While over one million tourists visit the Maldives every year to gaze out at turquoise waters while sipping coconuts beneath palm trees, Maldivians have a far better understanding of what their guests seek – a perception inherent in the Dhivehi language.
Dhivehiraajjege understand that it is a view of the Moodhu that tourists hope for – the clear shallow waters between the beach and the reef – as opposed to the Kan’du, or deep sea. Similarly, visitors would hope to be served with a Kurumba – a ripe coconut filled with juice – rather than having a dried up Kurolhi fall onto their heads from the tree.
Even the tree itself, the giver of shade and Kurumba to thirsty tourists, represents more than the sum of its parts to the Dhivehi speaker, with the iloshi traditionally used to make brooms, the fann used for roofs, and the Ruhgulhi to make drums.
“It is our identity. When we say ‘I am a Mal-dhivehin’ – the Maldivian and Dhivehi – you can’t separate it,” explains President of the Dhivehi Academy Ashraf Ali. “This is the only factor which shows the cultural and linguistic identity of the Maldives.”
President Abdulla Yameen has recently called upon all state institutions to adhere to the 2011 National Language (Priority) Act, which created the Dhivehi Academy – charged with continuing the preservation and development of the language.
The President’s Office quoted Yameen as saying that the Dhivehi language was one of the “greatest privileges of our nationalism”, describing it as a “social obligation, as Maldivians, to give precedence to our national language”.
Ashraf explained that the preservation of the local language – spoken by less than 400,000 people – is beset with difficulties, but maintained that Dhivehi was “changing” and “evolving” rather than declining, with the Maldives’ youthful population lacking the same fluency in their Dhivehi as their elders.
“They’re mixing into English language because the medium of instruction in the education system is given in English. Mostly the students don’t have enough time to discuss and to talk in Dhivehi language,” said Ashraf.
The restriction of Dhivehi to Islam and Dhivehi classes has left many young people feeling as if their mother tongue is not an official language, he suggested, arguing that English is seen as the key to a career.
A number of Arabic and Urdu words have been introduced into Dhivehi in recent decades, and Arabic has recently being introduced up to grade 7 in some schools – with plans to make expand into all schools. Young people are now seeing both Arabic and English as equally foreign languages.
“This generation don’t understand the Arabic, so they are mixing English. When they use English, the elders are saying ‘why are you destroying the language’, but the young people respond, ‘why did you mix with Arabic and Hindi’?”
Many more words detailing different types of ocean remain in use only amongst fishermen, who perceive the currents and swells of the Indian ocean far better than the younger generation for whom fishing has become a less common vocation.
One of the tasks performed by the academy is dealing with this evolution of the language in the Bas Committee, which also developed the official Dhivehi dictionary – published in 2012. Meanwhile, the Qavaaidhu Committee deals with issues relating to grammar and rules. An official English-Dhivehi dictionary is planned for next year. Furthermore, the academy is tasked with ensuring that Dhivehi is the primary language used across government institutions.
Events organised by the academy such as national competitions promoting the language have increased in popularity in recent years, with Ashraf suggesting that this growing interest may have been an unexpected side-effect of the country’s democratic advances over the past decade.
“The system has changed – the governance. Mostly people want to go to the People’s Majlis, so they have to speak in Dhivehi,” he said. “If they come up from these competitions they feel they will have something to show in the future.”
Language of love
The impact of the 2011 legislation was also described as providing greater knowledge of the language. The academy provides workshops and courses across the country, as well as a book fair which the academy has decentralised in order to spread its work into the atolls.
Work to preserve the country’s most prominent dialects has also taken place, with around 60% of the records of regional dialects – including the Addu, Fuvamulak, and Huvadhoo dialects – now preserved in Malé. A book featuring some of the preserved works in the Addu dialect is planned for publication later this year.
“It’s very difficult – the books are very expensive. That is the main problem for Dhivehi writers – they don’t have any kind of subsidy to better show their efforts. Maybe that is the one reason why the language is not well developed today.”
“The main problem to preserve the language is we don’t have enough facilities – even the human facilities…Still we don’t have any ability to do Dhivehi cartoons, Dhivehi comics. These are the challenges we face to preserve our language. We plan to have these things, but we don’t have any support within the academy.”
Ashraf also pointed out that, in order to survive in the 21st century, Dhivehi must adapt to sweeping technological advances – an objective that he is confident will receive the full support of a new generation of Maldivians.
“Dhivehi language must be a technology friendly language. That capability is not there in the last generation – now this generation, they have this capability so they have many ideas.”
“To preserve and develop the national culture, we must know the language. Every Maldivian must know the language for the culture and for his own country,” said Ashraf, whose major concern was simply that teaching methods had left students bored with their mother tongue.
“You should love the language in order to develop the language,” said an optimistic Ashraf.
Pointing out that the Dhivehi vocabulary has at least eight synonyms for the word ‘love’, Ashraf clearly feels that this is something Maldivians have a great capacity for.