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East Timorese Languages

Tetum and Other Languages of East Timor
from Dr. Geoffrey Hull's Preface to Mai Kolia Tetun

Colonization, Decolonization and Integration: Language Policies in East Timor
by Nancy Melissa Lutz


East Timor - map

Tetum and Other Languages of East Timor
from Dr. Geoffrey Hull's Preface to Mai Kolia Tetun:
A Course in Tetum-Praca (The Lingua Franca of East Timor)

Austronesian languages - Malayo-Polynesian languages - Malay - Portuguese and Tetun-Praça ("Town Tetum") - Tetun-Terik (Tetun-Loos) - Status of Tetum - Tetum and the Catholic Church - Tetum - Tetun?

At least sixteen distinct languages are indigenous to East Timor, some of them closely related, others completely unrelated to each other. Of these twelve, the most widely spoken is Tetum, originally the vernacular of the Belu people.

Austronesian Languages

Tetum belongs to the great Austronesian family of languages spoken in a vast area of the globe between Taiwan in the north, New Zealand in the south, Easter Island in the east, and Madagascar in the west. The 500 or more vernaculars making up the linguistic phylum all descend from an ancestral language probably originating on the South China coast, and certainly established in the island of Taiwan (Formosa) around 4000 BC. Climatic changes drove the Mongoloid speakers of this "Proto-Austronesian" language south into the Philippines, and from there to Indonesia, Madagascar, New Guinea, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

Austronesian immigrants had reached the Moluccas and the Lesser Sunder islands of Eastern Indonesia by 2000 BC. Here they mingled with the indigenous Melanesians, by whom they were racially absorbed to a large extent, but on whom they imposed their speech. Tetum is most closely related to the ten other Austronesian languages native to Timor (Helong; Atoni; Mambai; Tokodede; Kemak; Galoli, Idate, Lakalei; Waima'a and Naueti); to the dialects of the island of Wetar to the immediate north; to the dialects of the Babar, tanimbar and Aru islands (South-East Maluku) stretching between Timor and New Guinea; and to the languages of the Lesser Sunda islands of Roti, Solor, Flores, Sawu and Sumba. Like these other "Centro Malayo-Polynesian" languages, Tetum is structurally quite different from Malay and its offshoot Bahasa Indonesia, and in many respects closer to the Melanesian vernaculars of coastal New Guinea and the Western Pacific.

Malayo-Polynesian Languages

The eleven Malayo-Polynesian languages of Timor share their habitat with three surviving non-Austronesian ones: Bunak, spoken in central Timor, and Makasae and Fataluku (Dagada), which occupy the eastern extremity of the island. These three kindred idioms appear to be related in turn to the dialects of the nearby islands of Alor and Pantar. A fourth non-Austronesian language, Maku'a (Lovaia), once the vernacular of Tutuala (now Fataluku-speaking), is on the verge of extinction today. Adabe, the dialect of the central area of Atauro Island, belongs to the Alor group (the northern and southern villages of the island speaking dialects of Galoli). Once thought to be the residual speech of the region's original Melanesian inhabitants, modern scholarship now suggests that these non-Austronesian languages were introduced to Timor and the neighbouring islands by immigrants from northern New Guinea. There appears to be a strong "Papuan" element in two of East Timor's smaller Austronesian languages, Waima'a (with its dialects Midiki, Kairui and Habu) and Naueti. Conversely, the influence of New Guinean languages on Tetum has been negligible.


Much more important has been the impact on Tetum of Malay, the commercial koinê of the East Indies, and current along the coasts of East Timor until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was superseded by Portuguese as the "higher" language of the region. Parts of Timor had been under Portuguese rule since the sixteenth century. The earliest centre of Portuguese power was Lifau, on the north-western coast of Timor, but by the 1640s the Dutch had seized most of the western half of the island (Servião). Portuguese interests moved east, and in 1769 the capital was transferred from Lifao-Oe-Cuesse, now a mere enclave in Dutch territory, to Dili, on the north coast of the securely Portuguese eastern sector. In East Timor the colonizers and Catholic missionaries employed Tetum, then as now the most widely spoken vernacular, as their lingua franca. The local language of Dili was originally Mambai, but by the next century the new capital's mixed population, too, was speaking the favoured Tetum language.

