Divehi - Orientation

Identification. Divehis are those who speak Divehi, the language of the Republic of the Maldives. They occupy all the Maldives and also the island of Maliku (Minicoy on the maps) to the north, which belongs to India. The people call themselves Divehi (from dive-si, meaning "island-er"), and their country is Divehi Rājje (kingdom). The name "Maldives" is probably from mālā-dīv ("garland-islands" in Indian languages), referring to the double chain of atolls that appears like a garland or necklace. The word atol is Divehi, originally spelled with one l. The country was a nexus of Indian Ocean shipping, and it has remained mostly independent since ancient times.

Location. The Maldives stretch from 0° V S to 7° 0′ N, with Minicoy at 8° 2′. Longitude is about 73° E. There are about 1,200 islands, of which 201 are permanently inhabited. The islands are low and flat, mostly less than a kilometer long with only 9 as long as 2 kilometers, ringing coral atolls. Total land area is only about 280 square kilometers, and nowhere is the land more than 2 meters above sea level. The Maldives extend for 867 kilometers north to south and claim the surrounding ocean as national territory. Maliku is the largest Island, 16.5 kilometers long and lying 140 kilometers north of the Maldives proper, but it is politically cut off from other parts of the archipelago.

Demography. As of 1991 there were 228,000 Divehis—220,000 Maldivians and roughly 8,000 on Maliku. The first census was in 1911 as part of the Ceylon census, and it showed 72,237 Divehis on 217 inhabited islands. Population was previously kept in check by epidemics, famine because of storms that interrupted imports of food, and cerebral malaria, but during recent decades the population has been shooting up rapidly. The 1990 census showed a crude birthrate of 43 per 1,000 and a growth rate of 3.5 percent a year. The government has taken little initiative on family planning because of the momentum of Islamic tradition. Male has 57,000 people, a quarter of all Divehis, though it is only 1.6 kilometers long and the thin groundwater lens has become polluted, so the government tries to curb migration there. Life expectancy is about 62 years for males and 60 for females.

Linguistic Affiliation. Divehi is derived from the old Sinhala of Sri Lanka, and so it is classifiable as an Indo-Aryan language, although at the very end of the Eurasian chain of that language stock. There is an underlying component of Tamil-Malayalam. Since conversion to Islam, numerous Arabic and Persian words have been borrowed. The bounds of the language are clear, but the three southern atolls and Maliku have their own dialects. The script is unique, invented for Divehi three centuries ago from a combination of Arabic and Indian principles of script. It suits the language well and is easy to learn.

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