Date: 12th June 2012
Venue: Prof. V.K. Samaranayake Auditorium, UCSC.
Title: Ramblings in Mathematics
Orator: Desamānya Professor J.B. Disanayaka, Emeritus Professor of Sinhala, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Emeritus Professor of Sinhala, Desamānya J. B. Disanayaka, occupies a prominent place among the Sinhala scholars in contemporary Sri Lanka. Prof. Disanayaka retired from the University of Colombo in 2002, after a long and distinguished career as the Senior Professor of Sinhala. In 2007, he was appointed as the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Thailand and served as a diplomat for four years. Throughout his professional career – first as Professor of Sinhala, and then as an Ambassador — Prof. Disanayaka’s renown in linguistics attracted the attention of academic and public domains. He has had a major influence on Sinhala language and grammar, and a significant effect on a range of other areas from culture to journalism, children’s literature to language technology.
Born on 16th April 1937, in Rambukkana, Kegalle District he had his secondary education at the Dharmaraja College, Kandy and later at the Ananda College Colombo. In 1957, he gained admission to the University of Ceylon, Peradeniaya, where he was tutored by some of the best scholar’s of the country in the field of Sinhala language and literature, such as Prof. D.E. Hettiarachichi, Prof. Ediriweera Sarachachandra, Dr. M.W. Sugathapala De Silva and Dr. Siri Gunasinghe. The academic and cultural atmosphere prevailed in the university and his ardent love for the Sinhala language and culture paved the way for his subsequent academic and professional achievements.
In 1961, Prof. Disanayaka graduated from the University of Ceylon securing a First Class honours degree winning many prizes for academic excellence. Soon after his graduation he began his academic career as a lecturer in the Dept of Sinhala. As a young lecturer he chose the field of Modern Linguistics for his postgraduate studies. He received his MA in Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley where he spent two years (1963-65) as a Fulbright Scholar. He spent another year at the University College, London studying Theoretical Linguistics. During his postgraduate life he was influenced by a number of leading linguists, notably Professors Dell Hymes , John Gumperz and Michalel Halliday. As a professional linguist, Prof. Disanayaka is a product of both American and British school of linguistic thought. His doctoral dissertation on The Word in Modern Literary Sinhala was submitted to the University of Colombo in 1980.
Professor Disanayaka was instrumental in establishing the Department of Linguistics in the University of Colombo, the first fully-fledged department of Linguistics in a Sri Lankan university. It was then that his major contribution to the development of Sinhala linguistics commenced with full vigor. He became the Head of the newly-established Department of Linguistics, until 1973, when it was relocated in another university. He continued to teach Sinhala language at the University of Colombo and played a leading role in popularizing the new subject — the modern linguistics. After years of dedicated service he rose to the grade of Senior Professor of Sinhala in the University of Colombo bringing honour and fame to the institution.
As a university academic, Professor Disanayaka has made a lasting contribution to advance the knowledge on Sinhala grammar, language and culture. He has published extensively in these fields of study totaling to more than 100 books in Sinhala and English and several scholarly articles of exceptional academic value. In his own field of expertise, he worked towards bridging the gap between traditional Sinhala grammatical studies and modern linguistics. His first two books written in Sinhala – Bhashāvaka Rata Samudaya (1969) and Bhāshāvaka Bhāvitaya hā Vigrahaya (1970) considered as a pioneering effort to introduce the concepts of modern linguistic analysis to the Sinhala readership. His innovative ideas on Sinhala grammar sparked many controversies in the Sinhala linguistic circles, and provided new insights to the study of language. As a modern grammarian, Prof. Disanayaka took the initiative to write a new grammar for contemporary Sinhala and to analyze Sinhala usage in keeping with the different aims of modern linguistics and grammar. His new series of Sinhala grammar titled Basaka Mahima (2001) attempts to analyze the Sinhala written usage from a linguistic perspective and makes a novel approach to study Sinhala grammar. In addition to his vast number of Sinhala publications on Sinhala language and grammar, Prof. Disanayaka’s other publications in English include, Language and Commonsense (1973) Say it in Sinhala (1974) The Structure of Spoken Sinhala: Sounds and their Patterns (1991), A Unique Indo-Aryan Language (1994), Let’s Learn Sinhala (2004). This present volume Sinhala: Saga of an Island Language (2012) gives a comprehensive and an accessible account on the history, structure and development of the Sinhala language.
