WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

[ Home || Forum || Tsunami || Ethnic Conflict || Heritage || History || Archeology || Food || Travel || People ]  
Divehi - an offshoot of the Sinhala language
The Mahavamsa legend concerning the Vijayan migration that took place around the sixth century B.C. would have us believe that the womenfolk of Vijaya and his compatriots drifted to an island called Mahiladipa following their banishment from the Lala country in Bengal. There is reason to believe that this Mahiladipa was none other than the Maldives.
Copyright by Asiff Hussein

Divehi - an offshoot of the Sinhala language

It is today established beyond doubt that the Maldive Islands were peopled long ago by a sea-faring folk hailing from Sri Lanka. Linguistic evidence clearly shows Divehi, the speech of the Maldive Islanders to have derived from an early form of Sinhala known as Proto-Sinhala spoken in Sri Lanka from about the fourth to eighth centuries A.D.

This is also corroborated by archaeological evidence such as the remains of stupas in the islands of Gan, Isdu and Miladu, which show that the Maldivians, like the Sinhalese, were Buddhists before they embraced Islam in the twelfth century.

Ancient settlement 

Although it is likely that in the main the Maldives were largely settled by a Proto-Sinhala-speaking folk in early mediaeval times, it may perhaps not be too far-fetched to postulate that intermittent settlement by Sinhalese migrants may have taken place at an earlier date, though on a much smaller scale. The Mahavamsa legend concerning the Vijayan migration that took place around the sixth century B.C. would have us believe that the womenfolk of Vijaya and his compatriots drifted to an island called Mahiladipa following their banishment from the Lala country in Bengal. There is reason to believe that this Mahiladipa was none other than the Maldives.

The appellation Mahiladipa literally means 'Women's Island' and seems to have originated from the matriarchal tradition that prevailed in the Maldives in ancient times. Sulayman Al-Tajir in the Ahbar-As-Sin Wal Hind (9th century) refers to a ruling queen, as do Al-Masudi (10th century) and Al-Idrisi (12th century). Al-Masudi, the author of the Murujuhazzab records that the Maldivians are subject to a Queen "for from the most ancient times, the inhabitants have a rule never to allow themselves to be governed by a man".

This tradition continued even after Islam gained a foothold since we hear of four Maldivian Sultanas (Queens) who reigned from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. This tradition had however ceased by the seventeenth century, for the Frenchman Francois Pyrard who spent five years in the Maldives has recorded in his memoirs entitled Voyage de Francois Pyrard (1619) that the Kingdom 'never goes to females'. Added to this is the fact that the Maldives has been traditionally designated in Arabic as Mahaldibu, which again suggests a connection between the Maldives and the Mahiladipa of the Mahavamsa.

It is therefore possible that the Maldives were settled in ancient times by a Sinhalese folk speaking an early form of Sinhala known as Sinhala Prakrit before it was superseded by the Proto-Sinhala speech of later migrants who immigrated to the islands in superior numbers.

Unfortunately, Maldivian chronology does not seem to have been as well developed as that of the Sinhalese and begins from about the twelfth century.

The Maldivian chronicle Tarikh compiled by Hassan Thajuddin in the early eighteenth century gives Koimala as the first king of the Maldives. According to the chronicle, the Maldives were sparsely inhabited until about the early twelfth century, when a prince of royal birth named Koimala who had married the daughter of the King of Lanka departed thence with her and reached Resgatimu Island in the Ra Atoll. The people of the island, learning that the two visitors were of royal descent invited them to remain and Koimala was crowned King.

Vessels were subsequently despatched to Lanka to bring people of the Lion Race and it was thus that the Maldives came to be colonized by the Sinhalese. The legend may perhaps be referring to a relatively late migration of Sinhalese, for we know that the islands were peopled by a Sinhala-speaking stock well before the twelfth century - a contention borne out by linguistic evidence.

The Divehi language 

The term by which the Maldivians denote their language, 'Divehi Bas' literally means 'Language of the Islands' and has developed from the Old Sinhala diva - island' and basa - 'language', divehi being the genitive form of diva. Divehi shares with Sinhala, the simplification of conjunct consonants, the shortening of long vowels, the dropping of nasals and the de-aspiration of the aspirated consonents of Old-and Middle-Indo-Aryan represented by Sanskrit and Prakrit respectively. It has also turned the Sanskritic and Prakritic ch into s, s into h, p into v and j into d in common with Sinhala. All these phonetic changes had taken place in Sinhala by the beginning of the Proto-Sinhala stage around the fourth century A.D. Thus it is likely that the main body of Sinhalese who migrated to the Maldives did so sometime after the fourth century.

