Wherever you go in Sri Lanka, you will find Tamil. Its status as one of the official languages means it is on the currency, official signage and government notifications. Almost one in four Sri Lankans claims to be a native speaker of Tamil, and chances are high that you will discover at least a small Tamil-speaking community in most parts of the island nation.

While the formal Tamil used by the government is similar to what for official purposes in Tamil Nadu, the spoken language in the island nation varies according to the region. For instance, some visitors from Tamil Nadu to northern Sri Lanka say the Tamil spoken in Jaffna sounds like Malayalam, although this is vehemently denied by many Jaffna residents.

In parts of the country, new dialects have emerged as Tamil-speaking communities have merged with the Sinhalese, the dominant linguistic group. A fascinating example of these is the Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil. A dialect spoken mainly by Catholic fisherfolk near Negombo on the western coast of Sri Lanka, Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil is unique since it is strongly influenced by the centuries-long assimilation of Tamils into the wider Sinhalese society. Every morning, when fishermen set off from the golden beaches of Negombo into the Indian Ocean for their daily catch, they communicate in this Tamil dialect that has a fair share of Sinhala words and grammar.

Origin story

The Negombo Tamil dialect is spoken by members of the Karava (Karaiyar in Tamil) caste. Although they choose to identify as Sinhalese, they are bilingual and use the Tamil dialect at home and while fishing at sea. The community, which acknowledges its Tamil roots, claims its lineage to modern-day Haryana and believes itself to be descendants of the Kauravas of the Mahabharata. This is debated by some Western scholars, who suggest that the Karavas are closely related to fishing communities of India’s west coast, right up to Goa.

An inscription in Anuradhapura from the 1st century BCE mentions a Tamil Karava sailor who came to the island. (Karai means coast in Tamil.) But Karava migration to Sri Lanka probably began in earnest at the beginning of the Common Era and continued until the 15th century. It is believed that most of the latter arrivals came from the Coromandel Coast. During the many wars between the island’s Sinhalese and Tamils, the community fought on the side of the Sinhalese kings.

While the Karavas in southern Sri Lanka embraced Buddhism and adopted Sinhala, those in the Catholic belt north of Negombo continued to speak Tamil. The community, however, converted to Catholicism when the Portuguese occupied parts of the island.

Before the arrival of the British in Sri Lanka, there was a greater degree of integration between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. The racial and linguistic lines were blurred between the two groups until the British decided to employ their time-tested policy of divide and rule. It was only when the British began to conduct a census on their crown colony of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known) that people were forced to openly declare their ethnicity.

In the censuses, the Catholic Karavas chose to identify as Sinhalese. They began to get educated in Sinhala from the 1940s when the language of instruction in schools around Negombo was changed from Tamil to Sinhala. But the Negombo Tamil dialect survived. Even today, many churches in the area have regular services in Tamil.

Process of Sinhalisation

Although Tamil-speaking areas are contiguous from the coastal areas north of Negombo to the neighbouring Puttalam district, the Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil dialect is only spoken in a 48-kilometre stretch from the north of Negombo to Chillaw. The Muslims of Puttulam have their own dialect, which has its fair share of Arab loanwords.

In a 2010 article for Anthropological Linguistics, published by the Trustees of Indiana University, American scholar Steven Bonta said the Tamil dialect spoken by the Negombo Karavas had long been known to have contained peculiarities. Bonta had spent nine months in the Negombo area in 2000-’01 to study the dialect, and in the article, he traced its evolution.

Bonta referred in the article to the work done by American linguist and South Asia scholar James Gair among the Karavas in the 1970s. Gair “tape-recorded samples of their speech around Chilaw, reporting that their dialect apparently had acquired many Sinhala-like properties, including the loss or diminution of morphological verb agreement for person and number,” Bonta wrote.

Among the non-fishing community in Negombo, there are other Sri Lankan Tamil speakers, including those who have relocated from Jaffna and other parts of the country. But what distinguishes the Negombo dialect is its Sinhalisation.

Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil appears to have “aligned its grammar with that of Sinhala in a number of aspects,” Bonta wrote. “This is a somewhat unusual instance of contact-induced language in southern South Asia, inasmuch as other documented cases, including Hyderabad Dakkini Hindi, Sarasvat Brahmin Konkani, Saurashtra and even Sinhala itself, all represent Indo-Aryan languages or dialects changing under the influence of Dravidian languages, whereas NFT [Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil] appears to be a Dravidian language changing under the influence of an Indo-Aryan language (Sinhala), albeit one that has already become substantially more ‘Dravidianized’ than its linguistic relatives in northern South Asia.”

Adding to the uniqueness of Negombo Tamil is the fact that the Karavas immigrated to Sri Lanka much later than Tamils immigrated to Jaffna. This would suggest that the Negombo dialect continued to evolve in the Coromandel Coast before it arrived in Sri Lanka and began to get influenced by Sinhala. So, in some ways, the dialect is closer to those spoken in Tamil Nadu than is Jaffna Tamil.

On the decline

Given the fact that fishermen from Negombo seasonally migrate to other parts of the island, their dialect has become a lingua franca among the Tamil fishing communities on the island. Despite this spread, though, there is a danger of the dialect declining as a first language. As the younger generation of the community moves away from fishing as a livelihood, there is a greater emphasis on English, the language of opportunities in South Asia.

Those who learn Tamil in schools, such as the 90-year-old Wijayaratnam Hindu Central College, are taught the standardised language that is in official use across the country and in Tamil Nadu.

Bonta’s research suggests that Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil is a dialect that the community is keen to preserve. “Tamil is spoken at home, in church and at work,” he wrote. “Moreover I observed no codeswitching when Tamil was being spoken.”

The American scholar added that most Negombo Karavas were literate in Tamil. “I noted a number of Tamil inscriptions on the cardboard partitions serving as internal walls in the house of my primary informant’s family, and addresses and other information that they provided me we invariably written in Tamil,” Bonta said.

The Negombo fishing community has shown how a dialect and culture can be protected in a wider multilingual and multi-ethnic country. They are an example of how assimilation and integration do not have to come at the cost of a minority community’s language and religious beliefs. While the community is still scarred by the memory of the 2019 Easter Sunday bomb blast, which claimed 93 lives in the St Sebastian’s Church, Negombo’s Catholic and Tamil cultural life is still thriving.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.