The Dhivehi language is currently undergoing a rapid change. Over the past few decades, and especially in the last 10 or so years, Dhivehi has become decidedly more English. This is primarily due to changes in vocabulary, but if you pay attention carefully, you’ll notice that changes are happening at the grammatical and phonological levels as well, especially in Malé.

This is not an inherently bad thing, as it’s just the next stage in the evolution of Dhivehi. As the world around us changes, languages will have to adapt to be able to express new concepts. This necessarily means changes to vocabulary. But it does not have to mean the unchecked Anglicisation of the language that could potentially lead to it being completely unrecognisable (or even extinct) within the coming decades. A certain amount of language planning would be necessary to ensure that Dhivehi is ready for the future. Such language planning would have to involve a method of deriving or importing large amounts of vocabulary.

I’ll admit to being somewhat of a purist in this regard. I think that most new words should come from existing Dhivehi terms, or derived from Sanskrit with appropriate phonological changes (more on this in a future post). But I know that this can be kind of difficult, and I accept that sometimes, loanwords are necessary. I am not against loanwords per se, but I think having them in excessive amounts without a naturalisation process degrades a language to a certain extent.

As for current efforts to expand the Dhivehi vocabulary, we have the Dhivehi Academy. As laudable as their efforts/intentions are, they’re kind of joke. If you look at their lists of new Dhivehi words (which haven’t been updated for a while now), it looks very haphazard. It’s almost as though they just threw a bunch of topical words together. And the way they introduce new vocabulary is also insufficient. Take the newly built bridge for example. They had over two years to come up with a decent word and get people used to it. They could have worked with media outlets and the people in charge of construction to encourage the use of the word so that it would start to become normal. But instead, they dumped the word ދާލަން on us at the last minute, but it was too late, and now we’re stuck with ބުރިޖު. The same is true of that pavilion at Rasfannu. People wouldn’t have mocked the name ފަވީލާ if they were given time to allow it to become normal.

Million Meela
Even though this is satire, it’s more systematic than the Dhivehi Academy. Also, “dhenseelaa”!! Genius!

Anyway, enough with the Academy-bashing. The point of this post if to provide a brief outline of the ways that new vocabulary can be brought into Dhivehi. I’ve arranged them from least to most authentic. I will write separate posts about a few of them to provide more details and examples. Let’s begin!

Pure Loans (or Foreign Words)

This is when a word or a phrase is borrowed into a language without any phonological or grammatical changes to make it sound more natural to the borrowing language. This kind of loan completely changes the character of a language. Sometimes this can be good, sometimes it can be bad. In the case of Dhivehi, it’s mostly been bad.

Pure loans in Dhivehi are pretty much all those new words from English which retain English phonological features like consonant clusters, the schwa, and the Dhivehi interpretation of alveolar stops as retroflex stops. Words like this include ޑައިރެކްޓަރ and ޕްރޮޑިއުސަރ, which not only sound jarring when heard in speech, but also look wrong (not to mention ugly) when written in Thaana.

More examples can be found in the government, which uses more than its fair share of pure loans in the names of the ministries:

Image result for maldives ministry
ޥަޓް ކައިންޑް އޮފް ސްޓުޕިޑިޓީ އިޒް ދިސް؟

Some Arabic loanwords would also count as pure loans, but only if people attempt to pronounce them like the original Arabic. There are also some Arabic loan-phrases like ބައިނަލްއަގުވާމީ and ރައީސުލްޖުމްހޫރިއްޔާ.

Modern English doesn’t contain too many pure loans. You get the odd word like Schadenfreude here and there, as well as a few common French phrases like RSVP (Répondez s’il vous plaît), haute couture, avant garde, coup d’état, faux pas, and hors d’oeuvre. In legal writing, there will be a lot of pure loans from Latin, as in quid pro quo, jus sanguinis, and sine qua non. Overall however, English is phonologically very English despite having so many loanwords. This brings us to the next method of vocabulary expansion:

Naturalised Loans

This is when a loanword is changed to suit the phonology of the borrowing language. I would say this is the best way to go when borrowing large amounts of vocabulary. It allows the borrowing language to increase its expressive capacity while retaining its sound.

There are actually quite a few naturalised English words in Dhivehi. The naturalisation process typically involves using dental stops for English alveolar stops, inserting vowels to avoid consonant clusters, and changing /p/ to /f/. Here are a few examples:

  • Second → ސިކުންތު
  • Company → ކުންފުނި
  • Cement → ސިމެންތި
  • Screw → އިސްކުރު or އިސްކޫރު
  • Passenger → ފަސިންޖަރު

These words sound much better when their sounds are changed to suit Dhivehi. I believe the same phonological changes should be applied to new loanwords as well. I’ll go into this in more detail in a future post.

You could even argue that all pure Dhivehi words are naturalised borrowings from Sanskrit. And knowing this, it is possible to find a way to naturalise Sanskrit words that did not make it into Dhivehi, which could easily quadruple the size of the existing Dhivehi lexicon.

In English, most loanwords have been naturalised. If they weren’t, English would sound like a garbled mess of French, Latin and Germanic words.

So far we have covered methods for expanding vocabulary that involve the importation of foreign words. Now, we’ll move onto methods that involve substitution using words from the borrowing language. This first one however, is kind of a blend between importing and substituting.

Phono-Semantic Matching

This is when elements of a loanword are substituted with native terms that are similar in both sound and meaning to the original word.

This method is difficult to apply to most loanwords because there are very few word forming elements that match the sound and meaning of foreign words, no matter what the language is. I don’t know of any existing Dhivehi examples, but I’ve come up with a few that I’ll save for another post.

