My second post for International Mother Language Day.
Maldivians are supposedly proud of their language. Or at least that’s how we’re told to feel by Dhivehi Bahuge Ekedemee. The truth is that the kind of pride most Maldivians feel is the shallow kind that isn’t followed by any action. Maldivians might say that they love the Dhivehi language but they won’t do anything to show it.
It is this attitude which is reflected in one of the points most commonly raised when discussing the richness of Dhivehi, which is that Dhivehi has so many words for coconuts depending on their stage of development. Here’s a report about Dhivehi (in Dhivehi) which does exactly that. The generic form of this expression is “This language has X words for Y”, and it is something people say about so many language when discussing their vocabularies. And while this point in itself is a relatively harmless way of pointing out an interesting fact about a language, it relates to the concept of untranslatability which is harmful as it gives people the idea that languages are static and are either capable or incapable of expressing a particular idea (which is not true; all ideas can be expressed in all languages – some are just more efficient than others). I would recommend having a look at this for more information about untraslatability.
Besides all that, the reason I find “X words for Y” annoying is because I think it’s a lazy and superficial way to look at the richness of a language. Yes, it gives a little insight into the worldview of the people who speak that language, but it doesn’t go very deep.
In the case of Dhivehi specifically, the “so many words for coconuts” notion has gotten really old. So I decided to find some other things about Dhivehi which make it interesting. Hopefully, Maldivians will come out of this with an even greater appreciation for the richness of their language.
But we’ll start off with the coconut words, since some non-Maldivians might not be aware of it.
I don’t know how accurate these descriptions are. It was kind of hard to find these meanings.
|Youngest stage of coconut growth, after the flower has yielded fruit|
|Young coconut with no meat|
|Coconut with edible husk|
|Young coconut with lots of water and soft flesh. Sometimes called ‘green coconut’.|
|Harder than a kurum’baa, but not as hard as a kaashi. The flesh retains some moisture.|
|Mature coconut with hard, dry meat.|
|Mature coconut without any water.|
|The name of the coconut apple or embryo. Forms inside a mature coconut as it gets ready to form a new plant.|
This next interesting thing about Dhivehi is still “X words for Y”, but at least it’s not about coconuts. I am talking about the way you express the verb “to be”. If you have ever studied a foreign language you would know just how important this concept is. In Dhivehi, there are several words which mean “to be”, each with different uses. One interesting thing to note is that some words are used for a specific gender. Dhivehi is not a gendered language and the are no other words which work that way.
|“To be”, “To happen”
Used as an auxiliary verb. Etymologically related to English “be”.
| “To be”
Used for males, large objects, abstract qualities, and groups of objects.*
| “To be”
Used for females, bipedal animals, and creatures with more than four legs.*
| “To be”
Used for small objects, quadrupedal animals, and animals without legs.*
|“To stay”, “To be”|
|“To live” or “To be” depending on context and conjugation|
*These meanings were taken from an old Dhivehi grammar book. I doubt that people these days strictly adhere to the listed uses. But, then again, I’ve never paid close attention to the way these verbs are used. I don’t know what this classification system tells us about the Maldivian way of seeing the world (some will cry “sexism”, no doubt) but it reminds me of the book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things which explores the effects of cognitive metaphors on grammar. The title is inspired by the “feminine” noun class of the Dyirbal language. We might need a Dhivehi version of that book: Women, Bipedal Animals, and Creepy-Crawlies.
No Word for “Hello”
This is the last of the “X words for Y”, I promise.
Having no words for something doesn’t really make a language rich, but it still tells us something about the society in which that language developed.
A casual greeting in Dhivehi is usually along the lines of “ކޮބާ ކިހިނެއް؟” (kobaa kihineh) which literally translates to “where, how?”. The “how” part is easily understood to mean “how are you?” but the “where” part is a bit trickier. Its extended meaning could be “where are you?” or “where have you been?” but not in the sense of a physical location, but rather a temporal one, making the meaning something more like “at which stage are you in your day?”.
The need to put people onto a temporal location seems like the likely result of small communities where people live in close quarters, which negates the need to enquire about physical location in a greeting. The fact that there is no explicit acknowledgement of existence (which is what is found in the word “hello”) also reflects the fact that in these small communities, everyone knows everyone, thus making it a waste of breath to point out people’s existence and more practical to get straight into matters of wellbeing.
Interestingly, no one ever really answers the “where”. Usually this is because they’re not given the chance since the “how” follows immediately after. And to be honest, if someone greeted me with just “ކޮބާ؟” (kobaa) (which is still a legitimate greeting) I would not know how to properly respond.
Register/tenor basically refers to formal vs informal language use. All languages have ways that speech can be adjusted to suit the formality of a situation. To make your speech sound more formal in English, you would avoid contractions, avoid slang, and you would possibly choose Latinate words instead of Germanic ones, like “commence” and “conclude” instead of “start” and “end” (linguistic inferiority complex much, amirite?).
