The parlance of paradise: Preserving the Maldivian language

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.


President makes Dhivehi book fair visit for Writer’s Day

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan yesterday attended the 2012 Writer’s Book Fair, an event organised by the recently established Dhivehi Language Academy.

The president attended the event, which started last Wednesday (April 18), during its final day.

As part of his visit, which was scheduled to coincide with Writers’ Day, Dr Waheed spoke with participants about the books available for sale at the fair, the President’s Office has said.

The academy was inaugurated back in August last year in an attempt to to promote, preserve and study the origins and usage of the Dhivehi language .


Comment: Chaperone culture clash

They say women of any language, culture or religious background share a certain kinship. As a Westerner who has travelled in a variety of places, I have rarely been more mystified by my female peers than in the Maldives.

The Maldives is 100 percent Muslim, with a growing penchant for the burqa. A recent United Nations review of the Maldives found gender equality notably low. Many women hold or would like to hold jobs, while others opt for hijabs and house-wifery. Technically, everyone has a choice. But do they make it in reality?

Many Westerners visit the Maldives for tourism or work. Most visit resorts exclusively, but a handful make their way to Male’ or local islands. Given local cultural standards it should be no surprise to anyone that the foreign woman’s experience in the Maldives is unique. And not just dress code – behavior seems a class unto itself.

While staying on a local island recently I was regularly attended by a flock of young women aged 15-20. Their hospitality was impressive, but at times bordered on intimidating. Walking two blocks home from the beach by myself in broad daylight required a level of assurance to my hosts that was almost aggressive. Arriving somewhere alone surprised and even offended my young hostesses. While I took pictures and clapped along during festivities, walking about as I normally would anywhere, they would spend the time searching for me rather than enjoying the celebration.

Moving in public areas could be difficult as my virtual size was magnified by about three other bodies moving in sync. Several times I would turn at the sink when washing my hands to find a girl had followed me from the eating area because – well, I’m not sure. The place was only so big.

I can’t say if young Maldivian women are unfamiliar with independence, but I can say that this foreigner was befuddled by the level of dependency assumed of her person.

The feeling was neither simple nor justified. I had come to experience local culture – who was I to dictate its terms? Hospitality is meant as a compliment, so why was I so frequently frustrated by my caretakers’ intense caretaking?

My reactions came from the core, so I considered the features.

I walked to school alone at the age of 7, and was free to do anything in or out of doors from age 10 so long as it didn’t involve a trip to the hospital or police station. I accept the consequences of my own actions and deal with my own problems. And I simply aim to cause the least disturbance to those around me. This is a fairly standard upbringing for most Westerners. But its collision with the Maldivian method appears brutal on two points: independence and equality. To be so closely, at times aggressively, attended insulted my independence and aggravated a feminist side I didn’t even know I had.

From a practical standpoint, the reception also complicated rather than facilitated my interactions. As suggested by this article’s opening line, I was curious to meet and learn about local girls and women. But bound by hospitality and its assumptions of dependency, my hostesses were at times difficult to truly reach. I feared their company was based on a need to guarantee that I was never alone or asked to do anything, rather than my personal qualities. My mere presence rendered them dependent as well – if I moved to wash my hands they had to escort me. Yet as a visitor, I wanted to know their culture as it stood alone. What was daily life? What would they do without me around? What did they honestly think of me, anyway? Under the dictates of hospitality, this was nearly impossible.

Some girls willingly shared their musical preferences or accounts of village life. We had some nice chats about their schools and families. Many conversations, however, fizzled at the same point: choice.

During a bodu-beru performance a flock of young girls in hijabs urged me to dance. There were no women on the floor, so I asked someone to join me. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t imposing, that my participation was appropriate.

“Oh no, we don’t dance, we can’t!” Why not? “We just can’t!” Too shy? “No….we have this!” The burqa. Or hijab. “You should have come two years ago, I was always dancing! But then I took up this, and you know, things changed.”

If the hijab is a fashion statement as some girls allege, then I can judge these girls in terms I would also use for Westerners whose stilettos, skinnies or furs prevent them from running, eating or holding their dribbling child, or whose nails and false eyelashes, allegedly applied to fetch a man, could also shred his scalp. Why do you build your own cage?

