have not attended institutes of higher education, and don't speak English at any significant level of competency. (And having attended an institute of higher learning certainly doesn't guarantee fluency in a language, in any case.)

    During 5 weeks in various parts of India, we met fewer than a dozen people with whom we could seriously fluently converse in English about culture, history, philosophy, religion, politics, science, whatever. More usually, simple conversations about "when does the bus come?" were often challenging. Most people knew some small amount of English ("Hello! What is your country?"), but that usually did not extend to general competency in the language.

    Yet English is obviously important for science, education, business, and government in India. It seems plausible that the situation is similar in Sri Lanka.

    I have noticed that many westerners (unconsciously) assume that most Indians speak English. (People sometimes say "half" or "most" or "90%" etc.) There's an unspoken classist assumption, I think: the reality seems to be most Indians that you're likely to meet in the west speak English: but they are relatively rich and educated people, compared to the vast majority of Indians.

  26. Trimegistus said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    So the guys who got treated like n*****s under colonial rule got in power after independence and started treating the ones who'd had the power like n*****s, which prompted a bloody reaction. Isn't a society based on group grievances wonderful? Coming soon to the USA!

  27. Tlönista said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    @iakon: not quite sure what you're getting at. I was born well after the OLA, was just a kid at the time of the referendum, and grew up with official bilingualism as an unremarkable feature of daily life. Younger anglophones like me don't have much firsthand experience of the very real tensions and conflicts that necessitated it. One takes it for granted.

  28. Nigel Greenwood said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    @ Terry Collmann: paralleled, I understand by the teaching of Irish to reluctant students in Ireland: little benefit is seen by school pupils in learning a language few around them speak. And that's despite the Irish government trying to make it advantageous to speak Irish: you can't get a job in the civil service, or as a teacher, without a degree of fluency in Irish.

    It seems that you still get a bonus of about 10% if you take your school exams in, or as they say in Ireland, "through" Irish. I don't know what happens if you would otherwise have scored 97%. A friend of mine tells me that many years ago he took his maths exam through Irish specifically to clock up those extra marks. As a result, to this day he can recite Pythagoras' Theorem in Irish — & still doesn't know how it goes in English.

  29. Jim said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    "I have wondered for decades how a Buddhist people could wage bloody war. Now I am enlightened. "

    You must have been off-planet during the Pol Pot era. Actually not a bad idea. For that matter Thailand has generally made a practice of winning its wars.

    "I bet you didn't notice they ordered our U. N. representative to vote No against the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, "

    It was the Anglophones who did that? The last I heard, and I don't pay close attention, so…. was that it was minority speakers in Quebec who protested having to learn French instead of a English which is actually of some use in the world, in case you have to talk to some Chinese of Koreans or Indians – half the population of the world. They saw no purpose in spending school time on learning someone else's quaint ethnic idiom.

    "I understand by the teaching of Irish to reluctant students in Ireland: little benefit is seen by school pupils in learning a language few around them speak. "

    The benefits become obvious if you are in Britain or Germany or anywhere else where a secret language is useful, but of course for teenagers the future is unreal.

  30. john riemann soong said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    *sigh* British colonialism. sometimes you wonder what those bastards were responsible for.

    Take Singapore, former British colony. English as one of the four official languages (uniting "neutral" language as proclaimed by Lee Kuan Yew), Mandarin, Malay, Tamil being the others. The image the government promotes is happy racial harmony.

    Behind the scenes: brutal generations of linguistic genocide and trying to paint a negative image of the minority languages, dialects and creoles in the eyes of children.

  31. michael farris said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    "My wife, for example, is a qualified teacher in the UK, but despite being Irish, couldn't get a job in Ireland because she didn't get a high enough grade in her Irish exams 30 years ago"

    Was there no way of brushing up and improving her Irish so that she could be hired or did she value not learning and/or speaking Irish more than getting a job?

  32. mollymooly said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    "My wife, for example, is a qualified teacher in the UK, but despite being Irish, couldn't get a job in Ireland because she didn't get a high enough grade in her Irish exams 30 years ago"

    I presume this was as a primary school teacher. Given that primary school teachers must teach their class Irish (along with all other subjects) this is a reasonable requirement. Of course it would be better to have specialists teaching Irish, but that's a different question.