Portuguese and Tetun-Praca ("Town Tetum")

In Dili Tetum came into intimate contact with Portuguese, in both its standard and creolized varieties (including the so-called português de Bidau, once current in the Dili suburb of that name and akin to the Creole Portuguese of Macao). By the early twentieth century the speech of Dili, known as Tetum-Praça (from Tetun-Perasa "Town Tetum", termed today Tetun-Dili or Tetun-Maka by the Timorese), was mixed language with a Tetum base and a thick Portuguese coating. Portuguese loanwords, syntax and loan translations greatly outnumbered the older Malay layer of borrowings, so today it is impossible to express oneself in Tetum-Praca without using Portuguese forms. It should be remembered that Portuguese was the only recognized official language of the colony until 1975, and the sole medium of instruction in the schools. The use of Tetum by officials was mainly oral, though Catholic missionaries developed the language as a literary standard, producing prayer-books and religious works in it.

Tetun-Terik (Tetun Loos)

In its native habitats (two large but mutually isolated areas), Tetum was less susceptible to Portuguese influence. Tetun-Terik is the name the Timorese give to the Tetum of the south-eastern Viqueque-Soibada region, and to its western variety, spoken from coast to coast. Tetun-Loos "true Tetum" is sometimes used as a synonym. Tetun-Belu refers to the south-western dialect split by the Portuguese-Dutch border. As one would expect, the Tetum of West Timor has borrowed less from Portuguese, and came under the sway of Dutch and later, standard Indonesian.

Status of Tetum

Tetum has between 300,000 and 400,000 native speakers, but well over two thirds of the population of East Timor are conversant with the lingua franca (ie. Tetun-Dili) exception the extreme west, where Fatuluku-speakers have traditionally used Portuguese as their second language. On the other hand Tetum is current among the Vaikenu (Atoni) speakers of the Oe-Cussi enclave in western Timor. Portuguese has lost its official status when East Timor was annexed by Indonesia in 1976, Bahasa Indonesia occupying all of its historical positions, but attachment to the old colonial language remains strong, and Portuguese is still a major source of loanwords for Tetum.

Tetum and the Catholic Church

The use of Tetum as a common cultural medium for East Timor has been championed by the Catholic clergy, who are still the main writers of the language. Consequently, Tetum literature in East Timor remains largely religious in scope. Since the vernacularization of the Roman rite after the Second Vatican Council, Tetum has replaced Portuguese as the liturgical medium in the diocese of Dili, which covers the whole province (ed. at the time of writing). It is to be hoped that a comprehensive secular literature in the language will result from current efforts to perfect its standardization and extend its functions.

* Tetum - Tetun?

The correct spelling of this name in English has become a matter of some controversy. My choice of the Portuguese spelling Tetum, the traditional form of the language name in English, is deliberate. Native speakers call their language [tetu], with a final nasal vowel. This is conveniently spelt Tetun in the standard orthography of the language, but the English pronunciation of the name with the consonant [n] rather than the nasal vowel is phonetically even more incorrect than to pronounce a consonontal [m] in the now unfashionable spelling Tetum. My policy has been to respect established English orthographical usage when writing English: to insist on the spelling Tetun in English is equivalent to dictating the use of macaronic expressions like "the Français language" instead of "the French language". Therefore, "ha'u kolia Tetun", but "I speak Tetum".



Colonization, Decolonization and Integration: Language Policies in East Timor
by Nancy Melissa Lutz

Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association Chicago, November 20, 1991

ETRA Commentary: This article, based on an academic paper delivered just after the Dili Massacre, offers a very interesting analysis of language in East Timor in its political context. Considering language in East Timor during both Portuguese colonial times and Indonesian military occupation, the author's views open up the jargon of 'development' and 'integration' and show the link between language and control. Perceptive and well thought through.

This document can also be obtained by anonymous FTP at the Australian National University, Canberra on the node COOMBS.ANU.EDU.AU or from the ANU Soc.Sci.WWW Server at http://coombs.anu.edu.au/CoombsHome.html

Introduction (the multilingualism of East Timor) - Brief historical background of East Timor (Portuguese and Dutch in the 'East Indies'; 1974 and Portuguese decolonisation; East Timorese independence and Indonesian invasion; 1976-91, military campaigns, 'development' and 'integration', 'everyday forms of resistance', language) - Multilingual mosaic of East Timor (indigenous languages) - Portuguese (1950 population figures, with ethnic breakdown and the significance of Portuguese-speaking elite) - Schooling (Portuguese, Indonesian) - Indonesian language and Indonesian 'governmentality' (education, school-building and 'security', language and control) - Role of Catholic Church (Tetum defying Indonesianization; Portuguese as international Church language and as defying military occupation, the Dili Massacre)





This paper is an attempt to disentangle the complex strands of multilingualism in East Timor, both historically and contemporarily, in terms of the relations of Portuguese, Indonesian, Tetum, and the indigenous local languages of East Timor.

