The Sinhala Script

Before joining Dalton Maag as a font developer, I had the opportunity to explore the Sinhala script for a whole year during my MA in Typeface Design at the University of Reading, UK. I spent many hours collecting and studying material about this beautiful and fascinating script. The font that I designed following my research is this year’s Granshan Grand Prize winner, and I will share some bits about my research in this post.

Sinhala, also known as Sinhalese, is a South-Indic script and one of the two official languages of Sri Lanka, the other being Tamil. According to the most recent government census, Sinhala is in use as a first language by more than 80% of the total population. Including minority ethnic groups that use Sinhala as second language, the script is used by around 17 million people, only considering those within Sri Lankan boundaries.

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Situation map of Sri Lanka.

Script Characteristics

Sinhala is derived from ancient Brahmic and as with all modern Indic scripts it has a complex structure. Even though it is written from left to right and it does not have joining characters, Sinhala has little in common with the Latin script. Beyond the clear differences regarding the letter shapes, Sinhala does not have differentiation between upper and lower cases, and most importantly, it uses consonants as the basic unit for word construction. All consonants have an inherent short vowel “a”, so in order to represent different sounds it is necessary to add vowel marks (called Pilla) that can be used before, after, above or below the base-consonant.

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The basic scheme of Sinhala’s typographic anatomy.

Origins: Stone Inscriptions and Palm Leaf Writing

The Sinhala script has an extensive written heritage which exists in the form of stone inscriptions and palm leaf manuscripts, mainly devoted to religious subjects. In palm leaf writing, the letterforms were incised in prepared leaves with a pointed stylus and the grooves inked with charcoal powder so that the writing became legible. The writing material has influenced the script appearance, since it was necessary to make the shapes more circular in order to avoid damaging the leaves. The best models of Sinhalese manuscripts were used by European colonialists in the creation of the first Sinhala moveable printing types.

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A palm leaf book. This is written with large sized letters from a skilled hand, to be read at night, during recitation of the text, from 1778. (Wellcome Library, UK)

Sri Lanka was disputed and ruled by three different European colonial powers for 443 years, a period of intense transformation of Sinhalese letterforms. The Dutch were the first to print with Sinhalese type on the island, in 1736, and decided to keep the features of native Sinhala script, following the writing practice on palm leaves. The type was cut to be monolinear in a rather geometric fashion and typeset with no separation between words in the early documents. In opposition to the Dutch approach, a new style of Sinhalese letterforms emerged in the second half of the 19th century and it was notable for its high contrast appearance. This style was introduced during the British ruling period and gradually replaced the existing monolinear model as the preferred style. Until the present day, the high contrast style has prevailed as a very popular model for text typesetting in printed newspapers, books and magazines in Sri Lanka.

Rafael Saraiva

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Left: The title page of Singaleesch Gebeede-Boek from 1737, using the Dutch monolinear design (Google books). Right: The high contrast typeface used in a governmental publication from 1957. (Personal archive)

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