Tetum language

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Tetum (Tetun, Lia-Tetun)
Spoken in: East Timor, Indonesia
Region: Southeast Asia
Total speakers: 800,000
Ranking: not in top 100
Genetic classification: Austronesian
Official status
Official language of: East Timor
Regulated by: National Institute of Linguistics
Language codes
ISO 639-1
ISO 639-2
See also: LanguageList of languages

Tetum (also written as Tetun) is the national language of East Timor. It is basically Austronesian with many words derived from Portuguese, with which it has equal status as an official language, as well as Malay or Indonesian.

Tetum arose as a contact language in the 16th century after colonization by Portugal. The main dialect, that of the capital Dili, is called either Tetun Dili, or Tetun-Prasa (literally 'town Tetum'), while the more traditional form spoken in the countryside is called Tetun-Terik. A form of Tetum known as Tetun-Belu is also spoken in Indonesian West Timor, but has no official status or recognition.

Although Portuguese was the official language of what was then Portuguese Timor, Tetun-Prasa served as the main lingua franca, borrowing heavily from Portuguese. When Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor, declaring to be the Republic's '27th Province', the use of Portuguese was banned. However, the Catholic Church, instead of adopting Bahasa Indonesia as its liturgical language, adopted Tetum, thereby making it a focus for cultural and national identity.



The Tetum name for East Timor is Timor Lorosa'e or 'land of the rising sun'.

  • loro - sun
  • loron - day
  • lorosae - sunrise or 'east'

The Tetum for 'word', liafuan, comes from lia ('voice') and fuan ('fruit').

Some words in Tetum:

  • barak - much
  • bo'ot - big
  • ki'ik - little
  • mane - man
  • fetu - woman
  • foho - mountain
  • tasi - sea
  • malae - foreigner
  • rai - country

Words derived from Portuguese in Tetum include:

  • aprende - learn (from aprender)
  • demais - too much
  • entaun - so, well (from então)
  • eskola - school (from escola)
  • igreja - church
  • istoria - history (from historia)
  • paun - bread (from pão)
  • povu - people (from povo)
  • relijiaun - religion (from religião)
  • serveja - beer (from cerveja)
  • tenki - must (from tem que)

Words related to Malay in Tetum include:

  • barak - much (banyak)
  • bele - can (boleh)
  • uma - house (rumah)
  • dalan - street (jalan)
  • karreta - car (kereta)
  • lima - five (limah)
  • oan - person (orang)
  • tulun - help (tolong) Portuguese 'ajuda' is also used

It is also common for Tetum speakers to use Malay/Indonesian words for numbers, especially those over one thousand, hence duapuluh for 'twenty' instead of ruanulu. The word for 'foreign', malae, is derived from the word melayu (literally 'Malay').


Grammar in Tetum is comparatively simple, there being no genders or verb conjugations. There is no definite article, so fetu can mean 'woman' or 'the woman'. There is no verb 'to be' as such, although the word la'ós (which translates as 'not to be') is used to express the negative:

  • Timor oan la'ós Indonézia oan. The Timorese are not Indonesians.
  • Lia indonézia la'ós sira nia lian. Indonesian is not their language.

Similarly, maka (which roughly translates as 'who is' or 'what is') can be used with an adjective for emphasis:

  • Xanana Gusmão maka ita nia Prezidente. It's Xanana Gusmão who is our President.
  • João se maka gosta serveja. John is the one who likes beer.

The plural is not normally used for nouns, although the word sira ('they') can be used for emphasis.

  • Fetu - woman
  • Fetu sira - women

In the case of words of Portuguese origin, the distinct plural (ending with the letter 's') is used;

  • Estadus Unidus - United States (from Estados Unidos)
  • Nasoens Unidas - United Nations (from Nações Unidas)

To turn an adjective into a noun, the word oan is added:

  • Malae - foreign
  • Malae oan - foreigner

Similarly, 'Timorese' is Timor oan, as opposed to the country of Timor, Rai Timor.

