Naming Conventions of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, throughout the ages, has always comprised of a mix of ethnic groups consisting of the majority Sinhalese, and the minority Tamil, Moor (Muslims of Arab origin), Malay (Muslims of Malay origin), Burgher (Anglo-Sri Lankan) and Christians. History records that the earliest Sinhalese civilization originated from West Bengal in former India which is now a part of the newly created state of Bangla Desh. The Moors are Muslims who are direct descendant of the Arabs while the Malays are also Muslims who originated from the Far East. The Christians are mainly converts from the Sinhalese and Tamil communities during the colonial rule of the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

The Sinhalese community usually have two names. The first is called the "GE" (Sinhalese for House or Tribe, pronounced "gay") Name while the second is the actual name of the individual. The "GE" name may indicate the place from which their family originated, the title or profession of the Head of the family or any other special characteristic of the family that prevailed at the time. Hence a person may be called "MuhandiramlaGE Simon" which indicates that he hails from the "House of Muhandiram" and his name is Simon. Muhandiram is a title meaning an appointed commissioner or leader of a locality. This prefix "GE" name is carried down through all descendants irrespective of whether they are male or female and would serve more effectively for searching such family connectivity. Sinhalese women usually adopt the second name of the spouse after marriage, yet keep their prefixed family or "GE" name in tact. The Sinhalese, usually, use an initial to indicate the first name rather than spell it out in its full form

The Tamil community have a completely unique and different method of nomenclature. They also, usually, use two names, the first representing their father's name and the second representing their own. Eg; Ponnambalam Ramanathan indicates that the individuals name is Ramanathan and he is the son of Ponnambalam. The son of P. Ramanathan would then become Ramanathan Arulanantham, where the son's name is Arulanantham and is prefixed by the name of his father. The Tamils, like the Sinhalese, usually, use an initial to indicate the first name rather than spell it out in its full form. Women too use the same naming structure but do adopt the husbands name after marriage. Searching for connectivity using names for Tamils can be difficult unless one recognizes the convention they usually adopt.

It must also be noted here that both Sinhalese and Tamil communities maintain a caste system, even until today, and this caste system can also have its influence on providing them prefixed names or titles.

Moors, who are Muslims of Arab origin, have multiple methods of  naming amongst their community. Many of those in villages and remote towns use their fathers name as a prefix, similar to the Tamils, differing in only by the fact that they may use more than one name for the prefix. Eg; Muhammad Ismail has a son and names him Muhammad Ismail Muhammad Saleem where the sons name is Muhammad Saleem. The names Muhammad or Ahmed are commonly sued across the board as first names for male Muslims while the names Fathima or Sithy or Ummu or Noor are used for females. Furthermore Muslims have a tendency to give more than one name for their offspring. This, usually, rises from the fact that all members of both spouses family take part in contributing these names. Modern Muslims living in the metropolitan areas and big cities, have adopted the use of the running Surname as is used in western cultures. This is a direct influence of the Colonial era. Malays too follow the practice of carrying on the Surname throughout their descendants. However they have a tendency to use the Prefix TUAN for males and GNEI for females as a standard similar to the Muhammad and Fathima of the Moors. Although Islam does not recommend the giving up of the family name by women after marriage most Muslim women have adopted the modern western method of taking their husbands name. Muslims also have a tendency to use initials to depict all their names except the last one thus giving rise to many names like, M.S.M. Irfan or A.L.M. Rasheed.

By this they sometimes become known to the rest of the community by the initials instead of the last name, ;eg ALM or MSM. Many Muslims living in the Central Province of the country also have Sinhalese "GE" names prefixed to all their Muslim names. This has been, mainly, on account of special titles and honour rendered upon them by the ancient Sinhalese Kings for various services and work rendered by them to the Royalty and Community during that era.

The Burghers, who are direct descendants of Colonial Europeans and the locals, either Sinhalese or Tamil, conform to the western system of naming where the Surname is carried down the line. Women, of course, adopt the Surname of the husband after marriage.

The Christians, who are mostly descended from converts from Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus during the colonial era adopt the modern western method of nomenclature keeping their surnames running down the line. However, some of them may still carry their prefix "GE" names, if they were previously Sinhalese. Some Tamil Christians still maintain their original Hindu system of nomenclature keeping their immediate fathers name as a prefix.

