Beri Beri Rogaya (bæri-bæri) And Speaking Singhalese

By Helasingha Bandara

(April 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Malinda Seneviratne’s article ‘Humour: the final frontier in language competency’ inspired me to write this piece. It may be wishful thinking that this would send a message to our fellow Sri Lankans.

(Wikipedia) “Beriberi is a nervous system ailment caused by a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1) in the diet. Thiamine is involved in the breakdown of energy molecules such as glucose and is also found on the membranes of neurons. Symptoms of beriberi include severe lethargy and fatigue, together with complications affecting the cardiovascular, nervous, muscular, and gastrointestinal systems”.

“The origin of the term is obscure. One hypothesis is that it comes from a Sinhalese phrase meaning "I cannot, I cannot", the word being doubled for emphasis”

Is it not ironic that roots of this disease are found in Sri Lanka and in the Sinhalese language? The Sinhalese are synonymous with lethargy or laziness.

The recently concluded elections were a great source of entertainment at least for some. My only source of access to the election world was the small TV in my rural base. I was drawn to many hilarious programmes on SL TV during the election period in the absence of any other form of entertainment. A few episodes of some reality shows did not escape my attention either.

Hearing some judges and participants of those shows speaking Singhalese, I was puzzled at the beginning as to why they sounded foreign. Perhaps I need Gamini Weerakoon’s help here to give you some examples of the type of Singhalese they spoke on the shows; I am not a good mimic. First I felt that the speakers lack vitamin B1 and are suffering from the disease called Beri- Beri, particularly because the disease has its maternal heritage from Sri Lanka and that the disease can cause damage to the nervous system. We all know how a person with nerve damage struggles to speak. Next I thought that those people could be foreigners. It is very common at present that more people from Sri Lanka seek to live abroad. The later thoughts were confirmed when they used many English words in between while struggling to speak Singhalese fluently. It felt as if the Singhalese language was inadequate to express ideas. However, it did not take very long for the cat to jump out of the bag. Some of them could not resist the temptation to show off in English. Only then I realised that those people were not foreigners but they have been afflicted with beri-beri syndrome (referred to as BBS hereafter).

It seems that at present, BBS in Sri Lanka is not restricted to physical and mental lethargy but is also spreading fast onto many other fields that are not traditionally associated with BBS. In fact Sri Lanka has turned into a fertile breeding ground for BBS. Sadly it has affected the ability of our people to speak their own language.

For some time it has been becoming trendy, albeit for the wrong reasons, to speak Singhalese as if the speaker is not fluent in Singhalese (Singhala be be wage katha karanawa or Singhala beri beri ganata kathakaranawa.). This was particularly evident among the young women from the main towns and the Colombo city, an obvious effect of the BBS.

The ruling of the post colonial era was handed to the English (perhaps Singlish or Tamiglish) speaking minority. They assumed higher social status as they spoke an idiom that the ordinary folks did not understand. Those who learned English found easy access to employment in all British colonies even after the colonialists left. As the time went by the ability to speak English also became fashionable even in order to attract the attention of the opposite sex. An undesired outcome of this process was that many people began believing that the only way to impress the masses that one can speak English is to pretend that they cannot speak Singhalese well. In a country the Beri-Beri disease (mental lethargy included) originated it is not hard to believe that any garbage is accepted without due rational consideration.

The said show was conducted in Singhalese presumably for the Singhalese speaking audience. If it is for the entire country it could be conducted in both Singhalese and Tamil. English, despite having official language status was not truly necessary in this scenario as almost everyone understands either Sinhalese or Tamil although many can pretend that they do not.

Unlike in the past, now, a significant percentage of Sri Lankans are able to handle English language thanks to international schools, private tutors, the Internet, emigration and foreign employment. Those include people from all social and economic classes. Therefore the ability to speak English does not hold much water anymore. In fact it is becoming the common language of the ordinary people. It has to be realised that bilingualism or even trilingualism will hold more water in the future. Many excellent writers of Sri Lanka origin who write in English give me the impression that their knowledge of the vernacular is excellent too. This means that those who know good English know good Sinhalese or Tamil too. Malinda himself is a good example. Among many the best example I can think of is Prof. Ashley Halpe who is extremely competent in both languages, and indeed he does not struggle to speak Singhalese ( beri beri ganata) to impress others. Does he need to? Yet, in the Fools Paradise anything different is considered something important, so is the BBS in speaking Singhalese.