In light of recent events in East Timor, especially the two recent massacres of Timorese civilians by the Indonesian military, it might seem almost trivial to talk about an issue like language policy. However, as I will try to show, language in East Timor is absolutely critical to understanding the contemporary situation in East Timor, both in terms of the repression felt by the indigenous Timorese, and in terms of the jumpiness, if not outright paranoia, felt by the Indonesian administration. Obviously, language alone cannot explain why Indonesian soldiers would mount a well-planned attack and open machine-gun fire on 3,000 civilians, including children, attending a memorial service at a cemetery in Dili, but language is part of the more subtle dynamics that engender such actions, and it is these more subtle dynamics which I would like to explore today.

Brief Historical Background


First, some brief background on the history of East Timor (ed. - see also the HISTORY section of ETRA website): Portuguese outposts were established in East Timor in the mid-to- late 1500's, as part of the Portuguese attempt to gain control of the spice trade in Indonesia. The outposts in Timor were established primarily to facilitate Portuguese access to the sandalwood trade, while their major fort, port, and religious seminary were located on the island of Solor and at Larantuka on the island of Flores further west.

The Dutch rapidly followed the Portuguese into eastern Indonesia, and for the next 300 years, the area was contested back and forth between the Dutch and the Portuguese, with the real local power being held by a Portuguese mestizo class called the 'Black Portuguese' or Topasses. This creole mestizo class was extremely important in both Larantuka and East Timor, and to this day plays an important role in the local communities of both areas.

Finally, after extensive wars and negotiations, in 1859, Larantuka and Solor were ceded to the Dutch, and the Portuguese moved their Indonesian headquarters to Dili in East Timor. Colonial control, such as it was, in East Timor was gradually extended throughout the 19th and 20th centuries - coffee was introduced as a cash crop, for example, in 1815 - and East Timor remained a Portuguese colony until 1975. (In fact, it has never been officially declared not a Portuguese colony, and its status comes up for discussion almost every year at the United Nations.)

In 1974, though, with the change of political regime in Lisbon, Portugal decided to decolonize. Its two major colonies, Angola and Mozambique, became independent, and the fate of East Timor was up for grabs.

Internally, within East Timor, there were three main political parties, representing three main directions of development:

(1) Fretilin, whose goal was an independent East Timor;
(2) UDT, who initially wanted continued association with Portugal, but who then changed to advocating independence; and
(3) Apodeti, a largely Indonesian-created party, who advocated integration with Indonesia.
For various reasons too complex to go into here, civil war broke out in August 1975, Fretilin declared East Timor's independence on November 28, 1975, and on December 7, 1975, less than two weeks later, Indonesia took matters into her own hands and invaded, formally annexing East Timor and declaring, on July 17, 1976, that East Timor "had decided to 'integrate' with Indonesia", much as Kuwait was 'integrated' into Iraq. Since 1976, therefore, East Timor has de facto become the 27th province of Indonesia, although as I mentioned, its status has never been officially resolved.

While the fifteen years since 1976 have seen extensive military campaigns and an accelerated push for 'development', the 'integration' process has never been smooth. The period from 1975-1980, especially, was marked by massive military campaigns, forced relocations, and starvation. Estimates are that as much as one-third of East Timor's population of roughly 600,000 may have starved or been killed during that time. Even today, ten years later, there is continuing small-scale but effective guerilla resistance, and considerably more widespread popular resentment and "everyday forms of resistance", even in the face of increasing government repression and intimidation. And it is here, with the "weapons of the weak", in Scott's phrase (cf. Scott 1985) - the "everyday forms of resistance" - that we return centrally and critically to language as an important issue.

Multilingual Mosaic


Linguistically, East Timor is a complex multilingual mosaic. There are twelve mutually unintelligible indigenous languages, four Austronesian and eight non-Austronesian, which can be further subdivided into 35 dialects and sub-dialects.

The Austronesian language group consists of:

(1) Tetum, which is spoken in Dili, Suai, Viqueque, and on the border with western Timor;
(2) Galoli, spoken east of Dili, in Manatuto and Laclubar;
(3) Mambai, spoken south of Dili and in Aileu, Ermera, Ainaro, and Same; and
(4) Tokodede, spoken in Liquica.
The non-Austronesian category is composed of:
(5) Bunak, spoken in Bobonaro and on the border with western Timor;
(6) Kemak, spoken in the western regions;
(7) Makassai, spoken in Baucau and east Viqueque;
(8) Dagada, spoken in Lautem;
(9) Idate, spoken in the central hinterlands;
(10) Kairui, spoken in Laleia;
(11) Nidiki, spoken in the south central lands; and
(12) Baikenu, spoken in Ambenu (Provincial Government of East Timor 1986: 8).
The Indonesian government, incidentally, while formally acknowledging the existence - and to some extent, as part of its official national language policy, the right to exist - of these twelve Timorese languages, also likes to talk about them as 'dialects', which denigrates their status as autonomous languages and also suggests that they are somehow 'backward', 'aberrant' dialects of Indonesian.

