Language replacement


Renfrew’s theory of Elite dominance

An important concept used in this study relates to language replacement in the Early Iron Age (EIA).

Clearly the prehistoric languages spoken by the Mesolithic people in Sri Lanka were replaced, no doubt gradually, in the protohistoric period.

For a long time historians of Sri Lanka have assumed that there was a total change of population at the beginning of the protohistoric period as a result of a significant migration. Recent developments in archaeology go against such an assumption.

As the archaeologist Colin Renfrew has pointed out, ‘one of the most striking shifts in archaeological thought in the past few years has been the realization that there have been far fewer wholesale migrations of people than had once been thought.’

Earlier, language change was often attributed to population change. Archaeologists now accept that language replacement can occur without population change.

In his seminal work, Archaeology and Language, Renfrew presents his challenging models of language change. One of them is now well known model of elite dominance.


Renfrew describes the model as follows:

“It assumes…the arrival from the outside the territory of a relatively small group of highly-organised people, speaking a different language, who because of their military effectiveness are able to dominate the existing population, and bring it into effective subjection.

The two languages will then exist side-by-side for some time, with many of the population, probably both the indigenous and the immigrant, becoming bilingual.

In some circumstances the newcomers will be assimilated and their foreign languages forgotten. In others it is the language of the newcomers which prevails, while that of the original population, although they were the more numerous, dies out. That is a case of language replacement.”


Other scholars have argued that there is also the possibility of language replacement occurring as  a result of prolonged trade contact.

The archaeologist Coningham has pointed out his possibility and drawn attention to the argument of the linguist Sherratt that trade networks involving directional exchange could have led to slow language replacement.

While admitting this  ‘it is still unclear which process, or combination of processes were the cause of Sri Lankan language replacement’, Coningham has argued that all of Renfew’s models for linguistic change ‘may have performed a function in the process of language replacement’.

The concept of elite dominance resulting from long-distance trade contacts is adopted here to explain the gradual language replacement that took place in Sri Lanka in the protohistoric period.

Long distance trade with western and eastern India brought Prakrit-speakers while trade interests and other factors led to the dominance of Tamil-speakers in certain parts of the island.

One cannot agree more with Coningham’s comment that ‘there is no reason to suppose that the processes at work in one part of the island were the same as in other parts.’


- Excerpts from ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’ by K.Indrapala (2005).



1. Renfrew, C 1998 – Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European origins, London: Pimlico.

2. Renfrew, C and Bahn, P. 1996 – Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practice, London, Thames and Hudson

3. Coningham, R.A.E et al 1996 – Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi script, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6:1 73-97.


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