Even in English, there are very few common examples of this. So to get a clearer idea of what phono-semantic matching is, I’ll give you two examples from Arabic and Chinese:


“Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. So goes the meme that illustrates the  useless facts people are taught in school:

Related image

In Arabic, there are two ways of saying mitochondria. One is the direct loan ميتوكندريون (mītūkundriyūn), and the other way which is derived from phono-semantic matching is متقدرة (mutaqaddirah). The latter term sounds like the original word, but it is also based on the Arabic root q-d-r. Words derived from this root have meanings relating to power.


The name of the country Belarus means “White Russia”. The Chinese name for Russia is 俄罗斯 (Èluósī), which is simply a phonetic transcription. The name for Belarus in Chinese is 白俄罗斯 (Bái’èluósī), where the character 白(bái) means “White” in addition to sounding like Be-. Hence, both the meaning and sound are preserved.

Calque (or Semantic Translation)

This is when elements of a foreign word or phrase are directly/literally translated into the borrowing language. This differs from phono-semantic matching in that only the meaning is retained, not the sound.

There aren’t that many examples of calques in Dhivehi, particularly when it comes to single words with multiple morphemes. މަތީ ތައުލީމު is a calque of “higher education”, ދިރޭމުދާ (one of Dhivehi Academy’s new words) is a calque of “livestock” and ފެނުޕަރީ (literally “water fairy”) could possibly be a partial calque of “mermaid”.

English has quite a few calques from other languages. Brainwash, for example is a calque of Chinese 洗脑 (xǐ nǎo), and Milky Way is a calque of Latin Via Lactea. If these were to be calqued into Dhivehi, the words might be ސިކުނޑިދޮވުން and ކިރުމަގު (which sounds kind of sexual). Here are a whole lot of other calques, if you’re interested.

Calques are a very good way of borrowing vocabulary, because they make the borrowed term sound way less foreign. In addition, they are very simple to derive, because terms that are complicated as a whole often consist of relatively simple elements. Even though these elements might not make sense when combined in the borrowing language, it makes translation a lot easier. Going back to the mitochondria example, mitochondria comes from two Greek words which mean “thread” and “grain”. Calquing this into Dhivehi, you would get something like ރޮދިއޮށް (or ރޮއްޖޮށް if you apply appropriate phonological changes). Sure, it doesn’t make sense literally, but that’s not the point of calques.

Semantic Loan

This is when a meaning is borrowed and applied to an existing word in the borrowing language.

There aren’t too many of these in English. An example in Dhivehi is the word ތަރި which originally meant “star”, as in “those twinkly dots in the sky at night”. Another meaning from the English usage of the word was then borrowed: “famous people who act in TV shows and movies”. Now, the Dhivehi word ތަރި has the same two meanings as the English star.

Semantic loans could be applied whenever the borrowed-from language has more meanings for a word than the borrowing language. Another potential Dhivehi example is the word ފަންކާ meaning “fan”, as in “spinning wind-maker”. We could extend the meaning of ފަންކާ to incorporate the other meaning of “fan”, that is, “someone who admires another person”, as in ސުނީތާއަކީ ޕްރިޔަންކާގެ އެންމެ ބޮޑު ފަންކާ. Of course it sounds stupid, but that’s just because you’re not used to it.

Loan Creation/Translation/Interpretation

This is when a new word is coined independent of the borrowed language, and possibly independent of other words in the borrowing language. Although this is the “purest” way of expanding vocabulary, it is also the most difficult and time-consuming. It also happens to be the method that the Dhivehi Academy uses most, which explains why they’re so slow with the new words. The reason this method takes longer is because it involves a greater amount of original thought about what a foreign word means. The work isn’t already done for you as in the case of loans or calques.

Here are some Dhivehi examples, all taken from Dhivehi Academy’s wordlists:

  • ނަލަމަޑި – Ladybird (literally “pretty beetle”)
  • ކަފިހިއަސް – Zebra (literally “stripe horse”)
  • ސުމޭކު – Digital (literally “zero one”, referring to binary numbers)
  • ލުއިކާ – Snack (literally “light eat”)

You can see that these words are translations of meanings (i.e. interpretations) and would therefore be harder to come up with. Not only do you have to know the meaning of the original word, but you have to know the contexts in which that meaning applies and how this can be transferred to the contexts of the borrowing language (which isn’t something Dhivehi Academy does too well).

Despite the difficulty of this method, it’s still a good way to introduce new words into a language.


I said I would keep this post brief, but evidently I failed. Here is a quick recap of all the ways new vocabulary can be brought into Dhivehi:

  • Pure loan – a word is borrowed without any changes
  • Naturalised loan – a word is borrowed with phonological changes to suit the borrowing language
  • Phono-semantic matching – a word is substituted with elements from the borrowing language that are similar in sound and meaning
  • Calque – word for word, or morpheme for morpheme translation of a foreign word or phrase
  • Semantic loan – A new meaning based on the usage of a word in a foreign language is applied to an existing word in the borrowing language
  • Loan creation/translation/interpretation – A new word is coined, either based on the meaning of a foreign word, or completely independent of other words in any language

It should be clear now that there are plenty of ways of expanding the Dhivehi vocabulary. However, when people think of “new Dhivehi words”, their minds immediately go to the last option on this list, which is a very narrow-minded way of looking at it. All of these methods are valid and are suited to different contexts (except pure loans, because yuck, who needs that?) and we should make an effort to use all of them to truly enrich the Dhivehi language.


Shukuru-kaley for reading!