Thus it will be seen that Sri Lankans have a mixed variety of naming conventions and methods amongst all their ethnic groups to such an extent that it would be almost impossible to use any fixed type of search methodology to research their progeny. This fact is very important to be borne in mind by those using presently established methods of search using Surnames or Family Names.


European Occupation of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) compiled by Bobby Caspersz


H.E.A. de Vos to Nederveen Cappel
ARA - Algemeen Rijks Archief, The Hague.
Original title:
"The VOC officials beget numerous children with European, Mestiesen, Castiesen, Toepassen, Black, Bandanese, Maleise and Singhalese women"

·       Mesties = child of European and local born 1/2 white mother.

·       Casties = child of a Mesties (3/4 white).

·       Toepas = from Portuguese "topaz", a Christian halfblood of Portuguese lineage.

·       Swarte = probably belonging to the Dravida's with darker skin color (editor.)..

"In the ARA section of the VOC contain letters sent from the Far East to Holland from 1614-1794. There are 2900 thick volumes. The register is in the study hall. These letters contain a treasure of information for the genealogist. The employees of the VOC sent yearly reports to the Administrators concerning the census: Christians, orphans, elephants, produce and of course the financial results. Of great importance is the census on families of Ceylon in the years 1684, 1694 and 1696. The survey was done exact, noting the number of people, men, women, ages of sons and daughters, if a parent lived in, protegees, slaves and female slaves. These statistics are of great advantage for genealogists as the baptism and marriage registration books of Jaffnapatnam have disappeared completely and those of Colombo and Matara were initiated only in 1743. However, the Galle books dating from 1677-1807, are in the Church and the Dutch tourists are so happily thumbing through them, that in a couple of years they will be totally unreadable. Soon afterward only the well-printed "Klappers" of baptism and marriage of Colombo will survive.
An example of the house census of 1694 of Jaffanpatnam City and Fort follows. In Jaffanapatnam were a total of 118 families consisting of 504 persons and 558 slaves. Among these were 100 employees of the VOC and 5 free citizens "vrijburgers". Among the women, only 14 came from Holland, while for the men the countries of origin were: Holland, Germany, France, Flanders, Norway and Denmark. The "Citizens", those who left the service of the VOC, earned their money from property and/or ale houses. The widows of non-European lineage earned their living with small profits from sewing, baking, stocking knitting, spinning and moreover "from the poor" (alms box).

The "Castle", nowadays "Fort" is a beautiful example of a Dutch star-shaped fortification. If the temperature was not 30 degrees C one would imagine approaching the fortification of Naarden. One enters through a gate dated 1680. The fort is completely intact with the Dutch Church built in 1706 with the orphanage and is still used as a fortification. In the church one can still see tombstones with shields and engravings, the escutcheons and the pews for the Commandant and the high and low commissioned employees of the VOC. The Fort is on an area of 55 acres (22.5 ha) and in it there lived in 1694, 586 people."

Who are the Burghers (By Dr K.D. Paranavitana - Extract from the Daily News of 5-9-1998)
Who are the Burghers: The term "Burgher" is of Dutch origin, used in Ceylon to identify the ethnic group comprising the descendents of the Dutch who settled down in Ceylon. The term Burgher has been used in the Netherlands since the 13th century. The Dutch who migrated on their own to Ceylon were known as Burghers (virjburghers).
The Burghers enjoyed the rights of residing on their own and enjoyed certain civic privileges without interfering with the interests of the Dutch East India Co Administration and staff, who came with the Company (VOC) to Ceylon. Burghers who left the Company were granted "Burghership". Portuguese men inter-married with local women, as there were not enough Portuguese women to marry. In time the Dutch men married the Portuguese women of pure and mixed blood.
The term Burgher was defined by The Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Richard Ottley, in an authoritative pronouncement, when he gave evidence before the Commission which was appointed in connection with the establishment of a Legislative Council in Ceylon in 1883. He stated that,
"The name Burgher belongs to the descendants of the Dutch, Portuguese and other Europeans born in Ceylon, and the right to distinction must not be decided by the Country from which their father or paternal ancestor came. So whatever the number of generations through which the family has passed in this Island, If the male ancestors were Dutch, Portuguese and or other Europeans, whoever may have been the female parents, if the parents were married the offspring would be Burgher. If the parents were not married, the country of the mother would decide the question. If the right to be denominated Burgher be once lost by the legitimate father being a Cingalese or other Indian, it cannot be recovered.".

