Dr. Gnanadesikan, the geography of the Maldives is very particular, people live on hundreds of islands spread over a vast area in the Indian Ocean. Does this influence the language?
I think geography has some effects. For example, the word for “island” is the same as the word for “town/village” or the same as the word for just “land”. Because there is normally no more than one town on an island, there is almost a complete overlap when you have dry land and land, where you could have a village. “I am on the island I live on,” you would say when you would mean, “I am in the town I live in”. The word for capital is the “chief or ruling island”.
Are there any further peculiarities of Dhivehi?
For someone who speaks a European language, one thing is especially difficult: When you talk about where someone is, you can’t just say: “They are there.” You have to say that they are standing there or sitting there or lying there. And then you also have the same thing for objects – based on their shape. So, a tree would stand. You can deduce this from its shape, but what about when I talk about an idea, what shape is an idea? But there are conventions about this, so that ideas “lie”. You have to think about the shape or where the person is, and sometimes you just have to know. In addition to this, Dhivehi is a remarkably ungendered language. There are lots of words that don’t distinguish between males and females. There is no difference between “he” and “she”, for example.
Dhivehi has its own alphabet, Thaana, how does it work?
Thaana has 24 main letters, which are the consonants, and 11 smaller signs for vowels. The first nine letters of the alphabet, the first consonants of the alphabet, are derived from the numerals one to nine in eastern Arabic form. Having letters that are derived from numerals is unique worldwide. The next nine letters are probably derived from the native numerals, from an older script. The rest of the alphabet was just made up, mostly by modifying one of the first 18 letters. The Maldives has always had a very high literacy rate, because it is a very effective alphabet and people learn it very easily.
What makes the alphabet so simple?
Its spelling fits the sounds of the language very well and at a glance you can tell the difference between vowels and consonants because of their different shapes. The vowels are little marks that are written above and sometimes below the consonants. A line of text in Dhivehi has three levels. The middle part is a string of letters that are the consonants. The upper part has many of the vowels and the lower part has some vowels too.
How was this alphabet developed?
It was invented around the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The islands had converted to Islam some centuries before that. Until that point, they had been using a script that was related to the scripts of India and Sri Lanka, and those go from left to right. But if you want to quote anything in Arabic, especially if you want to quote the Quran, because the Quran should not be translated, how do you put something that goes from right to left into your text? You do not know how much space to leave if you want to quote something, which was originally written in Arabic. So, they developed a script that went from right to left. So, you can switch from the Arabic to the Dhivehi alphabet very easily.
Interview by Timo Berger