Sinhala alphabet

Sinhala alphabet

Infobox Writing system
time=c. 700–present
languages=Sinhala , Tamil (occasionaly)
fam1=Proto-Canaanite alphabet
fam2=Phoenician alphabet
fam3=Aramaic alphabet
children=Dhives Akuru
unicode= [ U+0D80–U+0DFF]

The Sinhala script is an abugida script used in Sri Lanka to write the official language Sinhala and also sometimes the liturgical languages Pali and Sanskrit.Daniels (1996), p. 408.] Being a member of the Brahmic family of scripts, the Sinhala script can trace its ancestry back more than 2000 years.

Sinhala is often considered two alphabets, or an alphabet with another alphabet, due to the presence of two different sets of letters. The core set, known as the "IAST|śuddha siṃhala" (Pure Sinhala, ශුද්ධ සිංහල) or "IAST|eḷu hōḍiya" (IAST|Eḷu alphabet එළු හෝඩිය), can represent all native phonemes. In order to render Sanskrit and Pali words, an extended set, the "IAST|miśra siṃhala" (Mixed Sinhala, මිශ්‍ර සිංහල), is available.Gair and Paolillo 1997:15f.]


The alphabet is written from left to right. The Sinhala writing system can be called an abugida, as each consonant has an inherent vowel (IPA|/a/), which can be changed with the different vowel signs. Thus, for example, the basic form of the letter k is ක "ka". For "ki", a small arch is placed over the ක: කි. This replaces the inherent IPA|/a/ by IPA|/i/. It is also possible to have no vowel following a consonant. In order to produce such a pure consonant, a special marker, the "hal kirīma" has to be added: ක්. This marker suppresses the inherent vowel.

Most of the Sinhala letters are curlicues; straight lines are almost completely absent from the alphabet. This is because Sinhala used to be written on dried palm leaves, which would split along the veins on writing straight lines. This was undesirable, and therefore, the round shapes were preferred.

The core set of letters forms the "IAST|śuddha siṃhala" alphabet (Pure Sinhala, ශුද්ධ සිංහල), which is a subset of the "IAST|miśra siṃhala" alphabet (Mixed Sinhala, මිශ්‍ර සිංහල). This 'pure' alphabet contains all the graphemes necessary to write unicode|Eḷu (classical Sinhala) as described in the classical grammar SidatsanUnicode|̆garā (1300 AD).Gair and Paolillo 1997.] This is the reason why this set is also called "unicode|Eḷu hōdiya" ('unicode|Eḷu alphabet' එළු හෝඩිය).

The definition of the two sets is thus a historic one. Out of pure coincidence, the phoneme inventory of present day colloquial Sinhala is such that yet again the "śuddha" alphabet suffices as a good representation of the sounds.

All native phonemes of the Sinhala spoken today can be represented in "IAST|śuddha", while in order to render special Sanskrit and Pali sounds, one can fall back on "IAST|miśra siṃhala". This is most notably necessary for the graphemes for the Middle Indic phonemes that the Sinhalese language lost during its history, such as aspirates.

Sinhalese had special symbols to represent numerals,which were in use until the beginning of the [19th] century.This system is now superseded by Arabic numerals. [cite web|url= |title=Online edition of Sunday Observer - Business | |date= |accessdate=2008-09-21] [cite web|url= |title=Unicode Mail List Archive: Re: Sinhala numerals | |date= |accessdate=2008-09-21]

Neither the Sinhala numerals nor U+0DF4 ෴ Sinhala punctuation kunddaliya is in general use today. The kunddaliya was formerly used as a full stop; it is included for scholarly use. The Sinhala numerals are not presently encoded. [cite web|url= |title=Old Sinhala Numbers and Digits |publisher=Sinhala Online |author=Roland Russwurm |accessdate=2008-09-23]

History and usage

The Sinhala script originated as an offshoot from Brahmi. and is found in the southern branch of this family, sharing a lineage with scripts such as Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil. [Daniels (1996), p. 380.] The writing system was originally used in inscriptions, the oldest ones dating from the second century B.C.Geiger (1995) p.2] By the ninth century A.D., literature written in Sinhala script had emerged and the script began to be used in other contexts. For instance, the Buddhist literature of the Theravada-Buddhists of Sri Lanka, written in Pali, used the Sinhala alphabet.

Today, the alphabet is used by approx. 16,000,000 people to write the Sinhalese language in very diverse contexts, such as newspapers, TV commercials, government announcements, graffiti, and schoolbooks.

Sinhala is the main language written in this alphabet, but rare instances of Sri Lanka Malay written in this script are recorded.

