Sinhala

Sinhala. By Dileep Chandralal. (London Oriental and African language library 15.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Pp. xv, 296. ISBN 9789027238153. $165 (Hb).

Reviewed by Michael W. Morgan, Indira Gandhi National Open University

Sinhala (also known as Sin(g)halese) is the co-official language of Sri Lanka and first language of the majority of the island. Separated from the other Indo-Aryan sister languages by thousands of years and all of Dravidian South India, Sinhala has developed a number of features setting it apart from other Indo-Aryan languages.

The present volume describes Colloquial Sinhala. The introductory chapter gives background information on the language and its speakers (1–6), followed by a typological summary of Sinhala (7–20), highlighting its head-final, OV nature, as well as areas where it deviates from genealogical and typological expectations.

A brief introduction to the writing system (21–27) follows, though throughout the rest of the book examples are given in Roman transcription only. Compared with most modern Indo-Aryan languages, the phonology (28–39) of Sinhala is rather simple, with only retroflex stops and rhyming expressions giving clues to its roots.

The lexicon is discussed next (40–65), both vocabulary strata and word classes, as well as a short discussion of kinship terms. Sinhala nouns mark the indefinite rather than the definite; the form of the indefinite depends on the animacy of the noun. Verbs divide strictly into active, passive, and causative types.

Sinhala morphology is presented next (66–94). Noun morphology shows two features unusual in an Indo-Aryan language: Besides the indefinite markers mentioned above, the instrumental/ablative and genitive/locative cases are in complementary distribution according to animacy. Verb inflectional morphology is fairly simple, with voice (active, passive, causative, and causative-passive) and its intersection with transitivity being more important (and complicated) than tense (past and non-past). Also, Sinhala finite forms lack person, number, and gender distinctions. Passive and causative-passive forms in particular interact with the syntax in a number of unpredictable ways (95–99).

Next, argument structure types, classified as inactive or active, are treated in detail (100–28) under a total of twenty-two patterns. Dative- and agentive-marked subjects indicate unintentional, involuntary, or potential action, as well as inalienable possession; South Asian languages are famous for ‘quirky’ subjects, and the notion of subject in Sinhala is likewise controversial. Noun and verb phrase constructions are then discussed (129–51), followed by a chapter on grammatical relations (152–80) that discusses passives and causatives further. Passives in the strict sense are absent, and the passive form has a number of other uses (especially inactive, malefactive, and involuntary action). Causative constructions are well developed, with three basic types. Finally, various types of expanded sentences are discussed (181–206).

Very welcome are discussions of the intersections of grammar with information structure (207–26), discourse (227–53), and pragmatics (254–71). Two texts (272–92) are followed by appendices on numbers, interrogative words, and verb paradigms (283–85).

This book, in addition to being an excellent reference grammar, discusses a number of important theoretical issues and is a welcome addition to the library of any linguist interested in Sinhala.