Naxi – 纳西 (pronounced Na-she) can refer to an ancient people inhabiting the Lijiang autonomous county in the Chinese province of Yunnan (see map) and to the language this people speaks. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman languages macro-group and it is spoken by approximately 300.000 people. The Naxi civilisation boasts of a stunningly rich history that spans from the eighth century until 1724 when the region was annexed to the Chinese dominion.
There’s something very peculiar about this language, so unique to have drawn the attention not only of anthropologists from all over the world but also – and most significantly for us – of linguists and philologists interested in Asian studies. Traditionally, written Naxi is not expressed in Chinese characters, but rather in the so-called Dongba Script. What’s so interesting about it?
Oh well, it’s just the only living pictographic language, halfway between language and art. A bridge linking life and death together. In fact, religion represents a decisive factor in the characterisation of this culture, lying at the base of the community life. Dongbas are actually the practicing priests who personally write prayers and religious recitals adopting the script and use what thus becomes a precious literary and historical piece as props for specific death or blessing ritualties.
The Dongbas, in a state of trance, compose their mystical speech on coarse paper or wood.
Sheets were sown together at the left edge to form a book. Pages were ruled horizontally, and the pictographs were drawn from left to right in three or five sections within the rules. Somewhat thicker sheets of paper form a stiff cover, which has the title. They were usually named after the type of ceremony for which they were used.
Dongba script inevitably reminds of the Egyptian hieroglyphics – and to be fair, the idea behind it does not really change. Nevertheless, Naxi have to deal with a more complex system of rebuses to convey verbs and other grammatical elements.
“These old documents … are extremely rare and scientifically important because almost nothing is known of the [Naxi] people whose history they reveal. Furthermore, the art of making the books has died out and the scrolls, which used to take a skilled [Dongba] six months to make while in a trance, are scarcely ever seen now. The writing, unlike anything known elsewhere, resembles superficially the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, but it has a certain action and humor that separates it at once from anything so stylized. The characters, at first glance, look like a child’s picture book, a sort of Mickey Mouse. There are many little drawings of cows, horses, birds, tigers, dwarfs and strange gods that show a vigorous and refreshing artistic style.”
The Library mentioned above is the main source people wanting to study this language should rely on. Apparently we are lucky enough to have 21,842 manuscripts available, out of which 12,741 are in China, 7,288 in the USA – mostly donated by Quentin Roosevelt II and Joseph Rock, to whom goes also the merit of taking care of the European collection (1,513). More 300 manuscript are kept in Taiwan, where Zhu Bao-Tian, anthropolgist, studies the Naxi literary tradition. The Chinese anthropologist has curated the extensive collection of manuscripts sorting them out into specific categories, depending on their topic and their ritual employment. According to him:
“The manuscripts are a living fossil for the study of ancient culture”.
In my opinion, the most interesting and fascinating elements of this collection are the manuscripts containing the description of romance and love-related ceremonies. These ceremonies usually involve a series of sacrifices/meaningful gestures aimed at the salvation of the dead’s soul from hell. According to Li Lin Ts’an, an art historian,
[T]he [Naxi] people look upon death as an affair of great moment. The Naxis believe the soul goes immediately to hell. One of the Dongbas’ primary duties is to lead souls out of hell.
As a result, there are some particular ceremonies dedicated to those who committed sucide for love. It’s the Dongbas’ duty to use their power to ensure their access to the Kingdom of the
Suicide Lovers, where they will preserve their beauty and their happy love forever. Most of the works that have reached the present time are about funerary ceremonies. Interesting in this sense is the Journey to Heaven, a particularly suggestive Naxi Divine Commedy . Although a sylllabary has been drafted overtime, and a broader diffusion of this particular art has been encouraged, there still is a very close relationship between the written language and its creator. Written works were often burnt together with the priests when they died. Decoding Dongba could turn out to be very difficult without the aid of the writer/artist himself.
Nowadays this script has regained recognition and is often used throughout the Lijiang area alongside Chinese, which is expectedly more commonly used. However the Dongba script continues to be employed for religious purposes and to attract tourists, thus embodying a century-long tradition and the history of an entire people and promoting cultural diversity to the public.
So, if I say ‘Republic of the Maldives‘ the first image most likely to come up to your mind will be something like this: Stunning, isn’t it? The sunny side of life, they say. And indeed it is, but I’m not here to talk about that. Let travel agencies and airline companies do it. This article is about that side of this bunch of tiny atolls (1,192 islands in total) unfairly underestimated by the general public. Yes, I am speaking about their culture, their language.
Maldivian? Well, yes, many people refer to this fascinating language simply as ‘Maldivian’ but it’s actually called Dhivehi. Dhivehi is the language Maldivian people speak, Dhivehi is the Maldivian people itself. Dhivehi is the rich history of an Indo-Aryan ethnic group and their countless legends, recounted on the Lōmāfānus (ލޯމާފާނު), old Maldivian texts carved on copper plates. Dhivehi is literature and poetry, either from the old times when the language was not like the one spoken today and the alphabet used was different, or more modern texts that stress on the close relation Dhivehi people have to their Motherland, which is now facing so many environmental threats and – perhaps a less fatal issue – foreign language invasion. But let’s start with a couple of significantly beautiful lines:
އަސަރަކާއި އަދި ފޮނިކަމެއް އެކި ބަސްބަހުން ހަމަ ފެނުނަކަސް
އަސަރުގަދަ އަދި އެންމެ ފޮނި ބަހަކީ މަށަށް މި ދިވެހި ބަހޭ
I’ve also scanned the written text, in case your PC happens not to like the Thaana script.
