Not many people know that the English word “atoll”, which describes a coral island with a surrounding reef and a lagoon, is borrowed from Dhivehi, the national language of the Maldives. The original word in Dhivehi is atoḷu. Dhivehi is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by approximately half a million people in the Maldives. Beyond the Maldives, Dhivehi is also spoken in Minicoy Island of Lakshadweep, a union territory of India, where it is known as Mahl.
Dhivehi is written in the Thaana script. This unique script came into existence in the 17th century. Thaana uniquely combines the peculiarities of both Brahmi-derived scripts and Perso-Arabic scripts. There are 24 main characters in Thaana, which are consonants, plus 11 vowels depicted as diacritic signs. Like other Brahmi-derived writing systems – such as those of Bengali, Devanagari, Odia, Malayalam, Sinhala, Tamil and more – vowel signs in the Thaana script are combined with a consonant base to form a syllable. For example, the word “divehi”, written from right to left in the Thaana script, looks like ދިވެހި, with each consonant character bearing a vowel sign above or below it.
In Dhivehi, the first nine letters in the alphabet are derived from the Persian version of Eastern Arabic numerals from 1 to 9. The eighth character is called an Alifu, and it is used as a default independent vowel letter in combination with other vowel diacritic signs or lack-of-vowel signs called Sukun. Thaana is perhaps the only script in Southasia where letters are derived from numerals. See the following chart for a comparison:
The next nine letters are believed to be derived from Dives Akuru, the earlier indigenous script for Dhivehi, a Brahmi-based script like that of Sinhala. The remaining six letters are modifications of earlier letters or are of obscure origin. In the Maldives today, Thaana has evolved as a perfect and immensely popular script for writing Dhivehi, and its usage ranges from newspapers, books, signage and official documents to labels on Coca-Cola bottles and recipes for Kashikeylu Fani (screwpine fruit juice) on YouTube.
Dhivehi is closely related to Sinhala, another Indo-Aryan language, widely spoken in Sri Lanka. Together, they form a subgroup of Indo-Aryan languages known as Insular Indo-Aryan. Although they share many similarities, the timeline of their relationship is still undecided. The Dhivehi scholar Bruce D Cains argues that in the prehistoric period, people in the Maldives and Sri Lanka spoke an unattested Middle Indo-Aryan (Prakrit) language known as Proto-Sinhala-Dhivehi, which began diverging into Dhivehi and Sinhala around the 1st century BCE. Despite this, Dhivehi and Sinhala still show conspicuous similarities due to ongoing contact and continued influences from Dravidian languages like Tamil and Malayalam. It is presumed that Dhivehi had been in close contact with Arabic- and Persian-speaking traders even before the advent of Islam in the islands of the Maldives, in the 12th century. Arabic and Persian have left a large imprint on the language’s lexicon, especially in words related to religious and legal domains like namaadhu for “prayer” (from the Persian namāz), risaalaa for “pamphlet” (from the Arabic Risalah), sadhakaa for “charity” (from the Arabic Sadaqah).
Urdu and Hindi have also given many loanwords to Dhivehi, especially as many of the islands’ Islamic scholars studied in India and Pakistan. Some examples are ujaalaa for “bright”, thoathaa for “parrot” and tharaadhu for “weighing scale”. There are Portuguese-origin words as well, many of which arrived via Sinhala – for example, paan for “bread”, feyru for “guava” and alamaari for “cupboard”. In modern times, English has also given many loanwords to Dhivehi, although some words like manavaru for “man-of-war” (a kind of sail-powered naval warship) are examples of pre-modern borrowings.
Dhivehi and Sinhala still show conspicuous similarities due to ongoing contact and continued influences from Dravidian languages like Tamil and Malayalam.
Today, Dhivehi and Fijian Hindi are the only two Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the Southern hemisphere. While Fijian Hindi is a transplanted language spoken by descendants of indentured labourers from the Subcontinent living in Fiji, Dhivehi’s reach in the Maldives extends to Addu Atoll and Fuvahmulah Island, which lie south of the Equator.