    It seems that you still get a bonus of about 10% if you take your school exams in, or as they say in Ireland, "through" Irish. I don't know what happens if you would otherwise have scored 97%. A friend of mine tells me that many years ago he took his maths exam through Irish specifically to clock up those extra marks. As a result, to this day he can recite Pythagoras' Theorem in Irish — & still doesn't know how it goes in English.

    The bonus is 10% at marks up to 70%, scaled back to 0% above 85%.
    You must take a minimum number of exams through Irish to qualify; this prevents people cherry-picking subjects like Maths where the amount of language on an answer paper is minimal.

    [I'm not endorsing the system, but it's somewhat less preposterous than might at first appear.]

  33. Michael Tinkler said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    I'm sorry. I'm an historian, not a linguist. I find this the sentence most difficult to believe wholeheartedly:

    Both groups, in the main, enjoyed cordial relations for more than 2,000 years.

  34. iakon said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    Sorry, Tlonista and all: The remark about French on cereal boxes triggered a memory from many years ago, about someone complaining about same in a political context in a letter to the editor, and my blood boiled and my heart pounded again, and I frothed. Otherwise I've had a really good day and I hope you have too. Peace.

  35. iakon said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 7:47 am

    You're right, Jim, I was off-planet during the Pol Pot era (error). I was disgusted at the world and ignoring newspapers.

    But your phrase 'quaint ethnic idiom' betrays someone's narrow mind. If you meant that English-speaking Quebeckers (pardon the redundancy) have that attitude, you should have put that phrase in quotes. It's something a monolingual would say.

  36. Picky said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    @Michael Tinkler: your scepticism is fully justified, of course. Sri Lanka, like most of the rest of the world, has had the past 2000 years punctuated by periods of war, rebellion, upheaval, tyranny, terror and invasion – and (as it would be naive not to expect) the ethnic divide has been a factor in all this.

  37. Trying to teach English in France, Sri Lanka’s language gap and potato-ness « the world in words said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    [...] be an advantage. The book she wrote about her experience caused a sensation in France. Also, the linguistic underpinnings of Sri Lanka's just-concluded civil war. Plus, a Sinhala word that succinctly describes how [...]

  38. Stephen Jones said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    and (as it would be naive not to expect) the ethnic divide has been a factor in all this.

    Presumably you're referring to the ethnic divide between Europeans and Sri Lankans :)

    It was actually quite common to have South Indians fighting on both sides in pre-1505 disputes.

  39. Picky said,

    May 23, 2009 @ 5:03 am

    Or the ethnic divide between the Portuguese, Dutch and British, perhaps …

    The truth is a commonplace: the smallest of distinctions may be excuse/trigger for the nastiest of bloodlettings. We all know that, but still we try to convince ourselves that there is some real big villain – preferably (in the self-flagellating 21st century) ourselves.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    @Picky: Welsh speakers in Wales suffered English imperialism; Irish speakers in Ireland suffered British imperialism; but to describe French Canadians as victims of imperialism requires some sort of redefinition of terms, I'd have thought.

    If you mean present-day Quebeckers who grew up in the sixties or later, you can be excused for your opinion, but there are other places in Canada where there is still strong social prejudice against the French language and its speakers. You should speak to older French speakers for whom there were no French language schools when they were children, or to the many anglophones with French names whose parents chose not to pass on their language because of this prejudice, and who are now bitter at not knowing the language.

  41. Picky said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 3:35 am

    Oh, I believe you, marie-lucie. I find in GB there's a strong social prejudice against my cockney accent, too. But I don't think that makes me a victim of imperialism.

  42. The Sinhalese-Only Language Policy: Linguistic Root of the Conflict « The Documentary on Sri Lanka said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

    [...] Source: Language Log [...]

  43. Analysis: Bridging the language divide in Sri Lanka | News said,

    July 23, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    [...] is often difficult as many ordinary Sri Lankans outside of government cannot speak English. Some reports suggest that just 10 percent of the population can speak English [...]

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