The core meaning of these two lines is simple but very straightforward. Foreign languages might be very rich, expressive, nice, but there is no language as sweet (foni) as Dhivehi. I have the pleasure to listen to the sound of this language fairly often and I can confirm that the sweetness mentioned by the poet is totally there. It’s pretty, melodic, it’s one of those languages where there are so many long vowels that you could speak and sing at the same time. This language is at the crossroads between Arabic, Sanskrit, Sinhalese. Geiger, a German linguist and one of the first Europeans to take up a serious study of this language, considered it ‘the daughter’ of Sinhalese, but later studies have demonstrated that it shares the same roots with Sinhalese, i.e. they both draw their origin from Prakrit, a medieval Indian language that shares some connection with Vedic. Pretty long history, actually. Oh and now that we’ve ascertained that there is actually a very rich history behind this language, you might still think that Dhivehi is today standardised and spoken homogeneously throughout the archipelago. Well, ‘archipelago‘ means ‘group of islands‘ and, as you might know already, ‘standardisation of language‘ and ‘islands‘ are two expressions that don’t go well together. Trust me, I know from experience.
There are six major dialects, named after the islands/regions where they are spoken:
The first one is, let’s say, BBC Maldivian, the allegedly standardised version. National standardised French came from the linguistic patterns adopted in Paris. Likewise, Maldivian/Dhivehi is commonly associated with the dialect spoken in the capital, Male. (I will not type Malé because it’s pointless).
Addu is, to keep with the British references, the Oxford Maldivian. This is the dialect spoken in the southern region of the archipelago, an area quite diversified from the rest. So diversified that it has often asked for administrative independence. The educated stratum of Maldivian society tends to be from this region, well-known throughout the country to be an educational hub. It’s fairly similar to the Mulaku dialect and it can be distinguished by the use of the final -o where Male Dhivehi would use -u instead. Oddly enough, people from Addu think that their own dialect and the Male one are not that different after all and can easily understand the variations. On the contrary, people who grew up speaking Male dialect claim not to understand Addu. Either way, this plethora of language variations just make things more complex than they actually are, although I must admit that this language as sweet as it might sound, is scarily complicated. Well, unless you’re fluent in Hindi, Sinhalese and Arabic, which I’m not.
So, to me languages tend to be exponentially difficult according to what number of cases they have. Dhivehi is a 7-case language (nominative, genitive, dative, ablative plus locative, instrumental and emphatic (and I thought that Latin was bad enough). (Just kidding, I actually love cases). Anyway, exactly like Latin, word order doesn’t really matter as long as you got the word endings right. Endings that might sounds quite funny to the external listener, especially when the endings are applied to words of foreign origin. Dhivehi authorities do not seem much of a protectionist force, I guess they have other issues to deal with. Yet I personally find quite odd (and unfair) how foreign languages – especially English – shape today’s Dhivehi. The phenomenon is not completely homogeneous, it does depends on the individual’s background that might or might not have been into English-speaking education. However, English is always there, ready to replace words, although I have been told that time to time news agencies try to hold back the foreign wave retrieving words from an antiquated vocabulary, which – I guess – would make them modern again. When Dhivehi deals with English words though, it tends to use certain guidelines in order to ‘naturalise‘ English words in a local context. This operation is not difficult at all if applied using the Thaana script, where the transliteration of foreign words is bound to change the original words to be adapted to a different phonetic system.
On that last note, let’s now speak about writing. Written Dhivehi is very interesting because – brace yourselves, because this is super fascinating – written and spoken Dhivehi adopt different forms. It’s not only a form of register, but also of word construction. This language is built upon layers over layers interconnected between each other but clearly distinct. Such as the levels of formality, which change according to whether one is speaking a high-ranked personage, the elderly, their parents or their friends. Languages tell us so many stories.
So, writing. We know that Maldivian Buddhist monks had a peculiar writing system that foreruns the aforementioned Lomafanus. Unfortunately no single evidence of this writing system has outlasted these two millennia. The earliest examples of old Dhivehi (see photo) or Dhivehi Akuru came from script systems used in the southern areas of the Indian subcontinent.
This particularity has time to time made scholars assume that the Maldives were somewhat part of external kingdoms, yet history has taught us that the Maldives have proudly kept their independence throughout the centuries. A mystery remains: when did the Dhivehi people actually shift to Thaana script? There are many attempted answers, some claim that the old script was abandoned when the islands were converted to Islam, other scholars claim that the change occurred even 200 years earlier than that. One thing is certain: the modern Thaana system is much easier.
The origins of this particular script are quite interesting. The first part of the alphabet (h-z) derives from Arabic numerals, whereas the last bit derives from the local Indian-subcontinental numerical system. This feature has triggered many studies that often come across stories of magic and esoteric rituals. Apparently, Thaana scripts were used to cast spells according to specific local rituals (fandita). This would perhaps explain the order of Dhivehi letters, which follows an unusual trend not found in other languages, related to it or not. Nevertheless, the writing system does not differ so dramatically from Arabic. Again, you write syllables where the main body of the grapheme is the consonants, whereas vowels are added either on the top or at the bottom as diacritic signs.
So, the Maldives are certainly a prestigious holiday destination, but they do have much more to offer. Like a super interesting anthropological and linguistic history yet to be explored completely. If you are interested, I am planning to talk more about Dhivehi in the future, as this post is turning to be quite long. I will probably look closer at the alphabet and general language features next time! So… to be continued!
And I must thank my Maldivian friend, for all our chats on her language and culture, over a nice cup of tea.
Watch this space!