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Sinhala is the language spoken by the majority of the people living in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). It belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, with strong kinship to Bengali, Pali, Sanskrit and related languages. It has also absorbed many words from Tamil, a Dravidian language spoken in south India and the northern provinces of Sri Lanka. The sinhala script has evolved from the so called Brahmi script of ancient north India.

Sinhalese, which developed as an island language, has some unique features, not found in other Indo-Aryan languages. This is due to its exposure to other language families of the South Asian region such as Dravidian and Austronesian. The Tamil language, which belongs to the Dravidian group has influenced the structure and vocabulary of Sinhalese to such an extent that some scholars were erroneously led to believe that Sinhalese belonged to the Dravidian group of languages.

The folkloric tale of Vijaya (a Bengali prince) and Kuveni, a Sri Lankan princess, puts the origin of Sinhala into a myth form very similar to that of a Greek myth. Stone inscriptions, as well as written texts (the Maha Wamsa, a history of the kings of Sri Lanka going back to almost the Buddha's time) suggest that Sinhala is a very old language. A shrine to Alexander (Ishkander), called Kataragama, and associated sinhala folk lore, are found in the southern Sihala heartland of Sri Lanka.

It has many literary works, strongly influenced by Buddhism, and often followed the literary band wagons of India (e.g, sandesha poetry of India, literary modes used by Kalidasa and similar Indian dramatic poets etc., are all echoed in Sinhala literature - as attested in the literary debates known as "kukavi vada") ). Sinhala fell into official disuse under the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule. Nationalist movements in the first half of the 20th century saw the establishment of the "helabasa" movement, lead by the grammarian Munidasa Kumaratunga, which gave new vigour to the language. A more important influence was the rise of an important newspaper culture (lead by the Dinamina newspaper established by the Wijaywardena group). A celebrated writer, Martin Wickremasinghe, was one of the well known and influential editors of the Dinamina.

The script used in writing Sinhalese is evolved from the ancient Brahmi script used in most Aryan languages, which was introduced to the island in the 3rd century BC. Around the 6th century, certain characters were borrowed from a Dravidian writing system to replace a few existing symbols.

Sinhala became the official language of Sri Lanka in 1956.