Formation of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon – 12 Nov 1907

An Informal meeting was first held at the Lindsay Hall, Bambalapitiya on 12 November 1907 men and women of the Dutch Burgher community, distinguished each in their own right, by professional achievement and of social standing meant to air opinion. In the outcome, a resolution was carried unanimously which read “That this meeting is of opinion that a union of the Dutch Burghers of Ceylon, with the object of promoting the moral, social and intellectual well-being of the community is very desirable” (Extract from an article by Deloraine Brohier–The DBU of Ceylon – its founding & growth)

First Gathering of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon

(Source - Extract from the Ceylon Independent Newspaper published in the De NieuweCourant of Amsterdam (4 Jan., 1908),
"The first gathering of the "Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon" on the occasion of the Sint Nicolaas celebrations .At this most curious gathering, at which our compatriot who so fervently represents the Dutch tribe and language, not only played the role of the Good Sint, but apparently also organized this event successfully. There were also a great many children present who were told by Miss Pieters, another compatriot staying on the island, about the origin and meaning of the festivity.Then entered Sinterklaas accompanied by the melody of the Dutch National  Anthem, and a puppet show was presented by Mr. Ernest van Dort with his own hand-made puppets, and the entertainment was closed with a little concert.
A number of Burghers with true Dutch names were at this party, from these we only mention the truly recognizable ones Anthonisz , Albrecht, Bartholomeusz, Christoffelsz, Caspersz, Drieberg, De Boer, De Kretser, De Vos, De Jong, Hoffman, Huybertz, Jansz, Kriekenbeek, Leembruggen, Maartensz, Modder, Prins, Paulusz, Speldewinde, Schokman, Thomasz, Van Dort,Van Cuylenburg, Vollenhoven, Van der Straaten, Van de Gucht, Van Geyzel, Van Twest. Each of these families was represented by one or more members. Will there ever be a time all these burghers will speak Dutch

Dutch Burgher Names, Their Origin & Significance

(Source – Extracts from the R J Anthonisz Lecture in the DBU Hall 13-3-1914

Names derived in various ways from the father’s Christian name, which was the earliest form of Patronymic ‘Ing & Ink e.g., Baldsing, Beling, Metzeling, Meurling, Theuring etc.
English names under this class are Dering, Browning, Whiting etc
The Next form of patronymic is that ending in Zoon (son)

·       Janszoon contracted to Jansz. It is equivalent to the English name Johnson

·       Dirkszoon contracted to Dirksz also spelt Direksz

·       Anthoniszoon into Anthonisz

·       Casperszoon into Caspersz (son of Caspers)

·       Maartenszoon into Martensz

·       Lourenszoon into Lourensz

We are familiar with a large number of English names ending in son such as Davidson, Johnson, Robinson, Richardson etc., all of which have been formed of corresponding Christian names, as David, John, Robin and Richard.
Dutch names appearing with prefix van (of or from):

·       van Buren –Buren is a flourishing town in the  Betuwe district of the province of Gelderland

·       van Cuylenburg – Cuylenburg is an old town on the Rhine situated on the borders of the province of Gelderland

·       van Dort – Dort is the ancient name for Dordrecht in South Holland famous for the Synod held there in 1618

·       van Houten – Houten is a small town in the Province of Utrecht

 Among other names which maybe ascribed to this class are those ending in beek (a brook)

·       Kriekenbeek – brook of the black country

·       Wambeek – mud locked brook

 Names ending in berg (hill)

·       Drieberg – three hills

·       van Langenberg – from the long hill

·       van den Berg – from the hill

 Names ending in brug (bridge)

·       van den Bruggen – from the bridges

·       Leembruggen – bridges of clay

 Other Names

·         van der Meer – from the lake

·       van der Sluys – from the sluice

·       van der Spar – from the spar

·       van der Wall – from the rampart

·       Foenander – Scandinavian name – from the island of Funen in Sweden

 Family surnames which are derived from trades and occupations:

·       De Kretser – carder of wool

·       Cramer – Peddler

·       Schneider – tailor

·       Schumacher – Shoemaker

·       Schokman – taxer or appraiser

·       Muller – miller

·       Visser – fisher