Prof. Disanayaka has spent several years studying languages and cultures of many communities. In 1976, he spent a year in the Umbrian mountains of Perugia, studying Italian languages and culture. In 1985, another year was spent in Scotland as a Commonwealth Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, UK studying Applied Linguistics. He was one of the two Sri Lankan scholars to be invited in in 1981 by the Republic of Maldives to read and translate into English, for the first time, the 12th century Lomafānu copper plates, the oldest historical documents of the Maldives. His interest in modern Maldivian finds expression in Say it in Maldivian (1990) which he co-authored with H.A. Maniku, a Maldivian scholar.
In the field of Sinhala language studies, Prof. Disanayaka’s main focus was on the documenting of Sinhala folk usage. As a scholar he was fascinated by the beauty and romance of Sinhala village, and devoted much of his time to collect the Sinhala folk usage. He considered spoken Sinhala as a vital part of the Sinhala language study and developed a new way of looking at Sinhala folk speech. His publication Sinhala Jana Vahara (1976) helped to pioneer the documentation of Sinhala folk usage from a linguistic point of view. Though he has gained a reputation as a linguist by profession, his love for the Sinhala village and its people – the monks, and the peasants – inspired him to write on Sinhala culture. His major works on Sinhala culture and folklore such as Aspects of Sinhala Folklore (1984) Water in Culture: The Sri Lankan Heritage (1992), Mihintale: Cradle of Sinhala Buddhist Civilization (1987) The Monk and the Peasant (1993), Understanding the Sinhalese (1998) provide a large corpus of knowledge about the different aspects of Sinhala culture, and arts. In 1996, he also started to write series of Sinhala booklets titled Rataka Mahima in a simple style, using the spoken idiom, to provide information on Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. In addition to his professional linguistic interests, Prof. Disanayaka’s knowledge of Sinhala culture and arts is deep and varied.
As a linguist Prof. Disanayaka also took a leading role in the empowerment of local languages in the Sri Lankan ICT field, joining hands with his computer science colleagues. He was one of the Sri Lankan scholars participated in a conference held at Crete, Greece in 1998, to standardize the Sinhala alphabet for Unicode. Further, he served as an expert on Sinhala language for many language technology projects in the ICT field.
In recent years, moving away from his academic scholarship, Prof. Disanayaka ventured into the field of Sinhala children’s literature. His booklet series titled ‘Once upon a Time’ narrates some of the more popular folk tales of the Sinhalese for children. The ‘Wisdom of the Folk’ is another series of booklets that explain for children the wisdom of their forefathers as found in their proverbs. Prof. Disanayaka has also written another popular series of books titled ‘Akuru Mihira’ in order bring the first taste of Sinhala letters (akuru) and patterns of the Sinhala language for children.
With his versatile and numerous interests, Prof. Disanayaka has been a key figure in Sri Lankan media. In 1986, he was given the additional responsibility of coordinating the newly-established Journalism Unit of the University of Colombo. His academic vistas then expanded further in the field of Journalism education. He possessed the richness of vision to commence anundergraduate and diploma course of study of Journalism at the University of Colombo. Further, Prof. Disanayaka’s activities were not confined to university lecture rooms. He took an avid interest in various linguistic and cultural affairs of the country. In many occasions, he shared his vast linguistic knowledge with a wider audience. He has been a consultant, contributor or presenter on several television and radio programmes on language and culture. Prof. Disanayaka’s wit, his love of laughter and his sense of humor often hid his erudite, serious and keen mind. However, most of his students will not forget his lively lectures on language and grammar.
Apart from his university activities, Prof. Disanayaka has played a major role, in the advancement of scholarship, Buddhism and culture by taking an active part in many international conferences, seminars and institutions concerned with such pursuits. He has delivered many guest lectures and endowed orations. As a scholar Prof. Disanayaka has gained both national and international recognition and prestige too, for his excellent scholarship and academic contributions. The international positions offered to him include: Senior Fellow in the Department of Indology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), UK (1992-93); Visiting Professor, Wako University, Japan (1998); Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Thailand (2007-2011). He has also won four State Literary Awards for his academic publications by the government of Sri Lanka. In 1996, he received the National Award of Sarvodaya Trust Fund for the advancement of humanity, peace and development. In recognition of the eminence he has attained in the field of linguistics and Sinhala grammar, and his distinguished contributions to the advancement of knowledge, in 2003, the University of Colombo conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt). He received the title of Kirti Sri from the University of Sabragamuwa. In 2005, he was awarded the coveted presidential honorary title Desamānya from the Government of Sri Lanka, in recognition of his services to the country.
Prof. Disanayaka now lives in Kohuwela, Nugegoda a suburb in Colombo district, where he continues to work as writer and consultant on language, grammar and culture. He is married with two children.