Dhivehi language

Dhivehi language

region=Maldives; Lakshadweep (India)
fam4=Insular Indo-Aryan
agency=http://www.qaumiyyath.gov.mv/ |National Centre for Linguistics and Historical Research

Dhivehi (or Divehi) is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by more than about 300,000 people in the Republic of Maldives where it is the official language of the country and in the island of Minicoy ("Maliku") in neighbouring India where it is known as Mahl. Dhivehi is closely related to Sinhala. Many languages have influenced the development of Dhivehi through the ages, most importantly Arabic. Others include Malayalam, Hindi, French, Persian, Portuguese, and English.

H. C. P. Bell was one of the first transliterators of this tongue. Bell called the language "Divehi", which was consistent with "Maldives", the name of the country, for the "-dives" of "Maldives" and the word "Divehi" have the same root which is "dvīp" ("island" in Sanskrit).

Wilhelm Geiger was a German linguist who undertook the first research on Divehi linguistics in the early 20th century. He called the Maldivian language "Divehi", without an "h". In 1976, when a semi-official Latin transliteration was developed for the Maldive language, an "h" was added to the name of the language, but not to the name of the country. This inconsistency has yet to be resolved.

English words such as atoll (a ring of coral islands or reefs) and "doni" (a vessel for inter-atoll navigation) are anglicized forms of the Maldivian words "Atolhu" and "Dhōni".


Divehi is an Indo-Aryan language closely related to the Sinhalese language of Sri Lanka. Divehi represents the southernmost Indo-Aryan language, and thus the southernmost Indo-European language. Together with Sinhala, Divehi represents a special subgroup within the Modern Indo-Aryan languages which is called Insular Indo-Aryan.

Whereas earlier it was believed that Divehi was a descendant of the Sinhalese language, in 1969 Sinhalese philologist M. W. S. de Silva for the first time proposed that Dhivehi and Sinhalese have branched off from a common mother language (a Prakrit). He says that “the earliest Indic element in Maldivian is not so much a result of branching off from Sinhalese as a result of a simultaneous separation with Sinhalese from the Indic languages of the mainland of India”. S. Fritz has recently reached the same conclusion in a detailed study of the language. De Silva refers to the Dravidian influences seen in the Dhivehi language such as in the old place names. De Silva’s theory is supported by the legend of Prince Vijaya as told in the Mahavamsa because if this legend is to be believed, the migration of Indo-Aryan colonists to the Maldives and Sri Lanka from the mainland (India) must have taken place simultaneously.

Variants of the language

Due to the widespread distribution of the islands, differences in pronunciation and vocabulary have developed during the centuries. The mainstream form of Divehi is known as Malé Bas and is based on the variant spoken in the capital of the country.

The most important variants of the language are to be found in the southern atolls, namely Huvadu, Fua Mulaku and Addu. Slighter variants are spoken in Haddummati and in Minicoy Island, the latter being known as Maliku Bas. Only Male Bas and Maliku Bas are used in writing. The other variants are only used in spoken speech and in popular songs and poetry.

"Moloki bas", is a dialect of Dhivehi which is spoken by the people of Fuvahmulah Island. Moloki bas has Laamu sukun (ލް)which is absent from the official Male' dialect. This is a final 'l' without vowel sound, like the first letter 'L' in the word 'calculator'. Another characteristic of this variant of Dhivehi is the 'o' sound at the end of words, instead of the final 'u' common in all other forms of Dhivehi. Eg. 'fanno' instead of 'fannu'. Regarding pronunciation, the retroflex 'ş', which has almost a slight 'r' sound in mainstream Divehi, becomes š in Moloki bas, sounding like the Arabic letter 'sheenu'.

The letter Naviyani ޱ (different from the letter Ñaviyani), which represented the retroflex "n" sound common to many Indic languages (Sinhala, Gujarati, Hindi, etc.), was abolished from official documents in 1950 by Muhammad Amin, the ruler of Maldives. The reason why this particular letter representing a retroflex sound was abolished and not others like Lhaviyani, Daviyani or Taviyani is not known. Perhaps it was a mere whim of the charismatic Maldivian leader of those times. [Xavier Romero-Frias, The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom]

Letter Naviyani's former position in the Thaana alphabet was between letters Daviyani and Zaviyani. It is still seen in reprints of traditional old books like the "Bodu Tartheebu". It is also used by Addu people when writing songs or poetry in their language variant.

Levels of speech

Inherent in the Dhivehi language is a form of elaborate class distinction expressed through three levels: The first level, the "enme maa goiy" (known colloquially as "reethi bas"), is used to address members of the upper class and of royal blood, but is now more often used on national radio and TV. To show respect for elders, officials and strangers the second level, "maa goy" is used. People use the more informal third level "aadhaige goiy" in everyday life and to talk about themselves. Even a nobleman or a high official does not use the high level to talk about himself.

Regarding salutations, there is no direct translation of the English "hello" or "good-bye" in Dhivehi. Instead, islanders greet each other with a smile or the raising of the eyebrow and just ask "where are you going?", followed by "what for?". Goodbyes were not traditionally expressed, except in highly formal speech or in poetry (Lhen).

Dhivehi scripts

The Maldivian language has had its own script since very ancient times, most likely over two millennia, when Maldivian Buddhist monks translated and copied the Buddhist scriptures.

It used to be written in the earlier form (Evēla) of the Divehi Akuru (or Dives Akuru, "Dhivehi letters") which are written from left to right. Divehi Akuru were used in all of the islands between the conversion to Islam and until the 1700s. These ancient Maldivian letters were also used in official correspondence with Addu Atoll until the early 1900s. Perhaps they were used in some isolated islands and rural communities until the 1960s, but the last remaining native user died in the 1990s. Today Maldivians rarely learn the Divehi Akuru alphabet, for Arabic is being favoured as second script.

Divehi or Dhivehi is presently written using a different script, called Thaana or Tāna, written from right to left. This script is relatively recent.

The literacy rate of the Maldives is very high (98%) compared to other South Asian countries. Since the 1960s English has become the medium of education in most schools although they still have Dhivehi classes, but Dhivehi is still the language used for the overall administration.

In Minicoy, a varient of Devanagari is used along with Tana.

Latin Transliteration of the Dhivehi language

Towards the mid 1970s, during President Ibrahim Nasir's tenure, Telex machines were introduced by the Maldivian Government in the local administration. The new telex equipment was viewed as a great progress, however the local Tāna script was deemed to be an obstacle because messages on the telex machines could only be written in the Latin script.Following this, "Dhivehi Letin", a new official Latin transliteration was swiftly approved by the Maldive government in 1976 and was quickly implemented by the administration. Booklets were printed and dispatched to all Atoll and Island Offices, as well as schools and merchant liners. This was seen by many as the effective demise of the Tāna script. Clarence Maloney, the American anthropologist who was in the Maldives at the time of the change, lamented the inconsistencies of the "Dhivehi Letin" which ignored all previous linguistic research on the Maldivian language done by H.C.P. Bell and Wilhelm Geiger. He wondered why the modern Standard Indic transliteration had not been considered. Standard Indic is a consistent script system that is well adapted to writing practically all languages of South Asia. [Clarence Maloney; People of the Maldive Islands]

The Tāna script was reinstated by the Maldivian government shortly after President Maumoon took power in 1978. There was widespread relief in certain places, especially rural areas, where the introduction of Latin had been regarded with suspicion. However, the substandard Latin transcription of 1976 continues to be widely used.


Further reading

*Bell, H.C.P. 'The Maldive Islands. Monograph on the History, Archaeology and Epigraphy". Reprint 1940 edn. Malé 1986.
*H.C.P. Bell, T"he Maldive Islands, An account of the Physical Features, History, Inhabitants, Productions and Trade'. Colombo 1883, ISBN 81 206 1222 1
*Bell, H.C.P. "Excerpta Maldiviana". Reprint 1922-1935 edn. New Delhi 1998.
*"Divehi Bahuge Qawaaaid". Vols 1 to 5. Ministry of Education. Malé 1978.
*"Divehīnge Tarika. Divehīnge Bas. Divehibahāi Tārikhah Khidumaykurā Qaumī Majlis". Malé 2000.
*Fritz, Sonja. "The Dhivehi Language - A Descriptive and Historical Grammar of Maldivian and Its Dialects". Heidelberg, 2002, ISBN 3-89913-248-3
*Geiger, Wilhelm. "Maldivian Linguistic Studies". Reprint 1919 edn. Novelty Press. Malé 1986.
*Maloney, Clarence. "People of the Maldive Islands". Orient Longman. New Delhi.
*Xavier Romero-Frias, "The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom". Barcelona 1999, ISBN 84 7254 801 5

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