Languages of East Timor

Biggest language groups in sucos of East Timor.

The languages of East Timor include both Austronesian and Papuan languages. (See Timor–Flores languages and West Trans–New Guinea 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

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.

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,[3] 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 and how the Filipinos saw Spanish and,[4] increasingly, English.[5] 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,[6] but even those older East Timorese who speak Portuguese, having been in the resistance, have not found jobs despite their proficiency in the language.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

Distribution of languages, 2010


  1. Noorderlicht Noorderlicht Nieuws: Raadselachtig Rusenu
  2. Noorderlicht Noorderlicht Nieuws: Sprankje hoop voor talenvorsers
  3. "Languages in East Timor". Interview. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 26 June 2004.
  4. 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. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (19 December 2006). "Country Profiles Foreign & Commonwealth Office". Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
  7. The Boston Globe (9 October 2003). "Independence breeds resentment in East Timor -". The Boston Globe.
  8. 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.
  9. La'o Hamutuk Bulletin (August 2003). "Brazilian Aid to East Timor". La'o Hamutuk.
  10. 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.


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