History & Origin of Tamil As Sri Lanka’s Official Language

what language does sri lanka speak
(Last Updated On: )

 Official Langauge in Sri Lanka

There are two official languages in Sri Lanka, and Tamil has the honor of being one of them. However, many people are unaware of the fascinating history that led to its designation as one of Sri Lanka’s official languages.

The history of Tamil in Sri Lanka goes back to over 2,000 years ago, when the language was first brought to the island nation by traders from Southern India in the 20th century.

It gradually became one of the most dominant languages on the island, even though it shared equal status with Sinhala and English over time. Read on to learn more about Tamil, how it evolved with various English loanwords and other foreign languages in Sri Lanka.

An Introduction to the Language

One of the most intriguing languages in the world is Tamil, which is the only survivor of Middle Indo-Aryan languages. This complicated and interesting Middle Indo-Aryan language has not been analyzed enough due to its isolation in India and what seems like complexity to outsiders.

Tamil was first mentioned by Ptolemy as Tarnikai or Tamiin (Tarnika). The identity and location of this place are unknown. Another unknown aspect is when people started speaking Tamil. The earliest surviving fragments date back to around 3rd century BCE. Possible origins for this ancient dialect could have been eastern Africa or even Southeast Asia.

It is believed that after Vedic Sanskrit became too different from Old Tamil, it became the spoken language for trade. Written documents about Tamil were preserved on palm leaves and stone inscriptions called Dravid scripts, giving way to its use as a literary language. Interestingly, Tamil still continues to be a literary language up till today.

sri lanka languages

Discovering Language in Ancient Times

In the 19th century English became the primary link language and most documents were only written in English. However, the distinction between languages grew when Sinhala was made an official language towards the end of the 19th century in 1972 by constitution reform.

The country is bilingual with 25% of the population speaking Tamil at home, primarily in the Northern and Eastern provinces. A 1977 decree mandated that all public officials had to know both Sinhala and English languages and that administrative tasks would be handled using both Sinhala and English.

The 20th century ushered Sinhala as an administrative medium by most public officials but Tamil remained a significant minority tongue. After independence from British rule after the 20th century, linguistic politics was not solved so easily.

For instance, Mahinda Rajapaksa declared Sinhala as the sole national language in order to unify people across ethnicities and religions even after the British rule.

sri lanka language

Records of Early Tamil Poetry

Tamil is a Dravidian language from the Southern part of India and the Northern tip of Sri Lanka as far back as the 5th century. It developed from an ancient form or Prakrit or Sanskrit in the 5th century CE and has many English loanwords.

The earliest written records come from inscriptions dating back to 500 BCE which are not yet completely deciphered. Many poems were composed during this time and they show that a significant number of words were borrowed from other languages like Sinhala and foreign languages such as Persian.

A text called the Tolkappiyam was also created during this time with information on grammar, phonetics, etymology, etc. During medieval times around 11-12 centuries CE vernacular literature started flourishing with major texts like Thirukkural being created by Thiruvalluvar.

Development Under Colonial Rule

For centuries before British colonialism, the Hindu religion dominated and Sinhala language was prevalent.(British Rule) At the time, Tamil was not an official vernacular and it wasn’t spoken by many people in the country until 1950s.

This changed when refugees from Southern India arrived in search of work. With no place to stay and left out in the cold when they were forced to speak only English and Sinhala at their workplaces, they spoke among themselves in what they called ‘their own’ tongue: Creole Language.

Today, the Creole language is now called Ceylon Tamil and is being made into Sri Lanka’s second official language along with Sinhala because it is one of the two most-spoken languages on the island today. The government is considering a third language as well, namely Malayalam.

The process has been slow but steady over the past few decades, and now about 15% of Sri Lankans can speak it fluently. It also has a cultural significance for these people as well as thousands more who have lived in the country for generations, allowing them to continue traditions that might otherwise be lost.

sri lanka official languages
srilankan language

Tamil: An Enduring Identity of the Lankans

Tamil has been used for over 2500 years and holds the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest languages. Originally, there were a total of 20 dialects but only one was chosen as standard and became known as Modern Tamil.

To preserve the other dialects and maintain cultural integrity, there is a system in place to use them on special occasions such as religious ceremonies or in theatre performances. This unique diversity serves to showcase its rich historical tradition which will undoubtedly continue well into the future.

Some Indian scholars think that Brahmi script derived from the Old Tamil Script with ancient Tamils using it to write songs about love, families, gods and goddesses and animals. One legend says that an early inscription on a rock in Madurai reads Two families are engaged in continuous fight since 18 generations (two families have been enemies since 18 generations).

The modern Tamil script was developed by an Irish missionary named Robert Caldwell who came to India in 1816. Tamil people consider their language more refined than Hindi because they speak fast while Hindi speakers talk slowly like children.

They also believe that their word order is different than Hindi speakers when telling stories which makes it easier for listeners to understand what they are saying.

Frequently Asked Questions – Tamil: Sri Lanka’s Official Language

Tamil is one of the most spoken languages in Sri Lanka. According to one estimate, there are as many as 1.5 million people who speak Tamil in Sri Lanka.

Tamil is one of Sri Lankan’s three main languages. English and Sinhala are the other two.

Tamil was designated as the first official language of Sri Lanka in 1956. It is spoken by about 13% of the population, with about 5% reading and writing it fluently.

Tamil has been designated as the national language in Sri Lanka and is compulsory in education and other administrative tasks there.

If we can help you with any questions, please feel free to contact us


Our privacy policy

Keep in touch


Contact Us 24/7

Translation office in Miami
Request quote