Relations between orthography and phonology

Most phonemes of the Sinhalese language can be represented by a "śuddha" letter or by a "miśra" letter, but normally only one of them is considered correct. This one-to-many mapping of phonemes onto graphemes is a frequent source of misspellings.Matzel (1983) p.15,17,18]

While a phoneme can be represented by more than one grapheme, each grapheme can be pronounced in only one way. This means that the actual pronunciation of a word is always clear from its orthographic form.

Śuddha graphemes

The "śuddha" graphemes are the mainstay of the Sinhala alphabet and are used on an everyday-basis. Every sequence of sounds of the Sinhalese language of today can be represented by these graphemes. Additionally, the "śuddha" set comprises graphemes for retroflex IPA|<ḷ> and IPA|<ṇ>, which are no longer phonemic in modern Sinhala. These two letters were needed for the representation of EUnicode|ḷu, but are now obsolete from a purely phonemic view. However, words which historically contain these two phonemes are still often written with the graphemes representing the retroflex sounds.


The "śuddha" alphabet comprises 8 stops, 2 fricatives, 2 affricates, 2 nasals, 2 liquids and 2 glides. Additionally, there are the two graphemes for the retroflex sounds IPA|/ɭ/ and IPA|/ɳ/, which are not phonemic in modern Sinhala, but which still form part of the set. These are shaded in the table.

The voiceless affricate (ච IPA| [t͡ʃa] ) is not included in the "śuddha" set by purists since it does not occur in the main text of the SidatsanUnicode|̆garā. The SidatsanUnicode|̆garā does use it in examples though, so this sound did exist in EUnicode|ḷu. In any case, it is needed for the representation of modern Sinhala.

The basic shapes of these consonants carry an inherent /a/ unless this is replaced by another vowel or removed by the "hal kirīma".

Non-vocalic diacritics

The Anusvara (often called "binduva" 'zero' ) is represented by one small circle ං (unicode 0D82),Karunatillake (2004), p. xxxii ] and the Visarga (technically part of the "miśra" alphabet) by two ඃ (unicode 0D83). The inherent vowel can be removed by a special diacritic, the "hal kirīma", which varies in shape according to the consonant it attaches to. Both are represented in the image on the right side. The first one is the most common one, while the second one is used for letters ending at the top left corner.

"Miśra" set

The "miśra" alphabet is a superset of "śuddha". It adds letters for aspirates, retroflexes and sibilants, which are not phonemic in today's Sinhala, but which are necessary to represent non-native words, like loanwords from Sanskrit, Pali or English. The use of the extra letters is mainly a question of prestige. From a purely phonemic point of view, there is no benefit in using them, and they can be replaced by a (sequence of) "śuddha" letters as follows: For the "miśra" aspirates, the replacement is the plain "śuddha" counterpart, for the "miśra" retroflex liquids the corresponding "śuddha" coronal liquid,Karunatillake (2004), p. xxxi ] for the sibilants, . [Daniels (1996), p. 410.] ඤ (ñ) and ඥ (gn) cannot be represented by "śuddha" graphemes, but are only found in less than 10 words each. ෆ fa can be represented by ප pa with a Latin inscribed in the cup.

There are six additional vocalic diacritics in the "miśra" alphabet. The two diphthongs are quite common, while the syllabic IPA|ṛ is much rarer, and the syllabic IPA|ḷ is all but obsolete. They are almost exclusively found in loanwords from Sanskrit.Matzel (1983), p.8]

The "miśra" <IPA|ṛ> can be also be written with "śuddha" + or +, which corresponds to the actual pronunciation. The "miśra" syllabic <IPA|ḷ> is obsolete, but can be rendered by "śuddha" +.Matzel (1983), p.14] Miśra is rendered as "śuddha" , "miśra" as "śuddha" .

Note that the transliteration of both ළ ්and Unicode|ෟ is <IPA|ḷ>. This is not very problematic since the second one is extremely scarce.

Names of the graphemes

The letters of the English alphabet have more or less arbitrary names, e.g. "em" for the letter or "bee" for the letter . The Sinhala "śuddha" graphemes are named in a uniform way adding "-yanna" to the sound produced by the letter, including vocalic diacritics. Fairbanks et al. (1968), p. 366 ] The name for the letter අ is thus "ayanna", for the letter ආ "āyanna", for the letter ක "kayanna", for the letter කා "kāyanna", for the letter කෙ "keyanna" and so forth. For letters with "hal kirīma", an epenthetic "a" is added for easier pronunciation: the name for the letter ක් is "akyanna". Another naming convention is to use "al-" before a letter with suppressed vowel, thus "alkayanna".

Since the extra "miśra" letters are phonetically not distinguishable from the "śuddha" letters, proceeding in the same way would lead to confusion. Names of "miśra" letters are normally made up of the names of two "śuddha" letters pronounced as one word. The first one indicates the sound, the second one the shape. For example, the aspirated ඛ (kh) is called "kayanna bayanna". "kayanna" indicates the sound, while "bayanna" indicates the shape: ඛ (kh) is similar in shape to බ (b).