In addition to - or perhaps, superimposed over - these twelve indigenous languages, Tetum acts as a kind of lingua franca among the Timorese population. It is interesting to note as well that while the Indonesian government in no way acknowledges the role of Tetum as an indigenous lingua franca, the Indonesian government radio station, Radio Republik Indonesia, does broadcast certain 'key' programs in Tetum at particular hours of the day (cf. Provincial Government of East Timor 1986: 81).



Prior to 1975, Portuguese was the official government language in East Timor, and as such, was primarily the language of Church and State. (And it should be noted that Church and State have had a very close association throughout Portuguese colonial history.) The ability to read and write Portuguese was a prerequisite for Portuguese citizenship, and Portugal's assimilado policy encouraged cultural and linguistic assimilation. Only a small percentage of Timorese were 'assimilados' or 'civilizados', however.

In 1950, out of a total resident population in East Timor of 442,378, the ethnic or 'racial' (in Portuguese terms) breakdown of the population was as follows:

According to these figures, therefore, Portuguese-speaking civilizados and mesticos together represented less than one percent of the total population.

The importance of these two groups was far greater than their sheer numbers suggest, however, especially by 1975 when more of the indigenous Timorese elite would have had a Portuguese education. Despite their small numbers, this Portuguese-speaking elite emerged as the major actors in and spokesmen for a post- colonial East Timor, and they still play an important role as either leaders of the resistance (both within East Timor and outside) or as key intermediaries within the Indonesian administration.

It is especially interesting in this regard that, while Fretilin encouraged local-level literacy campaigns in Tetum, on a Paolo Freire model, in the brief period from 1974-1976, the nationalist leaders themselves were primarily Portuguese speakers, and they declared Portuguese as the official language of an independent East Timor, "at least for the time being" (cf. Jolliffe 1978).



Up through 1975, schooling was also in Portuguese. Most schools in East Timor were run by the Catholic Church, and Portuguese was the language of instruction. (In some of the stricter Catholic private schools, students were punished for speaking Tetum, Chinese, or other indigenous languages, even among themselves outside of the classroom.) Chinese was taught in schools outside of the official Catholic school system, but there was no formal instruction in Tetum or any indigenous Timorese language.

After 1975, Indonesia moved rapidly to abolish the use of Portuguese and to establish Indonesian in its place as the new 'national' language of East Timor. Interestingly, however, the way in which Indonesian is mandated reflects not a 'nationalist' concern, or even a focus on 'citizenship', as in the colonial Portuguese era, but a focus on control and on what Foucault would call 'governmentality' (cf. Burchell et. al, eds., 1991).

Indonesian Government


This is seen most explicitly in the Indonesian government linking of language and education. Since 1975, Indonesia has engaged in a flurry, if not frenzy, of school-building in East Timor, and they have widely publicized the fact that they built more schools in East Timor between 1975 and 1980 than Portugal had built in the one hundred years prior to 1975. School statistics have, in fact, jumped exponentially in East Timor: in 1976, there were 47 elementary schools, 2 junior high schools, and no senior high schools. By 1986, there were 498 elementary schools, 71 junior high schools, and 19 senior high schools. The number of pupils, likewise, jumped from 13,501 in elementary school, 315 in junior high school, and none in senior high school in 1976 to 109,844 in elementary school, 17,351 in junior high school, and 2,948 in senior high school by 1986. And the number of teachers rose correspondingly: from 499 elementary school teachers, 10 junior high school teachers, and no senior high school teachers in 1976 to 2,978 elementary school teachers, 322 junior high school teachers, and 79 senior high school teachers in 1986 (Provincial Government of East Timor 1986). Of even greater interest to me, as an analyst of Indonesian political rhetoric - and linked again to Foucault's ideas on governmentality - is how the Indonesian government itself characterizes its school-building efforts in East Timor. In its own words, school-building in East Timor is integrally linked to security:

"Since the beginning of the integration, the Government of the Republic of Indonesia has emphasized the need for synchronized actions in the administration of government and development efforts on the one hand and the maintenance of law and order on the other" (Department of Information 1984: 33).
In words that could almost have come from Foucault himself, this publication continues:
"By way of illustration, it may be mentioned that the establishment of Public Health Service Centres, schools, and the construction of roads, etc. has contributed to the speedy restoration of law and order in the community. These activities have served as an effective deterrent against influence and propaganda carried out by a small group of anti-Indonesians" (ibid.).
Whenever language policy is mentioned with regard to East Timor, it is always linked to schools and to education policy, and this in turn is always linked to security. Language in East Timor is integrally tied to the maintenance of law and order.

