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Sinhala words of Tamil origin

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Sinhala words of Tamil origin came about as part of the more than 2000 years of language interactions between Sinhala and Tamil in the Island of Sri Lanka.


Kinds of loanwords


The words pertaining to the fields of commerce, administration, botany, food and military are the most numerous; this is to be expected because

  • new innovations and goods usually reached the Sinhalese via the Tamils whose area of settlement separates them from the rest of South Asia and
  • Tamil-speaking Muslims conducted most of the island's foreign trade since the 10th century CE.
Bilingualism and assimilation
See also: Sinhalisation

However it is important to note that the range of borrowings goes beyond the scope to be expected for a situation where two neighbouring peoples exchange material goods: Firstly, there are many Tamil loanwords pertaining to everyday and social life (kinship terms, body parts, ordinary activities etc.); secondly, not only lexical words (nouns, adjectives and verbs) but also at least one function word (ōnē) has been borrowed. This--along with the deep impact Tamil has had on Sinhala syntax (e.g. the use of a verbal adjective of "to say" as a subordinating conjunction meaning "whether" and "that")--is the result of not only close coexistence but the existence of large numbers of bilinguals and a high degree of mixing, intermarriage, etc.

The borrowing process

Tamil loanwords in Sinhala can appear in the same form as the original word (e.g. akkā), but this is quite rare. Usually, a word has undergone some kind of modification to fit into the Sinhala phonological (e.g. paḻi becomes paḷi(ya) because the sound of /ḻ/, IPA[ɻ], does not exist in the Sinhala phoneme inventory) or morphological system (e.g. ilakkam becomes ilakkama because Sinhala inanimate nouns (see grammatical gender) need to end with /a/, IPA[ə], in order to be declineable).

These are the main ways Tamil words are incorporated into the Sinhala lexicon with different endings:

  • With an /a/ added to Tamil words ending in /m/ and other consonants (e.g. pālam > pālama).
  • With a /ya/ or /va/ added to words ending in vowels (e.g. araḷi > araliya).
  • With the Tamil ending /ai/ represented as /ē/, commonly spelt /aya/.
  • With the animate ending /yā/ added to Tamil words signifying living beings or /yā/ replacing the Tamil endings /aṉ/, /ar/, etc. (e.g. caṇṭiyar > caṇḍiyā).

It can be observed that the Tamil phonemes /ḷ/ and /ḻ/ do not coherently appear as /ḷ/ in Sinhala but sometimes as /l/ as well. This is due to the fact that in Sinhala pronunciation there is no distinction between /ḷ/ and /l/; the letter /ḷ/ is merely maintained as an etymological spelling.

Time of borrowing

In many cases, the appearance of a loanword in a language indicates whether the borrowing is old or more recent: The more a word deviates from the "original" one, the longer it must have been a part of the respective lexicon, because while being used, a word can undergo changes (sometimes regular sound changes along with the native words). The inversion of this argument is not possible since loanwords already matching the linguistic requirements of the target language may remain unchanged. Thus, the word täpäl (Tamil tapāl) gives away its old age because the respective umlaut processes took place before the 8th century CE; iḍama (Tamil iṭam) however needn't be a recent borrowing, because no sound changes that could have affected this word have taken place in Sinhala since at least the 13th century CE.

List of words

In the following list, Tamil words are romanized in accordance with Tamil spelling. This results in seeming discrepancies in voicing between Sinhala words and their Tamil counterparts. Sinhala borrowing however has taken place on the basis of the sound of the Tamil words; thus, the word ampalam, IPA[ambalam], logically results in the Sinhala spelling ambalama, and so forth. However, the Tamil language used here for comparison is Tamil as spoken in Sri Lanka.

Note: For information on the transcription used, see National Library at Calcutta romanization and Tamil script. Exceptions from the standard are the romanization of Sinhala long "ä" ([æː]) as "ää", and the non-marking of prenasalized stops.

Sinhala Meaning Tamil Meaning Type
ādāyama Income ātāyam Profit Trade
akkā Elder sister akkā Elder sister Kinship
ambalama Way-side rest ampalam Public place Daily
ämbäṭṭayā Barber ampaṭṭaṉ Barber Trade
āṃgāṇiya Stall (in a market) aṅkāṭi Market Trade
āṇḍuva Government āṇṭāṉ Rich man with many slaves Administration
appā Father (regional/colloquial) appā Father Kinship
āppa Hoppers āppam Hoppers Food
araliya Oleander araḷi Oleander Botany
avariya Indigo plant avuri Indigo plant Botany
ayyā Elder brother aiyā (see also Ayya) Sir, father Kinship
caṇḍiyā Bandit, rowdy caṇṭiyar Bandit Daily
cīttaya Chintz cīttai Chintz Trade
ediriya Opposition, hostility etiri Opponent, enemy Military
galkaṇḍuva Sugar-candy kaṟkaṇṭu Sugar-candy Food
iccāva Flattery iccakam Flattery Daily
iḍama Site, land iṭam Place, site Construction
īḷa Asthma īḷai Asthma Daily
ilakkaya Target ilakku Target Military
ilakkama Number ilakkam Number Trade
iḷandāriyā Young man iḷantāri Young man Daily
iḷavuva Death, funeral iḻavu Death Daily
iranavā To saw, to tear iṟu- To break, to destroy Trade
iraṭṭa Double, even number iraṭṭai Double, even number Trade
jāḍiya Jar cāṭi Jar Daily
jōḍuva Pair jōṭi/cōṭi Pair Daily
kaḍadāsiya Paper kaṭutāsi Letter, paper Daily
kaḍalē Chickpea kaṭalai (paruppu) Chickpea Food
kaḍasarakkuva Spice, curry stuffs kaṭai + sarakku Shop + Goods Trade
kaḍaya Shop kaṭai Shop Trade
kaḍinama Haste kaṭiṉam Difficulty Daily
kaḍiyāḷama Bridle kaṭivāḷam Bridle Military
kaṃkāṇiyā Overseer kaṅkāṇi Foreman Administration
kalanda A small measure of weight kaḻañcu Weight of 1.77 grams Trade
kalavama Mixture, blend kalavai Mixture Daily
kālaya Quarter kāl Quarter Trade
kaḷudäävā Donkey kaḻutai Donkey Daily
kambiya Wire kampi Wire Trade
kāndama Magnet kāntam Magnet Trade
kaṇisama Size kaṇisam Size, amount Daily
kaṇṇāḍiya Mirror, spectacles kaṇṇāṭi Mirror, spectacles Daily
kappama Tribute kappam Tribute Military
kappara Small ship kappal Ship Trade
kappi Grit, bruised grain kappi Coarse grits in flour Daily
kāppuva Bracelet kāppu Bangle Daily
kärapottā Cockroach karappottāṉ Cockroach (SL) Daily
karavaḷa Dried fish karuvāṭu Dried fish Food
kāsiya Coin kācu Small change, coin Trade
kasippu Illicit liquor kacippu Illicit liquor Trade
kaṭṭumarama Catamaran kaṭṭumaram Catamaran Trade
kayiyeliya Cloth with coloured border kayili Multicoloured cloth worn by Muslims Daily
keṇḍa Calf keṇṭai(kkāl) Calf Daily
keṇḍiya Pitcher keṇṭi Pitcher Daily
kiṭṭu Close, near kiṭṭa Close, near Daily
koḍiya Flag koṭi Flag Administration
kollaya Plunder, pillage koḷḷai Plunder Military
kombuva Name of the sign ෙ kompu (lakaram) Name of the sign ள Daily
kōn Part of a name kōṉ(ar) Name pertaining to members of the Iṭaiyar caste ("shepherd, king") Personal name
kōṇama A loin cloth for men kōvaṇam A loin cloth for men Daily
koṇḍaya Plait/bun of hair koṇṭai Bun/plait of hair Daily
koṭṭamalli Coriander koṭṭamalli Coriander Botany
koṭṭaya Pillow koṭṭai Nut, round shape, pillow Daily
kōvila Hindu temple kōyil Temple Daily
kuḍē Umbrella kuṭai Umbrella Daily
kūḍē Basket kūṭai Basket Daily
kūḍuva Nest, cage kūṭu Nest, small box Daily
kulala/kuḷala Pipe kuḻal Tube, musical pipe Daily
kulappuva Confusion kuḻappu- to confuse Military
kurumbā Young coconut kurumpai Young coconut Food
kuliya Rent kūli Rent, pay Administration