Speaking like hunters
Sri Lanka is a multilingual place, and the island country can be considered a melting pot of different genetically-unrelated languages. Apart from the two dominant languages – Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language, and Sri Lankan Tamil, a South Dravidian language – Sri Lanka is home to some lesser-known but distinct languages like Vedda (a language isolate), Sri Lankan Portuguese (Indo-European), Sri Lankan Malay (Austronesian), and Sri Lankan Telugu (South-Central Dravidian). Prolonged linguistic contact between these languages has led to remarkable structural and morpho-phonological similarities.
Dhivehi and Fijian Hindi are the only two Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the Southern hemisphere.
Vedda is a highly endangered language spoken by a small community of Vedda people. Veddas are considered the earliest aboriginal inhabitants of Sri Lanka. They are originally hunter-gatherers who have slowly adapted to a farming-based, settled life. In recent centuries, the original Vedda language – presumed to be unrelated to Indo-Aryan or Dravidian languages, and hence regarded as a language isolate – has undergone tremendous change. With time, Vedda has creolised into a language vastly similar to Sinhala, leading many to mistakenly claim that it is a dialect of Sinhala.
The Vedda community is currently estimated to number between 5000 and 10,000 individuals. Veddas live in various settlements in central Sri Lanka and on the country’s eastern coast. The Veddas on the eastern coast speak a dialect of Sri Lankan Tamil as their mother tongue and are commonly referred to as Vardar, Vardaa or Vedar. “Vedda” means hunter in Sinhala, which borrowed it from a Dravidian source word like the Tamil vēṭu, Malayalam vēṭan, Kannada bēḍa or Telugu vē̃ṭakã̄ḍu. However, Veddas call themselves Vanniyaläätto, meaning forest beings. The first element of this endonym, vanniya (forest), is derived from the Sinhala vana (forest), and the second element, läätto, is an animacy-marking suffix in Vedda language.
The presence of distinct nominal suffixes for animate and inanimate nouns in the language shows that a unique noun-classifier system may have existed in the earlier Vedda language. With personal pronouns, -ätto is suffixed, and with other animate nouns, -läätto is suffixed. On the other hand, six suffixes are used for inanimate nouns: -pojja, -tana, -gejja, -rukula, -danḍa and -raaccā. Out of these, -pojja and -raccā are also used with personified inanimate nouns. The most frequent inanimacy-marking suffix is -pojja. A list of words showing these suffixes is given below:
|Suffix||Vedda word||English meaning|
|-ätto||oyäätto||that person (near you)|
|aräätto||that person over there|
|eeätto||that person (remote)|
|-rukula||kanrukula (also kampojja)||ear|
|-danḍa||kakuladanḍa (also paypojja)||leg|
From The Vanishing Aborigines (1990) by K N O Dharmadasa and Vedda Language of Ceylon (1972) by M W Sugathapala de Silva
Due to prolonged language contact, the phonetic inventory of Vedda has become remarkably similar to that of colloquial Sinhala, but it differs in its phonological rules. For example, Vedda often replaces the Sinhala consonant “s” with “c”.
The creolised Vedda shares its syntax with Sinhala and has borrowed many words from it. However, it retains a unique set of words unrelated to Sinhala or any other language spoken in the island. Most of these words fall in the domain of the forest and its surroundings, which is the natural abode of the Vedda people. The Sri Lankan linguist K N O Dharmadasa mentions examples such as mundi (monitor-lizard), kandaarni (bee), polacca (leopard), cappi (bird), okma (buffalo), kadira (bat), käṭaa (dog), käriya (bear), Tiňgiṭiya (viper) and maagal (sambar deer), which have no corresponding forms in Sinhala.
The language of the snake charmers
In the Anuradhapura district of North Central Sri Lanka lives a nomadic community of snake charmers and monkey performers known as Ahikuntikayo or Ahikuntaka. In Sinhala, ahikuntikayo means “snake charmer”. The word relates to the Sanskrit ahituṇḍika, which is formed of ahi (snake) and tuṇḍika (one who has a snout), thereby implying someone who plays with the snout of a snake. Commonly known in English as “Sri Lankan gypsies”, Ahikuntikayos sometimes identify themselves by the term pāmuloru (snake people) in their language – although, in the Tamil-speaking Akkaraipattu area in Southeast Sri Lanka, the community is often called Kuruvar (diviner). Both Ahikuntikayos and Kuruvars speak a variety of Telugu (a South-Central Dravidian language), making Sri Lanka one of the two countries in Southasia beyond India where Telugu is spoken (the other being Myanmar).
