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Sri Lankan English (SLE) is the English language as spoken in Sri Lanka.

The earliest English speakers in present-day Sri Lanka date back to the days of the British Empire, the era of Royal Navy dominance, and the British colonial presence in South Asia.

An SLE consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary and author of the book Knox's Words[1][2] notes that British readers first encountered loan words from Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in a book published in 1681 entitled An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies. Words from that book became used internationally: the best known is Buddha but others include Anaconda[3], betel leaf, bo tree, puja, rattan, rillow, Vedda, and wanderoo.

SLE became more indigenous in the mid-19th century. In addition to the usual terms for flora and fauna, new idioms, referred to as Ceylonisms, emerged.

Some years after independence in 1948, English ceased being the only official language of Sri Lanka, but it remained in use across the island's ethnic groups. It evolved to incorporate more Sinhalese vocabulary and grammatical conventions such as the use of "no?" as a tag question at the end of a sentence.

In spite of English's long history in Sri Lanka, 21st century Sri Lankans academicians debate about the legitimacy of SLE as a separate dialect.

A significant difference between British English and Sri Lankan English usage is its use of particular tenses. Many educated Sri Lankans would use past perfect tense to talk about things that happened at a fixed time in the recent past instead of past simple. Many Sri Lankans still use words such as frock (to scold) and the question form 'to whom' which are not familiar to modern British English speakers. Another example of typical Sri Lankan English is posing questions by changing the intonation, e.g. "you are hungry?"

There are certain nouns added to English by Sri Lankans and therefore a native English speaker coming to Sri Lanka for the first time would not know what Shorteats (snacks) and string hoppers (a typical Sri Lankan food) mean. If you read a daily newspaper, you may find a number of typical Sri Lankan usages, which may not be accepted in standard British English: such as 'lots of equipments', 'information system', 'education minister'


Grammar, idioms and usage in Sri Lankan English

Some of the usages mentioned are common in Indian English as well

Grammar tweaks

  • Tag questions: The use of "isn't it?" and "no?" as general question tags, as in You're going, isn't it? instead of You're going, aren't you?, and He's here, no? (In spoken Sinhala 'ne?' (meaning isn't it?), is used in a similar way)
  • Overuse of the words 'Generally', 'Actually', 'Obviously', 'Basically' in the beginning of a sentence. e.g. "Actually I am not feeling well." (used mostly by Urbanites and Yuppies). This trend is common with Indian English as well.
  • Use of "Can you drop me?" and "We will drop her first" instead of "Can you drop me off?" and "We will drop her off first". (used mostly by Urbanites and Yuppies)
  • Omission of the definite article: e.g. "Let's go to city" instead of "Let's go to the city", also "in hospital" (in the hospital), "to hospital" (to the hospital).
  • Usage of 'Parallelly' as opposed to 'In Parallel'.
  • "How are you keeping?" instead of "How are you doing?" or "How are you?".
  • Overuse of 'also' in places where a general English speaker would not insert an 'also'. e.g. "The driver is new. He is driving fast also". Note that this is somewhat analogous to the overuse/misuse of 'only' in Indian English. An Indian speaker would say "The driver is new. He is driving fast only". This is due to the fact that their native languages has similar idiomatic usage of the general meaning of 'also' and 'only'.

Idioms and popular phrases

  • Where do you stay? is the same as 'Where do you live?' or 'Where's your house?
  • "send it across" instead of "send it over", as in "send the bill across to me" instead of "send the bill over to me". (used mostly by Urbanites and Yuppies)
  • "back" replacing "ago" when talking about elapsed time, as in "I met him five years back" rather than "I met him five years ago." (Though this too is not uncommon in British English
  • "pass out" is meant to graduate, as in "I passed out of the university in 1995."
  • "confinement" means "pregnancy". (mostly found in formal official use, and it is not that common as of recently)
  • Use of "current went" and "current came" for "The power went out" and "The power came back"

Titles (of respect; and informal)

  • Use of the English words 'uncle' and 'aunty' as suffixes when addressing people such as distant relatives, neighbours, acquaintances, even total strangers
  • Use of 'Machan' when speaking between fellow Sri Lankans (mostly among men), equivalent to mate.

