Languages of East Timor

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Biggest language groups in sucos of East Timor.

The languages of East Timor include both Austronesian and Papuan languages. (See Timor–Flores languages and Timor–Alor–Pantar languages.) 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. The language of the Ocussi exclave is Uab Meto (Dawan). Fataluku is a Papuan language widely used in the eastern part of the country (often more so than Tetum). Both Portuguese and Tetum have official recognition under the Constitution of East Timor, as do other indigenous languages, including: Bekais, Bunak, Galoli, Habun, Idalaka, Kawaimina, Kemak, Lovaia, Makalero, Makasae, Mambai, Tokodede and Wetarese.

The rise of lingua francas 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 them are still in use as ritual languages or cants. Research done in the mid-2000s by the Dutch 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.[1]

In 2007, Van Engelenhoven discovered the existence of another language that was essentially extinct, called Rusenu.[2]

Official languages[edit]

An East Timorese girl speaking (from clockwise) Bunak, Tetum, Fataluku, and Portuguese. Translation: In Bunak/Tetum/Fataluku/Portuguese, we say: I am in Dili. I have some money. I do not have any money.

Section 13(1) of the 2002 constitution designates Portuguese and Tetum as East Timor's two official languages. The same section also provides that "Tetum and the other national languages shall be valued and developed by the State." English and Indonesian are sometimes used and section 159 of the constitution provides that these languages serve as "working languages within civil service side by side with official languages as long as deemed necessary".[3]

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.

Under Indonesian rule, Indonesian was the official language. Along with English, it has the status of a 'working language' under the Constitution.

An East Timorese girl speaking (clockwise from top) Mambai, Portuguese, and Tetum. Translation:
In Ainaro, we say "os" and "ôs" and "nor" and "nôr", just as the Portuguese say "avó" and "avô" (grandfather and grandmother)!

For many older East Timorese, the Indonesian language has negative connotations with the Suharto regime,[4] but many younger people expressed suspicion or hostility to the reinstatement of Portuguese, which they saw as a 'colonial language' in much the same way that Indonesians saw Dutch and how the Filipinos saw Spanish and,[5] increasingly, English.[6] However, whereas the Dutch culture and language had limited 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.

Some young East Timorese felt at a disadvantage by the adoption of Portuguese as an official language, and accused the country's leaders of favouring the older generations who speak Portuguese and educated Timorese who had only recently returned from overseas,[7] arguing that those older East Timorese who speak Portuguese or English had more job opportunities.[8]

Many foreign observers, especially from Australia and Southeast Asia were also critical about the reinstatement of Portuguese, arguing that English or Indonesian would have been preferable.[9] 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 complained that teachers from Portugal and Brazil were poorly equipped to teach in the country, as they did not know local languages, or understand the local culture.[10]

Nevertheless, the late Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who headed the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, was a Brazilian who 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.[11]

Languages by speakers[edit]

Languages of East Timor by number of speakers[12]

Language Number Year surveyed Language family
Tetun Dili 385,000 2009 Tetum-based creole
Mambai 131,000 2010 (census) Austronesian
Makasae 102,000 2010 (census) Timor–Alor–Pantar
Baikeno 72,000 2011 Austronesian
Tetum 63,500 2010 (census) Austronesian
Kemak 62,000 2010 (census) Austronesian
Bunak 55,000 2010 (census) Timor–Alor–Pantar
Tocodede 39,500 2010 (census) Austronesian
Fataluku 37,000 2010 (census) Timor–Alor–Pantar
Waimoa 18,400 2012 (census) Austronesian
Kairui-Midiki 15,000 2010 (census) Austronesian
Naueti 15,000 2010 (census) Austronesian
Idaté 13,500 2010 (census) Austronesian
Galoli 13,000 2010 (census) Austronesian
Makalero 6,500 2011 Timor–Alor–Pantar
Adabe 5,000 2010 (census) Austronesian
Lakalei 3,250 2010 (census) Austronesian
Habun 2,700 2010 (census) Austronesian
Portuguese 600 2010 (census) Indo-European
Makuv'a 56 2010 (census) Austronesian

Distribution of languages, 2010[edit]


  1. ^ Noorderlicht Noorderlicht Nieuws: Raadselachtig Rusenu
  2. ^ Noorderlicht Noorderlicht Nieuws: Sprankje hoop voor talenvorsers
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Languages in East Timor". Interview. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 26 June 2004. 
  5. ^ East Timor Sebastião da Silva Foundation (25 August 2000). "East Timor: Identity, Language and Educational Policy". East Timor Sebastião da Silva Foundation. Archived from the original on 2 February 2008. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Foreign and Commonwealth Office (19 December 2006). "Country Profiles Foreign & Commonwealth Office". Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Archived from the original on 7 January 2008. 
  8. ^ The Boston Globe (9 October 2003). "Independence breeds resentment in East Timor -". The Boston Globe. 
  9. ^ National Institute of Linguistics (various) (n.d.). "The Australian Media Attacks East Timor's Language Policy". National University of East Timor. ; National Institute of Linguistics (various) (n.d.). "Anglocratic Untruths". National University of East Timor. 
  10. ^ La'o Hamutuk Bulletin (August 2003). "Brazilian Aid to East Timor". La'o Hamutuk. 
  11. ^ Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (21 August 2003). "Two New Zealanders pay tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello". New Zealand Herald. Archived from the original on 2 February 2008. 
  12. ^ East Timor - Languages. Ethnologue. URL accessed April 10, 2017.


External links[edit]