This variety of Telugu is often referred to as Sri Lankan Telugu. According to the linguist Steven Bonta, there are no more than 5000 speakers of this language in Sri Lanka. Based on differences between Sri Lankan Telugu and the standard Telugu spoken in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Bonta estimates that Sri Lankan Telugu speakers arrived on the island from Tamil Nadu two to three centuries ago. It is safe to assume that the nomadic community of Sri Lankan Telugu speakers arrived in Sri Lanka after the 14th century, when many Telugu speakers moved to Tamil country during the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire in southern India.
In recent centuries, the original Vedda language – presumed to be unrelated to Indo-Aryan or Dravidian languages, and hence regarded as a language isolate – has undergone tremendous change.
Due to its extensive contact with Sinhala and Tamil, Sri Lankan Telugu has developed distinctive features not found in the standard Telugu spoken in India. Sri Lankan Telugu also preserves some features of old Telugu that are absent in modern Telugu. For example, simple past tense in Sri Lankan Telugu is markedly different from that in modern Telugu. In modern Telugu, “I did” is cēśǣnu, but in Sri Lankan Telugu it is sēsti. Similarly, “He drank” in modern Telugu is tagǣdu, while in Sri Lankan Telugu it is tāge.
Sri Lankan Telugu has borrowed many words from Sinhala, like pota (book), yaluwa (friend), puṭuwa (chair) and others. Interestingly, Sri Lankan Telugu also has some words which are neither from neighbouring Dravidian languages nor Sinhala: dunga (lie, falsehood) is likely a cognate of the Hindi ḍhōṅga (deceit, trickery), lækka (money) is a cognate of the Sanskrit lakṣá (100,000) and Marwari lakh (100,000), and bunnæo (a greeting). These point towards a pre-Telugu past of this nomadic community in mainland India before they arrived in Sri Lanka.
Unlike modern Telugu, Sri Lankan Telugu also uses the distinctive Sinhala phrase structure for counting nouns. For example, in modern Telugu, “three books” would be mūḍu pustakālu (“mūḍu” means three and “pustakālu” means books) following the same structure as in the English phrase. But in Sinhala, “three books” would be pot tunak (“pot” means books and “tunak” means three). In Sri Lankan Telugu, both these structures for counting things are possible.
Because of the rising influence of Sinhala among this marginalised community, Sri Lankan Telugu has become threatened. Ahikuntikas and Kurvars are traditionally multilinguals who speak the dominant regional languages such as Sinhala and Tamil along with their mother tongue. But, in recent years, the younger generation is increasingly losing touch with their Telugu while opting for non-traditional occupations in areas beyond their traditional homelands.
Language, identity and migration
The Malay ethnic community numbers around 40,000 people in Sri Lanka. Many of them speak a Malay-based creole language known as Sri Lankan Malay. Sri Lankan Malay is an interesting example of language convergence. It is a minority language that has evolved through interactions with Vehicular Malay, Tamil and Sinhala over more than three centuries. Most Sri Lankan Malay speakers live in the urban centres of Colombo, Hambantota, Kirinda, Kurunegala, Kandy, Trincomalee and Kinniya.
In Sinhala, Sri Lankan Malay is referred to as Ja Basawa, while in Tamil it is known as Java Mozhi. Its native speakers simply call it Java or Bahasa Melayu. The roots of this Austronesian language can be traced back to the arrival of Dutch colonists in Sri Lanka in 1638. These colonists brought Vehicular Malay-speaking individuals from various regions and groups in the Indonesian archipelagos. Despite being surrounded by Tamil and Sinhala-speaking majorities, the Malay-speaking community has remained cohesive due to its shared Islamic faith and close military ties. The British, who occupied Sri Lanka in 1796, continued recruiting Malay-speaking people in the military and settling them on the island. Through this trilingual contact, Sri Lankan Malay underwent unique typological changes, shifting from its original Malay grammar with subject-verb-object word order to a structure more characteristic of Southasian languages, featuring subject-object-verb word order.