malaya Hill country malai Hill Place name
māmā Maternal uncle māmā Maternal uncle Kinship
marakkalaya Boat, Ethnic Moor, Sampan marakkalam (Sailing) Boat Fishing
massinā Brother-in-law massiṉaṉ Brother-in-law Kinship
mudala Money mutal Capital Trade
mudalāli Merchant, owner of a shop mutalāḷi Merchant Trade
mudali Part of a name mutaliyār Name of a caste Personal name
muruṃgā "Drumsticks", the edible roots of the horse-radish tree (Moringa pterygosperma) muruṅkai Horse-radish tree Food
nāḍagama Stage-play nāṭakam Drama, stage-play Culture
naṃgī Younger sister naṅkai Young girl Kinship
ōna, ōnē Necessary, must vēṇum Necessary, must Daily
oppuva Proof oppu Same Administration
ottē Odd number oṟṟai Odd number Trade
ottuva Espionage oṟṟu Espionage Administration
padakkama Medal patakkam Medal Administration
pāḍama Lesson pāṭam Lesson Culture
paḍiya Wage paṭi Extra pay Administration
pālama Bridge pālam Bridge Construction
paḷiya Revenge paḻi Guilt, revenge Military
pandalama Bower, shady place pantal Bower, shady place Daily
pandama Torch pantam Torch Religious
parippu Lentils parippu Lentils Food
pattu karanavā To light, to set on fire paṟṟu- To catch fire Daily
pēru väṭenavā To fall to someone by chance pēṟu Luck Place name
piṭṭu A rice dish piṭṭu A rice dish Food
poraya Fight pōr Fight Military
poronduva Agreement, promise poruntu- To fit, to agree Daily
porottuva Delay, waiting poṟuttu Having waited Daily
pullē Part of a name Pillai Part of a name (originally a Hindu title) Personal name
salli Money salli Coin Trade
saṇḍuva Fight saṇṭai Fight Military
sereppuva Sandals seruppu Sandals Daily
sotti Crippled, deformed cottai Emaciated person, defect Daily
suruṭṭuva Cigar curuṭṭu Cigar Daily
takkāli Tomato takkāḷi Tomato Food
tallu karanavā To push taḷḷu- To push Daily
tambiyā Derogatory term for a muslim man tampi Younger brother Daily
tani Alone taṉi Alone Daily
täpäl Postal tapāl Postal, mail Administration
tarama Size, position, quantity taram Proportion, sort Trade
taṭṭa Bald taṭṭai Baldness Daily
tāttā Father tāttā Grandfather Kinship
taṭṭu karanavā To knock taṭṭu- To knock Daily
uḍäkkiya A narrow drum uṭukkai A narrow drum Daily
udavva Help uṭavi Help Daily
ulukkuva Sprain (of a joint) cuḷukku To sprain (a joint) Daily
ūḷiyama Tax payable by foreigners ūḻiyam Service Administration
urumaya Inheritance, ownership urimai Ownership, right Administration
veḍi tiyanavā To shoot, to fire veṭi Shot, dynamite Military
veri Drunk veṟi Drunkness, madness Daily


  • Coperahewa, Sandagomi and Arunachalam,Sarojini Devi Sinhala Bhashave Demala Vacana Akaradiya[Dictionary of Tamil Words in Sinhala] (Colombo: S.Godage, 2002).
  • Gair, James (1998). Studies in South Asian Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 368. ISBN 0-19-509521-9. 
  • Geiger, Wilhelm: Linguistic Character of Sinhalese, in: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon), Vol. XXXIV
  • Gunasekara, A.M.: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Sinhalese Language, Colombo 1891 (reprint New Delhi 1986), ISBN 81-206-0106-8 (§234: Naturalised and derived words from Tamil)

See also

External links

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Published - March 2009

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