THE CEYLON MUSLIMS AND THE MOTHER TONGUE

The Ceylon Daily News of 10th  December 1941

It is not strictly correct to speak of the vernacular or the mother tongue of the Ceylon Muslims, as the term "Ceylon Muslims" connotes a religious and not a racial or linguistic group. Muslims are those who profess the religion of Islam and may therefore belong to different races and speak different languages. For our present purpose, the Ceylon Muslims may be divided into two groups, the Ceylon Moors and the Ceylon Malays.

Theoretically speaking it is not necessary that all the Ceylon Moors and all the Ceylon Malays should be Muslims. They are free to choose any religion they like or profess no religion; but in point of fact non-Muslims among them are almost unknown.

There are Indian Muslims in Ceylon like the Borahs, Memons and Coast Moors; but their mother tongue generally depends on the province or the area in India to which they belong, e.g. Tamil is the language of the Coast Moors who come from South India and Gujerati that of the Borahs.

The mother tongue of a child has been defined as the language in which the mother speaks to the child; and as far as the individual child is concerned, the definition is faultless and comprehensive. It should not, however, be taken to imply that it is incorrect to speak of the mother tongue of a particular racial or other group. Instead, the definition indicates what we should look for when we are considering the mother tongue of a racial group, particularly when a large number of that group are able to speak fluently more than one language.

The mother tongue is the language in which the wife and husband address each other and both of them talk to their children. There may be individual families whose "home language" is different from that of the mother tongue of the racial group to which they belong. But such families are extremely rare, if not entirely unknown, among the Ceylon Moors, and therefore cannot possibly deflect the current of the community's cultural progress. For this reason, the experience of such families may be left out of account in the present discussion.

There is no confusion with regard to the mother tongue of the Ceylon Malays. It is the Malay language. And it is spoken in every Malay home. The Malays, however, are not without difficulties owing to the paucity of their number and the ignorance of the Malay language among the other communities of Ceylon. Besides, the Malays themselves have, by force of circumstances probably beyond their control, allowed the writing and the reading of the Malay language to fall into disuse, with the result that, broadly speaking, the Malay language in its written form is practically non-existent in Ceylon.

Efforts are being made by some of them to resurrect it by the establishment of a school in Slave Island where the language is taught in a scientific manner. But the difficulties in the way of a complete revival are many; and unless determined and vigorous steps are taken early by the Malay community, its members will in course of time tend to adopt either Sinhalese or Tamil as their mother tongue, probably the latter in view of the large number of inter-marriages between the Malays and the Moors and in view of the use, even at present, of Tamil in "kutbas" and "hathees."

When the problem of the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors is considered, it is essential that a clear distinction should be drawn between what is and what should be. To give a satisfactory answer to the latter inevitably involves the discussion of the former.

Ordinarily there should be in a community no doubt as to what its mother tongue is. But in the case of the Ceylon Moors, confusion in some quarters has arisen as a result of many of the Moors being bilingual and some of them being dissatisfied with the present position and wanting to go after a new mother tongue, perhaps without a sufficient realisation of the danger of ignoring the past as well as the present in a matter of this kind.

The position seems to be different among the non-bilingual Moors who occupy the Northern and Eastern portions of Ceylon. Their number calls for an adequate considerations of their point of view.

To answer the question, what is the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors, should not be difficult. It is certainly Tamil. The Moors who occupy the Northern and Eastern parts of Ceylon speak no other language. If any of them know another language it is in addition to Tamil and not in place of it. The Moors occupying the remaining portions of Ceylon speak both Tamil and Sinhalese, and a good number of the male members are equally fluent in both languages. But even in these parts no Ceylon Moor is found whether male or female, who cannot speak Tamil. And all of them use Tamil as their home language.

Broadly speaking, the women in these parts are less fluent in Sinhalese than the men. This is a clear indication that Tamil is the mother tongue of the Moors. The children are spoken to in Tamil and the rudiments of religion are also taught in Tamil. Of course, there are cases of some Moor children attending Sinhalese schools for want of Tamil schools in the neighbourhood. This by no means indicates that Tamil is not the mother tongue.