The past tense is not usually used except for emphasis, when the word ona ('already') is added at the end of the sentence.

  • Ha'u han. - I eat.
  • Ha'u han etu. - I eat / ate rice.
  • Ha'u han etu ona. - I ate / have eaten rice.

Like Malay, Tetum has two forms of 'we': ami (equivalent to Malay 'kami') which is exclusive (eg: 'just the two of us'), and ita (equivalent to Malay 'kita'), which is inclusive (eg: 'all of us').

  • Ami nia karreta - Our [family's] car.
  • Ita nia rai - Our country.

(The word 'nia' is used as the possessive.)

The genitive is formed by using 'nian', hence:

  • Povu Timor Lorosa'e nian - The people of East Timor


  • Ida - One
  • Rua - Two
  • Tolu - Three
  • Haat - Four
  • Lima - Five
  • Neen - Six
  • Hitu - Seven
  • Ualu - Eight
  • Sia - Nine
  • Sanulu - Ten

Basic phrases

  • Bon dia - Good day. (from Portuguese bom dia)
  • Diak ka lae? - How are you? (literally are you well or not?)
  • Ha'u diak - I'm fine.
  • Obrigadu - Thank you. (from Portuguese obrigado)
  • Ita bele koalia Tetun? - Can you speak Tetum?
  • Loos - Yes.
  • Lae - No.
  • Ha'u [la] komprende - I [do not] understand. (from Portuguese compreender)


There are variations in Tetum pronunciation in East Timor, partly due to Portuguese and Indonesian influence.

The sounds of 'j' and 'z', for example, are often confused, so that the Portuguese-derived word exemplu or 'example' is pronounced as 'ejemplu', and, conversely, 'Janeiru' or 'January' is pronounced as 'zaneiru'. (This has also occurred with Portuguese-derived words in Indonesian, such as meja or 'table', from mesa, and kemeja or 'shirt', from camisa.)

The sound 'sh' (represented in Portuguese by 'ch' or 'x') is usually pronounced by Tetum as 's', hence or 'tea', from cha is pronounced as 'sa'. Similarly, the sounds of 'b' and 'v' may also be confused, hence the word serbisu or 'work', from the Portuguese serviço.


As Tetum did not receive any official recognition or promotion under either Portuguese or Indonesian rule, it is only recently that a standardised orthography has been established by the National Institute of Linguistics (INL).

This was based upon the spelling reforms first introduced by Fretilin in 1974, when it launched literacy campaigns across East Timor during that year, and also those used made by the Catholic Church when it adopted Tetum as the liturgical language during the Indonesian occupation.

These involved the simplifying of Portuguese words, for example, educação or 'education' is transliterated as edukasaun, and colonialismo or 'colonialism' as kolonializmu.

More recent reforms by the INL include the transliteration of the Portuguese 'lh' and 'nh' (pronounced as 'ly' and 'ny') as 'll' and 'ñ', as found in Galician a language closely related to Portuguese spoken in Spain.

Consequently, senhor or 'mister' in Portuguese is to be written as señór in Tetum, and trabalhador or 'hard-working' as traballadór. Some linguists favoured 'ly' and 'ny', but these were considered to be too close to Indonesian, even though 'ny' is used in Catalan in Spain, which is closely related to Portuguese. The letter 'ñ' was also used in Filipino, but this was replaced by 'ny'.

The 'ch' letter combination in Portuguese is transliterated as 'x', hence cha, or 'tea', is written as . This use of the letter 'x' also of Galician origin, is also encountered in Konkani in Goa.

See also

External links

de:Tetum es:Tetun eo:Tetuma lingvo fi:Tetumin kieli fr:Tétoum id:Bahasa Tetun ja:テトゥン語 nl:Tetun pt:Tetum th:ภาษาเตตุม


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