Ethnic Groups and Language

Maldives Table of Contents

The contemporary homogeneous mixture of Sinhalese, Dravidian, Arab, Australasian, and African ethnicity in Maldives results from historical changes in regional hegemony over marine trade routes. Clarence Maloney, an anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Maldives in the 1970s, determined that an early Dravidian-speaking substratum of population from Kerala in India had settled in the islands, leaving its legacy in the language and place-names. This group was subsequently displaced by Dhivehi-speakers who arrived from Sri Lanka and whose language became the official one. Arabs compose the last main group to arrive beginning in the ninth century. However, a rapidly disappearing endogamous subgroup of persons of African origin called the Ravare or Giraavaru also existed. In 1970, facing the loss of their home island in Male Atoll because of erosion, the Ravare moved to Hulele. But a few years later, the community of 200 people were transferred to Male to permit the expansion of the airport on Hulele.

The only distinct ethnic minority is found in Male among the trading community of Indians, who settled there in the 1800s. Several hundred in number, they are also a religious minority, belonging to the Shia branch of Islam. In addition, a small number of Sri Lankans have come to Maldives in recent years to work in the tourist resorts because Maldivians, as devout Muslims, refuse to work in facilities serving alcoholic beverages. This situation has created some resentment on the part of local Maldivians facing unemployment.

The language Maldivian Dhivehi belongs to the Indo-European language family. Derived from Elu, an archaic form of Sinhalese (the language of Sri Lanka), it has numerous loanwords from Arabic, from Hindi--which is used in trade with Indian merchants- -and from Tamil. It has contributed one word, "atoll," to international usage. In Dhivehi, the numbers from one to twelve are of Sinhalese origin, and after twelve, Hindi. The names of the days are Sinhalese and Hindi. The names of persons are Arabic.

Dhivehi is spoken throughout the atolls. Dialect differences are pronounced in the four southernmost atolls, however. The traditional script, Thaana, is written from right to left. This locally invented script contains twenty-four letters, the first nine of which are forms of the Arabic numerals. In 1977 a romanized script was introduced to be used along with Thaana for official correspondence, but since 1979 the requirement is no longer mandatory.

More about the Population of Maldives.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress