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About Maldivian (Dhivehi) Language

The Dhivehi, Divehi, or Mahl (Mahal) language is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by about 350,000 people in the Republic of Maldives and also in the island of Maliku (Minicoy) in Union territory of Lakshadweep, India.

Divehi is closely related to Sinhala. Many languages have influenced the development of Divehi 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, Sanskrit dvīpa "island".

Wilhelm Geiger was a German linguist who undertook the first research on Divehi linguistics in the early 20th century. He also called the language Divehi, without an "h". However In 1976, when a semi-official Latin transliteration was developed for the Divehi language, an "h" was added to the name of the language, though it is an unaspirated sound, so 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 Divehi words Atoḷu and Dōni.

Etymology

The origin of the word "Divehi" is Div+vehi meaning Islanders' while bas means language. So Divehi-bas means Islanders' language.

The Lakshadweep Administration in India refers to Divehi as Mahl. The origin of the word "Mahl" is based on the Arabic name of the language and of the Maldives, which was al-lughath al-Mahaldibiyya and ad-Daulath al-Mahaldibiyya respectively. On this basis the British officials in British India recorded the name of the language as Mahl.

Origin

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

Dhivehi is descended from Maharashtri, a Prakrit of ancient and medieval India. The Prakrit vernacular languages, including Maharashtri Prakrit, were originally derived from Vedic Sanskrit.

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 Divehi 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 Divehi 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 Laccadive-Maldives archipelago and Sri Lanka from the mainland (India) must have taken place simultaneously.

History

Lōmāfānu, a copper-plate grant of 12th century.Divehi (Mahl) has a continuous written history of about eight hundred years. The earliest writings were on the Lōmāfānu (copper-plate grants) of the 12th and 13th centuries. Early inscriptions on coral stone have also been found. The oldest inscription found to date is an inscription on a coral stone, which is estimated to be from around the 7th or 8th century.

Divehi is based on Sanskrit foundations and it developed in relative isolation with little contact with the other languages until the 12th century. Since the 16th century, Divehi has been written in a unique script called Tāna which is written from right to left, like that of Hebrew and Arabic (with which it shares several common diacritics for vowel sounds).

The foundation of the historical linguistic analysis of both Divehi and Sinhalese was laid by Wilhelm Geiger (1856–1943). In Geiger’s comparative study of Divehi (Mahl) and Sinhalese, he assumes that Divehi is a dialectical offspring of Sinhalese and therefore is a “daughter language” of Sinhalese. However, the material he collected was not sufficient to judge the “degree of relationship” of Divehi and Sinhalese.

Geiger concludes that Divehi must have split from Sinhalese not earlier that the 10th century CE. However, there is nothing in the history of these islands or Sinhalese chronicles, even in legendary form that alludes to a migration of Sinhalese people which results such a connection.

Vitharana suggests that Divehi did not evolve as a separate language to Sinhalese until 12th century CE. But Reynolds and others have suggested that Divehi started showing indications of divergence as early as the 4th century CE.

De Silva proposes that Divehi and Sinhalese must have branched off from a common mother language. He says that “the earliest Indic element in Divehi (Mahl) 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”.

De Silva is referring to the Dravidian influences seen in the Divehi (Mahl) 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 Minicoy, Maldives and Sri Lanka from the mainland (India) must have taken place simultaneously. This means that Divehi and Sinhalese must be “sister languages” that developed from a common Prakrit.

Whatever the origin of Divehi, linguists agree that Divehi is an Indo-Aryan language which also has older Indic elements in it.

A rare Maliku Thaana primer written in Mahl (Divehi) published by the UT Lakshadweep Administration during the time of Rajiv Gandhi's rule was reprinted by Spanish researcher Xavier Romero-Frias in 2003.

Geographic distribution

Most speakers of Divehi live in the Maldives, where it is the official language of the Island nation. Divehi is also spoken in Minicoy Island in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep, India, while a few have migrated to Kochi and elsewhere in the state of Kerala. Divehi is known as Mahl in India.

Official status

Divehi (Mahl) is the official language of Maldives and semi-official language in Union Territory of Lakshadweep, India.