But if these young ladies truly accept the many meanings of wearing a hijab and the lifestyle it endorses, then – can I argue? Where is my place in the debate? I am indeed foreign.

I can, however, go dance with a girl who is not wearing religious attire, be joined by a few of younger burqa’d girls as well as the entire female population too young to start the lifestyle, and then smile afterwards when older women grab my hand saying “Shukriya!” that I, a female, danced. Apparently, they all used to, and apparently, they all enjoyed it.

I’ve asked girls why they take up the burqa or hijab. Most respond with shrugs, sideways smiles, confused looks, or explanations like, “It’s, you know, I have many friends who have so it made sense,” or “Well, I just like it but also it seems right.”

As an educated Westerner I’ve been trained not to accept “it seems right” as an answer, and my national curriculum instructed against peer pressure. But this isn’t the West, and I have to accept the local consensus. So, the conversation stops.

And with it, the connection. Our fundamental natures are opposed. I walk alone; they believe it inappropriate. I dance; they’d rather wish they could. These are only basic physical movements, but the differences are profound. Though welcomed on the island I felt alienated by my independence, and though invited into events I felt my race excused my gender and justified my in-congruency. I came to visit, not to be served – the reality frustrated my young Western curiosity.

I’ve studied Islam and its history at the college level, have several friends who practice the faith, and have lived in Muslim regions. I have always been accepted, respected, and welcomed into the fold. I have enjoyed open, free discussions with these friends on a range of topics. I think there are many beautiful aspects to the religion.

Yet in the Maldives I have not yet met a woman who can talk candidly or objectively about the Qur’an. In my country, questions and criticism lead to deeper understanding, but here this rhetoric is shunned as base opposition. Acceptance, not choice, is the cultural undercurrent. Acceptance of my hosts’ duty to the Guest, rather than an assessment of me, the Guest, as a person, governed my visit on the island as well.

Culture shock is funny concept. Though standard teachings describe a four-week rollercoaster to normalcy, experienced travelers might note that they are jarred even after a year’s stay in a foreign culture. Is it ever fair to call something right or wrong? Perhaps we can only admit our differences.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Optional Dhivehi subject will kill the language: expert

Making Dhivehi  an optional subject at A-level will erode and kill the language, according to Dhivehi language expert Abdulla Sadhig.

Miadhu reported Sadhig as saying that students who completed their secondary education learned very little of the language, particularly the grammar.

The subject were considered the “most boring” subjects among many students, Sadhig said, and it was more important to improve the quality of the teaching that to make the subject optional.


PA proposes bill to protect Dhivehi language

A bill to protect Dhivehi, the Maldivian language, has been presented to  parliament by People’s Alliance (PA) MP Abdul Azeez Jamaal Abubakuru.

Jamaal said that the Dhivehi language was “why Maldivians remain as Maldivians” and the source of the country’s success.

”Dhivehi is one of the most valuable national relics that our forefathers have delivered to us,” Jamaal said. ”Without doubt it is our responsibility to deliver it to the next generation safely, like our forefathers did.”

Jamaal said if people were careless with their mother-tongue, there was a potential for words to be lost.

”I believe that allowing the Maldivian language to dissolve is like dissolving our nationality,” he said.

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Mohamed ‘Colonel’ Nasheed thanked MP Jamaal for presenting the bill, but said he did not believe a bill was the only solution.

Nasheed said that linguistic experts of had noted that languages  form, change and decease naturally.

”A perfect research paper on this was produced by Dr Noam Chomsky,” he said. “All these things are mentioned very clearly in his book, ‘Language Death’. It mentions three stages a language goes through before it dissolves.”

Nasheed said that research conducted by UNESCO showed that there were 6800 languages used in the world.

”Our language is included in a list of languages in the report that are at risk of disappearing in 20 years.”

Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Deputy Leader and MP Ali Waheed said that he supported the bill.

”It was not  for political gain that we criticised the disbanding of the National Centre for Arts and Culture,” Waheed said. ”We were just expressing concern.”

Waheed said that although the Maldives was just a small dot compared to many much larger countries, “we should be proud to have our own language.”