Interestingly, Sri Lankan Telugu also has some words which are neither from neighbouring Dravidian languages nor Sinhala.
Imitating Tamil and Sinhala, Sri Lankan Malay has acquired linguistic features such as postpositions, retroflex consonants, vowel length distinction, clause chaining and conjunctive participles. (To hear a sample, see this video of the Sri Lankan Malay speaker Zouriya Jayman talking about her life and language.) These features are absent in other varieties of Malay spoken in Southeast Asia. According to the linguist Sebastian Nordhoff, these features have arrived in Sri Lankan Malay from the Southwestern Muslim Tamil of the island. This is a heavily Sinhalised variety of Sri Lankan Tamil and has considerable Arabic influence in its lexicon. In recent history, Sri Lankan Malay has also been directly influenced by Sinhala. As Nordhoff observes, there is an interesting phenomenon happening in Sri Lanka regarding linguistic convergence: Sinhala is converging towards Tamil, Southwestern Muslim Tamil is going towards Sinhala, and Sri Lankan Malay is converging towards Sri Lankan Muslim Tamil.
Some basic words and phrases in Sri Lankan Malay are given below:
|Sri Lankan Malay||English meaning|
|slaamath||Greetings when arriving or departing|
|slaamath paagi||Good morning|
|slaamath soore||Good afternoon/evening|
|spi dhaathang||See you (literally go and come)|
|thriimaa Kaasi||Thank you.|
|se-dang paayong-yang thussa||I don’t want an umbrella, thank you|
|se-dang baaru-hatthu kaar kamauvan||I want/need a new car.|
|Anjing oorang-pe baae-jo thumman||The dog is man’s best friend.|
|se lorang-nang saaya||I love you.|
|kithang marà-maakang-si?||Shall we eat?|
|skuul dìkkath-si?||Is the school nearby?|
From A Grammar of Upcountry Sri Lanka Malay by Sebastian Nordhoff (Doctoral dissertation, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2009)
Today, the younger generation of Sri Lankan Malays is losing touch with their language. This is mainly due to the prevailing language situation in Sri Lanka, where educational policies either focus on Sinhala or Tamil, leaving no room for smaller languages like Sri Lankan Malay. This language loss is further aggravated by the position of English in Sri Lankan society, where competence in the language means access to more opportunities, better and higher-paid jobs, and greater social prestige.
A comparable case is tribal communities living in the Sundarban region of India and Bangladesh. From the 19th century onwards, tribal communities originally from the Chota Nagpur plateau, such as the Munda, Santals, Mahato, Oraon (Kurux) and Bhumij, have been living in the Sundarban. During colonial times, these communities were brought into the areas as labourers for clearing forests and other labour-intensive jobs. An inter-community lingua franca used among them is Sadri or Sadani, also called Nagpuri. Sadri is an Indo-Aryan contact language predominantly spoken in western and central Jharkhand, in what is now eastern-central India. Today, Sadri is facing endangerment in the Sundarban due to a shift in the tribal community towards Bengali, the region’s dominant language.
Linguists working on Southasian languages have often overlooked the languages spoken in the region’s various islands despite their distinctiveness and unique histories. These languages not only display interesting cases of language contact and convergence, they also open a window into unique histories, the region’s cultural richness and its linguistic diversity. Some island languages like Vedda, Sri Lankan Telugu and Sri Lankan Malay face endangerment, and even language death. There is a need to raise awareness to combat this language endangerment and promote language revitalisation so as to preserve the linguistic diversity and cultural heritage of the islands. When a language dies, so too does a part of humanity’s collective knowledge and cultural diversity.
Read the first installment on languages of the islanders of Southasia, which focused on endangered languages such as Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge, Sentinelese, Shompen and Nicobarese, spoken by indigenous communities living in various islands of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.