In English, the lines between formal and informal are blurred. In Dhivehi, however, there are very clear distinctions. Once again, this reflects Maldivian society which historically was very stratified (you could argue that it still is). Because of this, Dhivehi has three distinct registers or ދަރަޖަ (dharaja – “levels”). Different people would use different dharaja based on their social class. If someone from a lower class interacted with someone from a higher class, they would have to use a higher dharaja.
Each dharaja has certain words which belong to it, which is what makes the Dhivehi register distinction much clearer than in English. These words can be (but are not always) completely different to each other although they would have the same meaning in English. The words which differ between dharaja are verbs and pronouns. However, nouns can be made to fit into higher dharaja by using a suffix. The rule of thumb is that higher dharaja words are longer and “fluffier”. Here are some examples:
|Word||Lowest Dharaja||Middle Dharaja||Highest Dharaja|
These days, only a few words of the higher dharaja are commonly used; typically in news reports and religious sermons. However, there are still some people who use the higher levels amongst themselves and who expect people of lower classes to speak that way to them too. People in lower classes tend not to look upon such people favourably. In fact, here’s an old blog post making fun of the use higher registers in intimate situations (Maldivians should find it really funny).
I mentioned that it is usually verbs and pronouns which change for each register. For second and third person pronouns (you, he/she, they), the status of the person being spoken about is elevated as the register gets higher. For example އޭނަ (eyna – “he/she”) becomes އެބޭފުޅާ (ebeyfulhaa – “that aristocrat”). Contrarily, for first person pronouns, speakers lower their own status when speaking in the highest register. Here are the Dhivehi words for “I” in each of the three registers:
(Etymologically related to the word “me”)
(No distinct meaning. Etymologically related to the word “I”)
|“Damn slave”/”The damn slave I am”|
This self-degradation makes sense from the perspective of a lower class person. By lowering their own status, they are automatically raising the status of the person they are talking to. But it doesn’t make sense from the perspective of an upper class person. They would have no need to lower their status amongst themselves, but contrary to expectations, there is no commonly used self-aggrandising first person pronoun (you could say މިބޭފުޅާ (Mibeyfulhaa – “this aristocrat”) but no one does that, and it’s super stuck-up).
It’s most likely that the word alhuga’ndu exists so that the upper classes can appear humble (no matter how genuine their humility is). It is like a mechanism built into the language that prevents people from letting their social status get to their heads (although many would say that it doesn’t work). And because the language is that way, Maldives may be the only country in the world where the president refers to himself as a “damn slave”.
The Quotation Pronoun
Now things get a little more interesting as we’re moving away from “X words for Y”. The quotation pronoun is a pronoun (obviously) that is used when talking about what someone else said about themselves. This is an incredibly useful feature to have in a language because it removes ambiguity in sentences with a lot of 3rd person pronouns. For example, in the sentence “She said she will come”, we don’t whether the two shes refer to one person or two different people. In Dhivehi, speakers have the option of removing ambiguity by using the pronoun ތިމަންނަ (thimanna) which is derived from a word meaning “self”. So in Dhivehi, “She said she will come” refers to two people, and “She said thimanna will come” refers to one person. However, I should note that most Dhivehi speakers would not use thimanna in this kind of sentence.
Involuntary Verb Conjugations
In Dhivehi, like in most languages, verbs are one of the most complicated parts of speech. The information conveyed by a conjugated Dhivehi verb usually includes time, aspect, mood and volition. This in itself makes Dhivehi somewhat unique amongst Indo-European languages, as most other languages in the family conjugate for person, number, and gender (Dhivehi verb forms sometimes indicate person too). For this post, I am talking about volition.
Volition distinguishes whether or not the subject of a sentence intended to perform an action. Dhivehi makes this distinction by having two sets of conjugations for each verb – the “doing” form (voluntary), and the “happening” form (involuntary). When you “do” something, you show control/intent, but if you “happen to do” something, there is no intent.
In English, this distinction isn’t explicitly indicated in the verb itself. You would typically have to use an adverb or auxillary verb like “accidentally”, “somehow” or “managed to”, or use the passive voice to indicate a similar meaning (although the passive voice still wouldn’t match the Dhivehi expression exactly). Here is an example:
|Voluntary||“I hit him”||އޭނަ ގައިގައި ޖެހީ
Eyna gaiga jehee
|“I hit him intentionally”|
|Involuntary||“I hit him”||އޭނަ ގައިގައި ޖެހުނީ
Eyna gaiga jehunee
|“I hit him accidentally”
“I somehow hit him”
“I managed to hit him”
“I bumped into him”
As you can see, volition is indicated in the verb itself in Dhivehi, whereas in English it has to be stated separately for a sentence not to be ambiguous. Another way of thinking about it is that all English verbs have an implied volition that you simply have to know. “Hit” for example is almost always voluntary whereas “bump into” is almost always involuntary.