Another method is to qualify the "miśra" aspirates by "mahāprāna" (ඛ: "mahāprāna kayanna") and the "miśra" retroflexes by "mūrdhaja" (ළ: "mūrdhaja layanna").


Certain combinations of graphemes trigger special ligatures. Special signs exist for an ර (r) following a consonant (inverted arch underneath), a ර (r) preceding a consonant (loop above) and a ය (y) following a consonant (half a ය on the right).Fairbanks et al. (1968), p.109] Jayawardena-Moser (2004), p. 12] Furthermore, very frequent combinations are often written in one stroke, like "ddh", "kv" or "kś". If this is the case, the first consonant is not marked with a "hal kirīma".The image on the left shows she glyph for "śrī", which is composed of the letter "ś" with the vowel "ī" marked above and a ligature indicating the "r" below. The image on the right shows ligatures of ද(d)+ය(y) and ක(k)+ෂි (ṣi) on the Political science course advertisement.

Similarities to other scripts

Sinhala is one of the Brahmic scripts, and thus shares many similarites with other members of the family, such as the Tamil script and Devanāgarī. As a general example, /a/ is the inherent vowel in all three scripts. Other similarities include the diacritic for , which resembles a doubled in all three scripts (Sinhala e:ෙ, ai:ෛ; Tamil e:ெ, ai:ை, Devanāgarī pe:पे, pai:पै). The combination of the diacritics for and <ā> yields in all three scripts:
*Sinhala e: ෙ, Sinhala ā: ා, Sinhala o: ො
*Tamil e:ெ, Tamil ā: ா, Tamil o: ொ
*Devanāgarī e: ` ,Devanāgarī ā: ा, Devanāgarī o: ोThe diacritic for is composed of preceding and following <ḷ> in Sinhala (ෞ) and Tamil (ௌ).

Sinhala transliteration

Sinhala transliteration can be done in analogy to Devanāgarī transliteration.A problem is the transliteration of /අැ/, not found in Devanāgarī. This is <ä> in the German tradition of Wilhelm Geiger, and <æ> in the Anglophone tradition (e.g. James Gair).

Layman's transliterations in Sri Lanka normally follow neither of these. Vowels are transliterated according to English spelling equivalences, which can yield a variety of spellings for a number of phonemes. /ī/ for instance can be , , , , etc.

A transliteration pattern peculiar to Sinhala (and Tamil), and facilitated by the absence of phonemic aspirates, is the use of for the voiceless dental stop, and the use of for the voiceless retroflex stop.This is presumably because the retroflex stop /ʈ/ is perceived the same as the English alveolar stop /t/, and the Sinhala dental stop /t̪/ is equated with the English voiceless dental fricative /θ/.Matzel(1983), p.16] Dental and retroflex voiced stops are alway rendered as , though, presumably because is not found as a representation of /ð/ in English orthography.

Sinhala in Unicode

The Unicode range for Sinhala is U+0D80&ndash;U+0DFF. Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points.

This character allocation has been adopted in Sri Lanka as the Standard SLS1134.

Computer support

Generally speaking, Sinhala support is less developed than support for Devanāgarī for instance. A recurring problem is the rendering of diacritics which precede the consonant and diacritic signs which come in different shapes, like the one for for example.

Sinhala does not come built in with Windows XP, unlike Tamil and Hindi. However, all versions of Windows Vista come with Sinhala support by default, and do not require external fonts to be installed to read Sinhalese script.

For Linux, the scim input method selector allows to use Sinhala script in applications like terminals or web browsers.

* History of Sinhala Software

Online resources

* [ Online Sinhala Unicode Writer]
* [ Sinhala Unicode Support Group]
* [ Online Unicode Converter]



*cite book
first=Peter T.
authorlink=Peter T. Daniels
title=The World's Writing Systems
publisher=Oxford University Press
location=Oxford, UK
chapter= Sinhala alphabet

*cite book
coauthors= J.W. Gair, MWSD Silva
title=Colloquial Sinhalese (Sinhala)
publisher=South Asia Programm, Cornell University
location=Ithaca, NY

*cite book
coauthors= John C. Paolillo
publisher=South Asia Programm, Cornell University
location=München, Newcastle

*cite book
title=A Grammar of the Sinhalese Language
publisher=AES Reprint
location=New Delhi

*cite book
title=Grundwortschatz Singhalesisch - Deutsch
edition = 3

*cite book
title=An Introduction to Spoken Sinhala
edition = [several new editions]

*cite book
title=Einführung in die singhalesische Sprache

External links

* [ Sinhala Unicode Character Code Chart]
* [ Complete table of consonant-diacritic-combinations]
* [ Sinhala page at Omniglot]
* [ List of free fonts for the Sinhala script]

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