However, Divehi does not possess the low front vowel ae and it may be safely assumed that it branched off from Sinhala before the appearance of this vowel. The development of ae from an earlier a or e is believed to have taken place in Sinhala around the seventh or eighth century A.D. so that it is likely that Divehi separated from Sinhala before this important phonological change took place.

Many are the phonetic changes that have characterized Divehi ever since it split from the parent speech. Among the more significant changes may be mentioned the replacement of the labial p by the dento-labial f, which probably arose as a result of Arabic influence.

Sinh. paen Div. fen 'water' 
pas fas 'soil' 
paha fahe 'five' 

Another significant change is that of retroflex t to the peculiar Divehi sound sh which is uttered by placing the tip of the tongue in the highest part of the palate and letting the breath escape sideways between the teeth.

Sinh. ata Div. asha 'eight' 
rata rashi 'country' 
miti(-vaela) mishi(-vela) 'elbow' 

Among the other changes may be mentioned that of the velar surd k into its corresponding sonant g.

Sinh. kikini Div. giguni 'bell' 
kadu gadu 'hunched' 
and that of y to d, perhaps through an intermediate j 

Sinh. yanna Div. dan 'to go' 
yakada dagadu 'iron' 

Among the vowel changes may be cited the replacement of the low central vowel a by the high bach vowel u.

Sinh. dora Div. doru 'door 
maga magu 'path' 
handa handu 'moon' 

Further, the Sinhala high front vowel i has been replaced by its corresponding back vowel u.

Sinh. his Div. hus 'empty' 
diva du 'tongue' 
hira(-ge) hura(-ge) 'jail' 

There are also instances where u has become i

Sinh. tuna Div. tine 'three' 
kusa kis 'belly' 
and a has become i 
Sinh. dahaya Div. dihaye 'ten' 
vala vila 'cloud' 

The Southern dialects 

It is clear that the dialects of the southern atolls such as Addu, Huvadu and Fua Mulaku which have been less affected by foreign intercourse have preserved the old Sinhala pronunciation more faithfully than the Standard Male dialect.

Thus the Huvadu form bate 'cooked rice' shows a closer resemblance to the Sinhala form bat than the bai of the Male dialect. Yet even in Standard Divehi, we regularly come across the older forms in the written language. Thus while the term for 'rice' is pronounced bai, it is written as bat. Similar is the case with 'tooth', pronounced dai but written dat (Sinh.data) and 'book', pronounced fai but written fat (Sinh.pota).

The southern dialects have also preserved some old Sinhala forms now lost in the Male dialect. For instance, in the Addu dialect, we come across bala for 'dog'(Sinh.balla), while in the Male dialect, this has been replaced by the Hindustani kutta. Similarly, the Addu tina 'breast'(Sinh.tana) is not found in Male, where urumati occurs in its stead.

Archaic forms 

What is however remarkable is that Divehi has managed to preserve some old Indo-Aryan forms that have been lost in modern Sinhala. Many such forms are however attested in ancient and mediaeval Sinhalese epigraphs and literature. For example, the Sinhala forms of Divehi fan 'leaves'(Skt.parna), has 'thousand'(Skt.sahasra), hila 'stone'(Skt.shila),huvai 'oath'(Skt.shapatha), heki 'witness'(Skt.sakshin), hikan 'to dry'(Skt.shushka) and fuhen 'to ask' (Skt.prcchati) no longer exist.

Many are however known to have existed in the not too distant past. For instance, we come across the old Sinhala form sava 'oath' which is related to the Divehi huvai occurring in the Sigiri graffiti of the eighth to tenth centuries. Similarly, the Sinhala form of Divehi fan'leaves' survives in the compound pan-sala 'temple', literally a 'leaf-hall', the residences of Buddhist monks in former times being very modest abodes made of leaves.

Besides their fairly copious vocabulary, the Maldivians also seem to have taken with them the Sinhala script when they migrated to their new home. The roundish eveyla akuru or 'ancent letters' found inscribed on lomafanu or copper plates of the twelfth century has been shown to closely resemble the Sinhala script of mediaeval times.

The Dives akuru or 'island letters' which evolved from it was in use until about the sixteenth century when it was superseded by the Tana script which runs from right to left and shows Arabic influence.

Dear madams, dear sirs,

I have just read the article at
http://www.lankalibrary.com/books/sinhala6.htm and would
like to inform you that the theory described is no longer considered valid in the
scientific community. Research has shown that Dhivehi is not an offshoot of Sinhala but
its sister language. For an exhaustive account of Dhivehi, see the recent publication
Fritz, Sonja; "The Dhivehi Language"; Ergon Verlag, Heidelberg 2002


E. Nitz

[ Home || Forum || Tsunami || Ethnic Conflict || Heritage || History || Archeology || Food || Travel || People ]  


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka