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Foreword by Prof. Ryhana Raheem

In describing the growth of languages, linguistic historians have outlined certain stages through which a living language seems to develop as it moves from being merely a spoken dialect to a medium capable of recording and communicating all forms of human activity, in both speech and writing. One of these stages involves the growth of the word stock as the language expands, and attempts to make this increasing vocabulary accessible to all users of that language. The tool that makes vocabulary accessible is the dictionary, and the creation of a dictionary contributes towards the next important stage – standardization, and the acceptance of that language as a viable medium of formal communication.

These stages of linguistic development are readily observable in modern languages such as French and English. Thus, in the case of English, it was the development of dictionaries such as that of Dr Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century and the Oxford English Dictionary in the nineteenth century that have helped to make British English the language it is today. It is also a recognized fact that American English owes much to the efforts of Noah Webster and his monumental “American Dictionary of the English Language” of 1828.

It is against this backdrop that we need to set the “Dictionary of Sri Lankan English” by Michael Meyler. In recent times, English has re-surfaced in Sri Lanka as a major mode of education and social development. The language today is of interest to politicians, employers, employees, parents, teachers, students and the general public across the country. Its presence is proclaimed through the media and through advertising where it is often inter-twined with the two major mother tongues of this island. It is heard everywhere – in the speech of young people and of those not so young, in all Sri Lankan communities. All these users shape the language, bringing into it Sri Lankan habits, customs, expressions, interests and experience. The language has expanded to an all-purpose mode of contemporary communication, and is now ready for its next stage of development. The “Dictionary of Sri Lankan English” is a timely contribution towards this stage for it attempts, as Webster did, to introduce “uniformity and accuracy” to the multicultural vocabulary of Sri Lankan English.

This “Dictionary” is indeed in the “Great Tradition” of lexicography for it is the work of one man working mostly alone, for a long period of time – twenty years. With commitment and a little help from his friends, Michael Meyler has taken advantage of his experience as a teacher of English and a lexicographer, and of his position as an informed outsider, to create a work that “describes the way English is used in Sri Lanka”. It charts the social and cultural nuances of the words and phrases that we use, nuances that we as Sri Lankans are scarcely aware of. It pinpoints Sri Lankan usage of grammatical structures and compares it with British usage, vividly demonstrating that our English is distinct in a number of ways. It reflects and illustrates Sri Lankan phonology, reinforcing the notion that our variety of English is a variety with its own features. In short it is indeed a dictionary and not a mere glossary.

Michael Meyler himself notes that the work is by no means comprehensive. The “Dictionary of Sri Lankan English” is however an important contribution to the development of English in this country. It serves as a testimony to dedication and sensitive lexicography, and as notice to researchers, teachers and all those interested in Sri Lankan English that much work lies ahead.

Ryhana Raheem
Post Graduate Institute of English
Open University of Sri Lanka




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