This becomes even more critical in light of the fact that, according to the 1980 census, less than 30% of the population of East Timor spoke - or understood - Indonesian (Department of Information 1984: 39). Given that it is probably also the case that less than 30% of the Indonesian administration in East Timor (if we also include the military) speaks or understands either Tetum or Portuguese, this puts the communicative situation in East Timor at somewhat of an impasse.

Role of Catholic Church


The role of the Catholic Church here is also an important factor. While under the Portuguese, the Catholic Church was a major proponent of the Portuguese language and administration, it has not played the same role for the Indonesians.

The Catholic Church in East Timor ceased to be part of the Portuguese Church in 1975, as part of the process of decolonization, and is now administered direct from Rome. It has staunchly refused to become part of the Indonesian Church, despite the Indonesian government's efforts at 'integrasi' (cf. Burdiardjo and Liong 1984).

Linguistically, the Church has also defied Indonesianization. As Budiardjo and Liong report:

"In 1981 the Indonesian administration tried to force the Church to accept linguistic 'integrasi' by stipulating that Portuguese should no longer be used during Mass and should be replaced by Indonesian. The clergy rejected this request and asked the Vatican for permission for Portuguese to be replaced by Tetum. The Vatican gave its approval in October 1981. This change in language has helped integrate the Church even more closely with the community" (1984: 121).
Despite the use of Tetum in Masses, however (and possibly the more recent use of Indonesian by Indonesian-speaking clergy), Portuguese remains the language of external communication for the Catholic Church, as it does for the anti-Indonesian resistance. Given how few Indonesian military or administrative personnel speak Portuguese, this is a major thorn in their flesh, making censorship of external communications, for example, quite difficult. It also creates an antagonism towards, and a suspicion of, Portuguese in East Timor that is quite different from the attitude towards Dutch, for example, as the ex-colonial language of Indonesia.

Initially, one might think that the role of Portuguese and Dutch as ex-colonial languages would be quite similar. In Indonesia, however, while Dutch was denigrated as the language of the colonialists, it was also the language - or one of the languages - of the Indonesian nationalist elite. While they rejected Dutch, therefore, and considered anyone who continued to speak Dutch as a reactionary, or hopelessly out of date, they still understood Dutch.

Because the Indonesian government in East Timor does not understand Portuguese, continued use of Portuguese is to them much more of a threat. Not only does it represent a challenge to Indonesian governmentality, it also represents a 'secret' language, opaque to the Indonesian administration.

Portuguese, therefore, is much more highly suspected - more analogous, perhaps, to the use of Dutch in Indonesia during the Japanese Occupation. From an East Timorese point of view, in fact, the analogy is quite fitting, as many people in East Timor feel they are under a military occupation. The Indonesian military, for their part, also act like agents of a military occupation. Despite ostensibly 'nationalist' rhetoric, 'development' in East Timor is not a 'nationalist' or a 'citizenship' type program of development. Rather, it is a program of 'development' through and for 'governmentality', and language policy is an integral part of that program.

Given such dynamics, therefore, perhaps it is not so hard to understand, after all, why the Indonesian military would feel compelled not just to surveil, but to actually open fire, on a Catholic memorial service in East Timor.


(1) Department of Anthropology University of Oregon Eugene, OR. 97405


Budiardjo, Carmel, and Liem Soei Liong 1984 The War Against East Timor. London: Zed Books.

Burchell, Graham, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds., 1991 The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

East Timor, Provincial Government 1986 East Timor: A Decade of Development. Dili: The Provincial Government of East Timor.

Jolliffe, Jill 1978 East Timor: Nationalism and Colonialism. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Republic of Indonesia, Department of Information 1984 East Timor Today. Jakarta: Republic of Indonesia, Department of Information.

Scott, James C. 1985 Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Weatherbee, Donald E. 1966 Portuguese Timor: An Indonesian Dilemma. Asian Survey, 6 (Dec.).



Timor - Satellite Image (East and West from space)