Some Dhivehi verbs only have involuntary (“happening”) conjugations. This is interesting as the Dhivehi language explicitly recognises that some things only happen involuntarily whereas a lot of other languages do not indicate this. Two examples of such verbs are ފެނުން (fenun – “to see”) and އެނގުން (en’gun – “to know”). You cannot actively “see” or “know” things according to Dhivehi; they just happen.
Expressing volition in verbs this way is not unique to Dhivehi. Sinhalese verbs work pretty much the exact same way, which is expected since the languages are closely related. Japanese and some Bantu languages in Africa also exhibit similar phenomena.
Dividing the Day
This isn’t exactly a linguistic phenomenon, but it is a good example of how language, culture and geography are intertwined. Before the concept of 24 hour clock time was introduced into the Maldives, the day was traditionally divided into eight three-hour blocks known as ދަން (dhan; collectively އަށްދަން (addhan) or އަށްޑަން (addan) – “Eight dhan“). They are as follows:
|Name of dhan||Name in Dhivehi||Time of day|
|Hen’dhunu||ހެނދުނު||6:00 AM – 9:00 AM|
|Kudamendhuru||ކުޑަމެންދުރު||9:00 AM – 12:00 PM|
|Mendhuru||މެންދުރު||12:00 PM – 3:00 PM|
|Asuru||އަސުރު||3:00 PM – 6:00 PM|
|Iraakolhu/Iraadhan||އިރާކޮޅު/އިރާދަން||6:00 PM – 9:00 PM|
|Kudamendhan/Meddhan||ކުޑަމެންދަން/މެއްދަން||9:00 PM – 12:00 AM|
|Mendhan||މެންދަން||12:00 AM – 3:00 AM|
|Fathis||ފަތިސް||3:00 AM – 6:00 AM|
Of course, before clocks, the dhan were not attached to a clock time. Instead they referred to a three-hour-ish period which could be determined based on the position of the sun and stars. Even today, people use these words to refer to a general time period. This is where geography comes into play. Because Maldives is near the equator, there is very little variation in sunrise and sunset times, as well as the track of the sun in the sky throughout the year. This is why the dhan fit really neatly into clock times. Compare this to English where it would have been impossible to fit words like morning and evening into consistent clock times because there is too much variation in their timing throughout the year in England.
I should note that not all these words are in common use today. For example, most people will refer to 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM as hen’dhunu instead of kudamendhuru.
Also, I think it would be cool to see a “Dhivehi clock” which makes use of these terms. Something like this (but not so cheesy):
Time and Space
I would say this is most interesting thing I’ll talk about in this post. It is to do with the way the Dhivehi language spatialises time.
Let me explain. If you ask an English speaker to organise the past and future into spatial positions, they would say that the past is behind and the future is in front. This is even reflected in the language, for example, we say that we “look back” on past events and we “look forward” to future events. This positioning of past and future seems intuitive to English speakers and they wouldn’t think of doing it any other way. After all, past/behind and future/front is the only way that makes sense, right?
According to the way time is spatialised in Dhivehi, the past is in front of us and the future is behind us. First I’ll explain the linguistic bit, and then I’ll explain the idea itself.
When you compare Dhivehi time words to Dhivehi space words, you can see that there is a connection:
|Time||Time in Dhivehi||Space||Space in Dhivehi|
From this, you can see that Dhivehi, unlike English is a past=front/future=behind language.
To English speakers, the whole notion of past=front/future=behind probably doesn’t make any sense. But consider this: We can see what’s in front of us, but not what’s behind us. In the same way, we can see the past (i.e. memories) but not the future. A helpful analogy is that of walking backwards. When you walk backwards, you can see everything you pass only after you pass it, and you have no idea what’s coming up next. So according to Dhivehi, we are walking backwards into the future.
I should note that most Dhivehi speakers probably aren’t aware of this conceptualisation of time despite it being present in their language. If you asked the average Maldivian to spatialise time, they would probably give the same answer as an English speaker (past=behind/future=front). Also, the Dhivehi way of looking at time isn’t unique to Dhivehi. The Dravidian languages of South India and several Indigenous American languages are also past=front/future=behind languages.
Hopefully you’ve realised that there is much more to Dhivehi than coconuts, and that if you look a little deeper the Dhivehi language tells us a lot about Maldivian culture and the way Maldivians made sense of the world. On a broader level, you have hopefully realised that it is more than just the number of words which make a language rich and colourful. Having said that, I can appreciate that there are so many words for coconuts, but I do not ever want to see people citing coconuts as the sole reason why Dhivehi is a rich language.
I’ll leave you with an old video of a guy using the coconut words in a song.