Dialects

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 dialect spoken in the capital of the Maldives.

The most notable dialects 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 (Maliku), the latter being known as Maliku Bas and this dialect has less differences to the standard Divehi than other dialects. Among the dialects Male' Bas and Maliku Bas are most identical. The other variants show much difference.

Spoken and literary varieties

Divehi presents another aspect with which English speakers are not too familiar: the distinction between what is spoken and what is written. Every language that has a written idiom has this distinction to a greater or lesser degree. But Asian languages such as Divehi seem to exhibit major differences between the two varieties of language.

Spoken Divehi, for instance, has twenty seven consonants. In contrast, written or literary Divehi contains these sounds and some Arabic sounds as well. Though these sounds are also used in speaking, their phonetics is not strictly observed. This results in pronouncing it as close as possible to the Divehi sounds when speaking.

To make thing simpler it may be said that every sentences in written Divehi ends with the addition of ‘ve’, which is never used to end a sentence in spoken Divehi. In using ‘ve’ a strict word-order too has to be maintained. But in spoken Divehi word-order is not considered to be very rigid.

One of the very important things one has to take into account in written Divehi which is not so important in spoken Divehi is the ‘sukun’, on the letters ‘alif’ and ‘rhaviyani’. ‘Sukun’ in general, is a mark to indicate an abrupt stop on the sound of the letter on which it is placed. However if it comes within the word, the letter is repeated; if it comes on a ‘rhaviyani’ or ‘alif’, at the end of a word, it signifies the sound ‘h’; if it comes on a ‘thaa’, the sound is replaced by ‘iy’. Another thing to note! Though Divehi has some dialects, these dialects are hardly used in writing. Only Malé Bas and Maliku Bas are used in writing, and both does not show much differences like the rest of the dialects.

Writing system

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.

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

Morphology

Nouns in Dhivehi inflect for definiteness, number and case. Definiteness may be one of definite, indefinite or unspecified. Number may be singular or plural. Case may be one of nominative, dative, ablative, genitive, locative, instrumental or emphatic.

Nominal morphology

The nominal system of Divehi comprises nouns, pronouns, adjectives and numerals as parts of speech.

Numerals

Divehi uses two numeral systems. Both of them are identical up to 30. After 30, however, one system places the unit numeral stem before the decade (for example: eh-thirees '31' lit. one and thirty) while the other combines the stem of the decade with the unit numeral (for example: thirees-ekeh '31' lit. thirty + one). The latter system also has numerals multiplied by ten for decades 70, 80 and 90.

The decade fas dholhas '60' lit. five twelves, comes from a much older duodecimal or dozen system which has nearly disappeared.

Word order

Languages have words and words have meanings. To be able to say something, one must know the words, but that is not all. How one puts the words together also matters. Of course, in some languages it matters more than in others.

In English, for instance, the sentence ‘dog bites man’ does not mean the same thing as ‘man bites dog’, even though both sentences have the same words. The order of words seems to be quite important in English. In fact, it can be extremely rigid, at times. An Englishman must only say ‘I need some fish’ and not ‘some fish I need’ or ‘some I need fish’.

The word-order in Divehi however is not as rigid as in English. To a Divehi speaker, even a slight change in the order of words in a sentence may indicate a slight difference in meaning, but he would ignore some of these subtleties when a foreigner speaks his language. For he is delighted that the foreigner is making an attempt to speak it at all! Moreover, the practical purposes for which you will be using Divehi will eliminate some of the possible alternative meanings a phrase may have.

Loan words in Divehi

Speakers of Divehi use a great deal of loan words in their everyday conversation. The extent, to which loan words and host of words from many other languages are used, varies from speakers to speaker, depending on his contacts with that language. Thus, those who have had an English education will tend to use a larger number of English words while an average speaker with little or no contact with English will tend to use just a few. Some of these adapted words, of course have now become so much part of the Divehi language that there seem to be no other words that could replace them.

There are certain ways by which loan words are naturalized in Divehi. This depends on whether the loan word refers to (a) a person, (b) a thing or (c) some kind of action.

 

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