Interjections and casual references

  • "Lady's Fingers" means Okra (USA). "Brinjal" means Eggplant or Aubergine.
  • "Hotel" could mean Restaurant As in "I ate in a roadside hotel".
  • "Lodge" refers to a place where you stay in temporary basis (in rooms).
  • "Specs" means spectacles (as in colloquial UK English).

Pronunciation tweaks

Speakers of Sri Lankan English are often incapable of producing certain sounds such as /ou/, /ei/ and use the same sound for both /v/ and /w/ as they do not bite their lower lip for /v/ or round their lips for /w/.

  • Pronouncing 'Exercise' as 'Excise'
  • Pronouncing 'Inventory' as 'Inventri' or 'Inventry' by dropping the 'o'. (Also common in British English)
  • Dropping the 'r' sound and pronounce 'Carpet' as 'Capat' and 'Market' as 'Makat'
  • No difference between 'raw' and 'row' (Similarly, no difference between 'saw' and 'sow' and 'so')
  • Inability to pronounce hard "v" . e.g. "WOID" for "void", "WOMIT" for "vomit"
  • Pronouncing 'Ya' instead of 'Air' such as in 'Airport', thus it becomes 'Yapot' (they don't pronounce the 'r' either)


  • Inversion of 'il' to sound out 'li' or adding an extra 'i' sound - example: 'flim' or 'filim' instead of 'film' (this is relatively rare, nowadays)
  • Pronouncing '' as 'psy.chac.tric' or inability to properly pronounce it at all.
  • Pronouncing 'Secretary' as 'Secetry' (se-ket-ri) and 'Secondary' as 'Secondry' (second-ri). (This pronunciation of 'Secondary' is also common in British English)

Anomalous usage

  • 'Cover' to mean any envelope or a bag. For example, "Put the documents in a cover and post it", and "Put the gift in a cover".
  • 'Today morning' (afternoon, evening, etc.) instead of 'this morning.' ("I met with him today morning."). Similarly, 'yesterday night' instead of 'last night'.
  • 'Pattice' is used for a singular vegetable /Corn patty or plural Corn patties.(even among educated classes)
  • The word "stay" used for "live" or reside at": "Where do you stay?" meaning not "Where are you temporarily lodging" but "Where is your residence?" (though this is normal in Standard Scottish English)
  • 'Saloon' instead of Salon, as in "I will visit the hair saloon."
  • 'Crail' instead of 'Curl' (This term is being dropped from use. A fluent SLE speaker would treat 'Crail' as a wrong term, rather than SLE word.)
  • Intensifying adjectives by doubling them. This is a common feature of most Indian languages. For example: "We went to different-different places in the city in search of a good hotel", "Don't worry about small-small things" to mean very insignificant issues. This usage is common in Indian English as well.
  • Word order following who, what, where, when, why, or how. In standard American and British English, the following are correct

"Where are you going?" "Tell me where you are going" In Indian/Sri Lankan English, however, a speaker will tend to choose one or the other word order pattern and apply it universally, thus: "Where are you going?" and "Tell me where are you going." combination, OR "Where you are going?" and "Tell me where you are going." combination

Words unique to or originating in Sri Lankan/Indian English (in formal usage)

  • 'Batchmate' or 'batch-mate' to mean college buddy.
  • Chatni or Chutney (borrowed from Indian English)
  • Cousin-brother (male first cousin) & cousin-sister (female first cousin);
  • 'Dickie' for trunk(US)/car boot(UK).
  • 'Funeral house' which is a literal translation of a sinhala word which refers to the event of the funeral taking place in a regular household (as opposed to a funeral parlour or funeral home)
  • 'Gone for a six', to mean something got ruined. (may have origins linked to game of Cricket)
  • 'Lakh' (one hundred thousand)
  • 'Mobile' for mobile phone/cell-phone
  • 'Pass-out' means graduate from college/University
  • 'Ragging' for fagging(UK)/hazing(US).
  • 'Shorteats' for snacks (in small Sri Lankan restaurants Shorteats sometimes morphed in to 'Sorties')
  • 'String Hoppers' (a typical Sri Lankan/South Indian food)

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Boyle, Richard (2004). Knox's words. Visidunu Publication. p. 389. ISBN 9559170678. 
  3. ^ anaconda. (2008). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-07-03.

External links and sources

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