Fingerspelling in Sinhala

16 Apr

So you’re interested in expanding your repertoire of fingerspelling alphabets from all over the world? You’ve come to the right place. Settle into your seat for your lesson in Sinhala Fingerspelling!

First, let’s open up your chart and guide to the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet (click here).

Because Sinhala has more than twice as many letters as the Latin alphabet, the chart may look rather intimidating. Sinhala has 54 distinct letters (although in this alphabet, there are 56 signs, because there are two phonemes that aren’t exactly letters but are applied to other letters and so need to be fingerspelled nonetheless).

Many of them can be assembled into pairs with almost the same sound. This is why many of the signs are similar, but one of them has a twisting motion to show that it is just a little different (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Letter Pairs

If you’re familiar with the American Sign Language (ASL) fingerspelling alphabet, you will notice that whoever invented the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet used ASL (or any of a dozen sign languages which use almost the same manual alphabet) as his or her inspiration.

And if you’re also familiar with Sinhala, you’ll see that the inventor of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet cleverly mapped most of the Sinhala sounds to the ASL handshapes and to the English letters represented in those handshapes.

For example, let’s look again at Figure 1 above. The left pair is the ASL handshape for the letter N–and that’s exactly the sound that the two Sinhala letters represent. The same is true for the right pair, which is the ASL handshape for B. Those two letters represent the sound “b.” This is how I managed to learn to write, read, and speak Sinhala so quickly!

However, there are differences between the Sinhala and ASL fingerspelling alphabets–some completely new handshapes, a couple switched around to make overall fingerspelling smoother. Still, if you know the ASL alphabet, you’ve already got a head start in the great race to learn Sinhala.

Now that we’ve deduced a probable explanation for the origin of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet, let’s start using it. What better word than “Sri Lanka” (Fig. 2), the only country in the world where Sinhala is widely spoken?

Figure 2: Sri Lanka

I’ve color-coded each separate letter so we can see that there are four letters which make up the Sinhala words “Sri Lanka.” But hey, there’s eight handshapes…for four letters!? What’s more, there’s several letters in the handshape graphics that don’t even appear in the Sinhala phrase! What’s going on here?

To understand how to fingerspell Sinhala, you have to understand how Sinhala works. In English, the lowercase letter “c” will always look like a “c,” no matter where in the word it appears, what other letters surround it, how it’s pronounced, whether it’s in “celery” or “cake.”

By contrast, Sinhala is a chameleon language. Each letter within a word actually represents a union between a consonant, a vowel (or a non-vowel symbol, meaning it’s just the consonant sound by itself), and occasionally, a third phoneme such as a “r” or “n” sound. In other words, a syllable.

Consonants–all the letters after the first twelve letters in the Sinhala fingerspelling chart–can change shape depending on what vowel is applied to it. Because there are 12 major vowels, a few minor vowels, a few phoneme modifiers, and about 40 consonants, we’re looking at potentially over 1,000 different shapes within the Sinhala script. For a small silver of this complexity, look at Fig. 3 below.

Figure 3: The Cornucopia of Sinhala

All of the colored letters are derived from just four basic consonant letters–K, M, D, and R. Imagine making a different handshape for each and every one of these. You can do it with any Latin alphabet because there are just about two dozen letters, and they won’t change shape when you’re not looking.

But with more than 1,000 potential letters in Sinhala, a 1:1 correspondence between the written letter and the fingerspelt letter is impossible.

Which is why the inventor of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet chose to create a system of fingerspelling to deal with the ever-changing sinuous curves of the Sinhala script. This system does one very important thing: it breaks down the union of consonants, vowels, and phonemes within each letter and presents each one as a distinct handshape.

This fingerspelling system requires that you understand how Sinhala consonants, vowels, and phonemes work together and mold into different shapes before you can begin to fingerspell accurately.

At the Rohana Special School, the primary classrooms are full of diagrams that detail exactly how vowels and consonants can combine and what shape a certain pair will make. There is a order to this phonetic osmosis; a specific vowel will generally have the same shapes no matter which consonant it is applied to. It’s not all that difficult to figure out how vowels and consonants work together, but even Grade 11 students get tripped up every now and then.

But the goal is for the students–and indeed, any scholar in a Sinhala-medium school–to understand what consonants, vowels, and phonemes make up a certain letter. For Rohana students, it’s critical to understand this so they can fingerspell it properly. I’ve reproduced and modified a common chart from school here–see Fig. 4 below.

Figure 4: Fingerspelling the different forms of kayanna.

An added bonus is that, because Sinhala has a pure phonetic script (meaning that a letter will always sound a certain way and nothing else, unlike the notoriously fickle English language), knowing the breakdown of each letter can reveal to a deaf student how exactly to pronounce the word.

So speech therapy becomes easier and more focused on understanding how to voice each phoneme and string them together properly instead of pointing out in every word whether the “c” is hard or soft, or if the “e” is silent.

That said, don’t think too hard about the English transliterations of the Sinhala letters–these are just approximations (after all, English has five vowels but Sinhala has 12) and the best way to accurately reproduce Sinhala vowels is to listen or lipread a native Sinhala speaker.

Hopefully, by studying Figure 4 above, you now understand how letters are actually representations of syllables with vowels, consonants, and phonemes contained within it, and why more than one handshape is needed to denote each letter. Indeed, instead of the 1:1 letter-handshape ratio found in the English fingerspelling alphabet, Sinhala’s fingerspelled alphabet has a 1:1 phoneme-handshape ratio.

Now let’s go back to “Sri Lanka”–see Figure 5 below (which incorporates the colors of Sri Lanka’s flag!).