These children when they grow old would be more fluent in Sinhalese which language they would be able to read and write, whereas in some cases they would probably not know Tamil in its written form. But the absence of any Muslim literature in Sinhalese and the use of Tamil in "hathees", in congregational prayers, and in the teaching of the Holy Quran would yet exert a powerful influence in favour of Tamil. Even in such villages or areas, the Quran teacher is invariably one who can read and write Tamil but not Sinhalese.

It will therefore be incorrect to divide the Ceylon Moors into two groups, the Sinhalese-speaking and the Tamil-speaking, as the former group knows Tamil as well. That Tamil is undoubtedly the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors is clear from the fact that even in those remote villages inhabited by the Ceylon Moors and surrounded on all sides by Sinhalese villagers from times unknown, the Moors there have not forgotten their Tamil and still continue to speak Tamil in their homes.

The social contacts of the Moors in the Western and Southern parts of Ceylon with their Sinhalese neighbours who do not, generally speaking, understand Tamil have naturally resulted in the use of a fair number of Sinhalese words in their spoken Tamil. Thus there are dialectical differences between the Tamil spoken, say, by a Moor from Mannar and the Tamil spoken by, say, one from Alutgama.

It is, however, necessary to lay stress on the fact that these dialectical differences are by no means so pronounced as to make it difficult for the former to understand the latter or to justify the distinction of them as languages instead of as dialects. "Chonakam" is a term sometimes employed to show that the Tamil is of the kind spoken by Moors living in the South. But this term has not gained sufficient currency even to denote the dialectical difference indicated above.

There are also dialectical differences between the Tamil spoken by a Ceylon Tamil and by a Moor of the same locality, e.g. in Jaffna. The latter uses a large number of Arabic words in place of the purely Tamil words used by the former particularly words of religious significance or words connoting social activities that cannot be entirely dissociated from religion.

In addition to this, the Ceylon Moors, frequently in the past and not so frequently in the present, have been using Arabic script, with necessary modifications, to write their Tamil. This is called Arabic-Tamil. Being Tamil written in Arabic characters, Arabic-Tamil is something which neither the Arabs nor the Tamils could understand; the Arabs being able to read but not understand, while the Tamils could understand but for their inability to read the script.

Arabic-Tamil possesses neither a separate grammar nor a separate literature, and therefore cannot be elevated to the position of a language. It is nothing more and nothing less than a dialect of Tamil. Arabic-Tamil was at one time preferred in the writing of Muslim literature owing to the difficulty of some of the Arabic words being satisfactorily pronounced if written in Tamil. But this difficulty has been overcome by the use, in the purely Tamil script, of special diacritical marks improvised for the purpose. The mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors is Tamil inspite of dialectical peculiarities. There are Moors who speak only Tamil and there are other Moors who speak both Tamil and Sinhalese.
In certain quarters, there is dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs and a tendency to look for a language other than Tamil that could be adopted as the mother tongue of the Moors. It is doubtful that this view is prevalent among the community to any appreciable extent. Even so, it is unfortunate that there should be some amount of doubt and confusion in a vital matter of this nature with which the cultural and educational future of the community is inextricably involved.

Some are tempted to advocate Arabic as the future mother tongue and others Sinhalese and still others English. These advocates do not, however, come from the Northern or Eastern parts of Ceylon where no doubt of any kind is entertained as regards the future status of Tamil. Even if it is accepted for argument's sake that a change in the mother tongue is indicated, the difficulties of the transformation are insuperable. A Dictator like Kemal Pasha could change the script but even he would have probably found it almost impossible to change the mother tongue.

No Ceylon Moor could possibly contemplate the division of his community into two sections, one continuing to have Tamil as the mother tongue and the other choosing a different language. Tamil should therefore continue to be the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors, whether for its intrinsic value or on account of the extreme difficulty of adopting another. That Tamil already possesses a large amount of first-rate Muslim literature, thanks to the poet and writers of South India, and tha it is the language used in the "Kutbas" and "Hathees" of the local "Imams" and "Alims" are features in favour of Tamil.

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