The country's official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. Most Sri Lankans speak one of these as a first language and perhaps English as a second or common language.

Sinhala is a Vedic language that originated in northern India. Years of colonization have influenced the language, and it has incorporated words with foreign roots. For example, one of the words for school, iskola, comes from the Portuguese, while words such as advakat (advocate) come from Dutch. Although it easily incorporates foreign words, Sinhala is a complex language, with certain words changing according to the person's social status, sex, familiarity and age. The spoken form also varies somewhat between the north and south.

Tamil, which is widely spoken in southern India, is an ancient Dravidian language. Sri Lankan Tamil is very similar to its Indian counterpart, the chief differences being in pronunciation. Tamil and Sinhala use their own scripts for writing.

For both languages, the caste system can affect the way people communicate; particularly in rural areas, subtle distinctions of speaking can immediately identify a person's caste.

Sinahlese who are superstitious may use different ways of speaking in certain situations. For example, when hunting and walking in the forest, people use a special language called Kele Bhasava, in which objects are referred to by different words. The language is supposed to outwit evil spirits, who otherwise might understand the speakers' conversation and cause bad luck.

Traditionally, Sri Lankans do not shake hands when they meet or take leave of each other. Instead, they raise their palms below their chin and bow slightly. However, today many people shake hands, though only with those of the same sex. Both Tamils and Sinhalese greet each other with the expressions "I salute the divine spirit in you" and "May you have a long life." Moving the head from side to side can indicate approval or agreement when listening to a conversation.

English Sinhala Tamil
Yes Owo Om
No Naeh Illac
Please Karuna kara Thayavu sailhu
Thank you Stuh-tee Nandori

  Did you know?
Traditionally, Sinhala's curly script was written with a sharp metal stylus (a kind of pen) on polished palm leaves.