Figure 5: Fingerspelling “Sri Lanka”

Here, I’ve broken down the four letters to reveal the vowels, consonants, and phonemes behind each one. Each individual phoneme unit has a handshape representing it, and because there are ultimately eight phonemes that create the Sinhala word “Sri Lanka,” the fingerspelt form must also have eight handshapes.

Now, doesn’t it make total sense why eight handshapes are needed to spell a four-letter word?

I’d delve into the finer points of how one could know the individual phonemes, but that’s approaching learning how to write and learn Sinhala, and is a different subject altogether.

You may wonder how the heck anybody can learn a system like this, and if you do, it’s because you don’t know Sinhala. I feel confident that people fluent in Sinhala can pick up this fingerspelling alphabet and its system within a day or two because they understand it–just like American English speakers can learn the ASL alphabet within a day. In fact, my students sometimes attempt to make different handshapes for uppercase English letters vs. lowercase letters–after all, it looks different, and from a Sinhala perspective, therefore should sound differently, so why shouldn’t it have another handshape?

What I’ve tried to convey here (without completely losing you in the process) is that even the benign world of fingerspelling alphabets can be deviously complex. The Sinhala fingerspelling scheme is a system, and consequently, each pupil in this subject needs to be trained in it. Because they are spelling things that are not readily evident in the script, many Rohana secondary students make mistakes when fingerspelling words–not spelling errors but conceptual errors resulting from not fully understanding the system.

Fortunately, fingerspelling instruction is a firmly entrenched subject in the primary classrooms (I have even personally taught a couple fingerspelling training sessions in Grade 5!), so this situation should improve. Fingerspelling instruction has also created a generational gap because anyone above 30 years old doesn’t know how fingerspell in Sinhala. This system, after all, did not exist back when they were in school!

Because several deaf schools still haven’t incorporated Sinhala fingerspelling into their curriculum, it has also created an education gap within current deaf pupils all across the country. For example, at the deaf school in Tangalle one hour east, the students don’t know how to fingerspell in Sinhala. I believe it seriously impedes the development of written literacy in signing educational environments if students cannot access Sinhala vocabulary via their hands, their visual communication medium.

I can think of no reason why the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet should not be taught (except maybe for a misguided wish by school administrators to leave Sinhala behind and encourage greater embrace of English, a deeply contentious issue among Sri Lankan education circles). There is nothing wrong with its complexity; the system meets the demands of the written script it is meant to represent.

Learning this fingerspelling system and thus, Sinhala itself, and delighting my students by showing off my newfound abilities to communicate in their native written language, has been one of the greatest pleasures of my ongoing experience here. I must to express my great admiration for how the inventor of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet, by choosing to use handshapes to represent phonemes instead of letters, created what sounds greatly paradoxical: a purely phonetic, silent language!

9 Responses to “Fingerspelling in Sinhala”

  1. amanda 17. Apr, 2007 at 3:36 am #

    Fascinating! I cant remember how the Japanese do fingerspelling, but their language is also highly phonetic & they have a bazillion “letters”.. Very interesting :) Loved the graphics here.. but really all i wanted to say is: I miss you!

  2. Marilyn 17. Apr, 2007 at 4:16 am #

    I haven’t written in such a long time. I just wanted to say hi and let you know that I’m always thinking about you and your wonderful messages. I do read them, and enjoy being able to share part of this amazing journey with you (as you discribe so much in detail). I have shared some of what you write with the ASL teacher at San Dieguito Academy (I hope you don’t mind).
    Your work is important and so worthwhile to many.
    Like others say before me, be safe, and your are missed.


  3. kasun Chandana 17. Apr, 2007 at 7:55 pm #

    Hi Adam,

    Thank you very much for trying to make this blog. its very helpfull to me,
    because i am is sri lanken and i need with comminiucation with sri lanken
    deaf poeples and understanding to their own silent world and their mind & thinking.

    I think the Deaf Poeples world very is vey beautifull. Because their have not
    hear bad words & bad concept, so not in put bad ideas to their mind. So They have veryclear and Kindness mind.

    This work is very important and I think its very helpfull to All Sri lanken Deaf peoples.


  4. Sophie 18. Apr, 2007 at 7:04 am #

    Oh my, i had no idea before of how the sinhala finger spelling system works, so thank you adam for this. However, still my mind boggles with the complexity of Sinhala so am looking forward to some lessons- very very soon…
    Am amazed and of course incredibly impressed that you made sense of it, i cannot even spell my own name in Sinhala, but now i understand why every sri lankan (hearing and deaf) gave me a different version (because of the silent ‘p’ in Sophie!), so am excited about the prospect my sinhala may improve yet.
    Also, have been announcing to everyone and anyone that for the 1st time, Sri Lankan sign language can be accessed on the internet. What an incredible milestone. Hope you are well, and looking forward to the 1st of May!
    Sophie x

  5. Hilary Franklin 23. Apr, 2007 at 3:41 pm #

    Adam, it seems to me like cueing would work really well in Sri Lanka since it’s really phonemic, with no apparent allophonic varieties. :)

    You really piqued my interest with this blog! Thank you for taking the time to write it!

  6. Karen Putz 27. Sep, 2007 at 4:50 am #

    What an introduction to Sinhala fingerspelling! Kudos to you for picking that up so fast.

  7. Maria Cristina 04. Jan, 2008 at 8:40 am #

    I’m a Brazilian sign language interpreter. Your blog is great! Congrats!

  8. Eranga Uduwawala 11. Jul, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    great work keep it up

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  1. Found In Ceylon | Keynotin’ It - 26. Sep, 2007

    […] syntax than ASL, and another one inquired whether SLSL had dominant-hand signs. I explained the unique Sinhala fingerspelling system and they seemed to totally get it. They asked about food, cricket, and the challenges of putting […]