Sri Lanka Malay

The documentation of Sri Lanka Malay is significant for a number of reasons.

(a)     Uniqueness

SLM is a precious variety for studies of language contact, language evolution as well as cultural creolization. Unlike its better-known ‘creole’ counterparts of the Caribbean, SLM – together with a very few other varieties of the region (e.g. Baba Malay, Cocos Malay) – is in a unique position of providing us with an environment in which no Standard Average European acrolectal variety is involved in the dynamics of contact, its main adstrates being Sinhala and Tamil. Moreover, SLM appears to comprise perhaps some four different varieties, and is thus an excellent case study for understanding how different social situations are responsible for different structural developments from more or less one and the same original language (Malay). Patterns found in such varieties can shed light on typologically diverse contact phenomena and provide a good control for comparative purposes in investigating other Creole languages as well as ‘mixed’ varieties.

(b)     Previous research

Sri Lanka Malay until very recently (with researchers such as Peter Slomanson and Ian Smith) had been only very briefly described (Adelaar 1991, Saldin 2001), based on small-scale studies with, for the most part, recordings obtained without the state-of-the-art instrumentation. Moreover, only the vaguely-defined Colombo dialect is usually described, though variation between the different communities is briefly acknowledged (Saldin 2001) and presents a puzzle for current analysis.

(c)     Vitality

Sri Lanka Malay has never been a language for public discourse in the country, though it was widely spoken as a home language for some generations (Hussainmiya 1986), with the community being at least bi- if not multilingual. Based on observation and interviews during fieldwork in 2003-2005, however, we note that the situation appears to be changing now, largely as a consequence of the more recent language and educational policies. Both Sinhala and Tamil are national and official languages, and languages of education; English is the link language and an important key to advancement in technical and professional careers, even though it has no longer been a medium of instruction in government schools since 1972 (though it may be restored). Consequently, Sri Lanka Malay parents with the resources make the conscious decision to speak to their children in English at home (also attested to in Saldin 2001:26); this is particularly true of the Colombo Malay community, which ironically is the community which would have the resources to promote and maintain SLM. There are however current thrusts within the community in language revitalisation; the variety of Malay chosen is however Standard Malay of Malaysia (see Lim & Ansaldo 2006). In general, the community typically shows strong linguistic vitality in SLM in the middle to old generations and rapidly decreasing (in many cases, to nil) linguistic competence in the vernacular in the young generation.

Continuing on from earlier, initial research by Umberto Ansaldo and Lisa Lim in 2003 and 2004 (partly funded by a National University of Singapore’s Academic Research Grant for the project ‘Contact languages of Southeast Asia: the role of Malay’), this current project (funded by VW/DoBeS for the period 2005-2008) aims to provide a comprehensive documentation of the varieties of Sri Lanka Malay still spoken on the island by providing audio and video recordings of various genres of language found in the different communities. So far, the following items are identified as aspects of the documentation material that will be obtained through interviews, informal communication, as well as participant observation:

  1. a structural description of each speech community including the defining phonetic, phonological, lexical, morphological and syntactic features of each variety
  2. informal conversation strategies
  3. gestures and non-verbal communication
  4. songs and musical recordings
  5. oral narrative, including myths and legends
  6. oral poetry/ language games (e.g. Sri Lanka Malay pantungs (traditional Malay 4-line verses), a variety of pantun which have evolved such that they are more akin to the Sinhala Baila (Saldin 2001:27-28), and other forms of linguistic competition)
  7. language teaching routines (e.g. as they occur in local SLM playgroups, and in the interaction between informant and investigator)
  8. oral history, i.e. origins and development of the different communities within their own historical tradition
  9. photographs of cultural and natural environment

Attention will also be paid to the following:

  1. orthographic script: there has been a suggestion that the Sinhala script be used for SLM on the grounds that Sri Lanka Malay children are now being educated in Sinhala and are more familiar with this than with the Roman script; furthermore, that the former enables Malay words to be pronounced more accurately (Saldin 2001); more recently, Saldin adopts romanised Malay script for SLM
  2. language ideology: i.e. linguistic self perception, real and perceived variation within the speech communities
  3. language attitudes: negotiation of variation and competence/ willingness to accommodate in contact situations within the SLM communities
  4. multilingualism in the SLM communities


Ansaldo, U. 2012. Metatypy in Sri Lanka Malay. Annual Review of South Asian Languages and Linguistics. Mouton.

Ansaldo, U. 2011. The Lankan adstrates of Sri Lanka Malay. In C. Lefevbre (ed.) Creoles, Their Substrates and Language Typology. (Typological Studies in Language 95.) Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Ansaldo, U. 2009. Contact Languages: Ecology and Evolution in Asia. Cambridge University Press.

Ansaldo, U. & S. Nordhoff. 2009. Complexity and the age of languages. In E.O. Aboh & N. Smith (eds) Complex processes in new languages. Creole Language Library. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Ansaldo, U. 2008. Sri Lanka Malay revisited: Genesis and classification. In D. Harrison, D. Rood & A. Dwyer (eds). A world of many voices: Lessons from documented endangered languages. Typological Studies in Language. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 13-42.

Ansaldo, U. & L. Lim. 2006. Globalisation, empowerment and the periphery: The Malays of Sri Lanka. In R. Elangaiyan, R. McKenna Brown, N.D.M. Ostler & M.K. Verma (eds). Vital voices: Endangered languages and multilingualismProceedings of the FEL X Conference. Bath: Foundation for Endangered Languages; & Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages. 39-46.

Lim, L. & U. Ansaldo. 2007. Identity alignment in the multilingual space: The Malays of Sri Lanka. In E.A. Anchimbe (ed.) Linguistic identity in multilingual postcolonial spaces. Cambridge Scholars Press. 218-243.

Lim, L. & U. Ansaldo. 2006. Keeping Kirinda vital: The endangerment-empowerment dilemma in the documentation of Sri Lanka Malay. In E. Aboh & M. van Staden (eds). Amsterdam Center for Language & Communication Working Papers 1. 51-66.

Nordhoff, S. 2010. A grammar of upcountry Sri Lanka Malay. LOT.