Languages of East Timor

Languages of East Timor

The lingua franca and national language of East Timor is Tetum, an Austronesian language influenced by Portuguese, with which it has equal status as an official language. Fataluku, a Papuan language widely used in the eastern part of the country (often more so than Tetum) has official recognition under the constitution, as do other indigenous languages, including: Bekais, Bunak, Dawan, Fataluku, Galoli, Habun, Idalaka, Kawaimina, Kemak, Lovaia, Makalero, Makasai, Mambai, Tokodede and Wetarese.

Under Portuguese rule, all education was through the medium of Portuguese, although it coexisted with Tetum and other languages. Portuguese particularly influenced the dialect of Tetum spoken in the capital, Dili, known as "Tetun Prasa", as opposed to the more traditional version spoken in rural areas, known as "Tetun Terik". "Tetun Prasa" is the version more widely used, and is now taught in schools.

Indonesian has ceased to be an official language, although it, along with English, has the status of a 'working language' under the Constitution. It is still widely spoken, particularly among younger people who were educated entirely under the Indonesian system, under which the use of either Portuguese or Tetum were banned.

For many older East Timorese, the Indonesian language has negative connotations with the Suharto regime, [cite web | title = Languages in East Timor | work = Interview | publisher = Australian Broadcasting Corporation | date = 26 June 2004 | url = | accessdate = ] but many younger people have expressed suspicion or hostility to the reinstatement of Portuguese, which they see as a 'colonial language' in much the same way that Indonesians saw Dutch. [cite web | last = East Timor Sebastião da Silva Foundation | title = East Timor: Identity, Language and Educational Policy | publisher = East Timor Sebastião da Silva Foundation | date = 25 August, 2000 | url =
accessdate =
] However, whereas the Dutch culture and language had little influence on those of Indonesia, the East Timorese and Portuguese cultures became intertwined, particularly through intermarriage, as did the languages. Portuguese was also a working language of the resistance against Indonesia.

Young East Timorese have also felt at a disadvantage by the use of Portuguese, and accuse the country's leaders of favouring people who have only recently returned from overseas, [cite web
last = Foreign and Commonwealth Office
title = Country Profiles Foreign & Commonwealth Office | work = | publisher = Foreign and Commonwealth Office
date = 19 December 2006
url =
accessdate =
] but even those older East Timorese who speak Portuguese, having been in the resistance, have not found jobs despite their proficiency in the language. [cite web
last = The Boston Globe
title = Independence breeds resentment in East Timor - | work = | publisher = The Boston Globe
date = 9 October 2003
url =
accessdate =
] Many foreign observers, especially from Australia and Southeast Asia have also been critical about the reinstatement of Portuguese, to which they would prefer English or Indonesian. [cite web
last = National Institute of Linguistics (various)
title = The Australian Media Attacks East Timor's Language Policy
work = | publisher = National University of East Timor
date = undated
url =
accessdate =
; cite web
last = National Institute of Linguistics (various)
title = Anglocratic Untruths
work = | publisher = National University of East Timor
date = undated
url =
accessdate =
] In spite of this, many Australian linguists have been closely involved with the official language policy, including the promotion of Portuguese.

Portugal and other Portuguese language countries such as Brazil have supported the teaching of Portuguese in East Timor. Some people in East Timor have complained that teachers from Portugal and Brazil are poorly equipped to teach in the country, as they do not know local languages, or understand the local culture. [cite web
last = La'o Hamutuk Bulletin
title = Brazilian Aid to East Timor
work = | publisher = La'o Hamutuk
month = August | year = 2003
url =
accessdate =
] Nevertheless, the late Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who headed the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, was a Brazilian who not only established a close working relationship with Xanana Gusmão (The country's first President) as a fellow Portuguese-speaker, but was respected by many East Timorese because of his efforts to learn Tetum. [cite web
last = Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
title = Two New Zealanders pay tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello
work = | publisher = New Zealand Herald
date = 21 August 2003
url =
accessdate =

The rise of linguae francae in the linguistically diverse East Timor, and the domination of several clans over others, have led to the extinction of many smaller languages. However, some of these are still in use as ritual languages or cants. Research done in the mid-2000s by the Dutch/Timorese linguist Aone van Engelenhoven, for example, revealed that the Makuva language, formerly spoken by the Makuva tribe but believed to have been extinct since the 1950s, was still used occasionally. [ [ Noorderlicht Noorderlicht Nieuws: Raadselachtig Rusenu ] ] In 2007, Van Engelenhoven discovered the existence of another language that was essentially extinct, called Rusenu. [ [ Noorderlicht Noorderlicht Nieuws: Sprankje hoop voor talenvorsers ] ]



* [ National Institute of Linguistics, National University of East Timor]
* [ "The languages of East Timor", by Dr. Geoffrey Hull, at the Timorese National Institute of Linguistics]
* [ Current Language Issues in East Timor (Dr Geoffrey Hull)]
* [ Interview given by Dr. Geoffrey Hull to the programme "Lingua Franca", in Radio National]

External links

* [ Pictures from a Portuguese language course using Tetum published in the East Timorese newspaper in Díli]
* [ Línguas no Timor] website in Portuguese, but contains links to articles in English
* [ Languages of Timor Lorosae] - part of Ethnologue
* [ The Languages of East Timor: Some Basic Facts]
* [ FATALUKU COMMUNITY: English and Fataluku Website for researching the Fataluku Language]

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