Tetum language

Native to West Timor, East Timor
Native speakers
500,000, mostly in Indonesia (2010–2011)[1]
50,000 L2-speakers in Indonesia and East Timor
  • Belunese (Tetun Belu)
  • Terik (Tetun Terik)
Official status
Official language in
East Timor
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2 tet
ISO 639-3 tet
Glottolog tetu1245[2]

Distribution in East Timor of Tetum Belu (west) and Tetum Terik (southeast). The majority of Tetun speakers, who live in West Timor, are not shown.
Tetun Prasa
Tetun Dili
Tétum Praça
Native to East Timor
Native speakers
390,000 (2009)[1]
Widespread in East Timor as L2
Tetun-based creole
Latin (Tetum alphabet)
Official status
Official language in
East Timor
Regulated by National Institute of Linguistics
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tdt
Glottolog tetu1246[3]

Distribution of Tetum Prasa mother-tongue speakers in East Timor

Tetum /ˈtɛtʊm/,[4] also Tetun, is an Austronesian language spoken on the island of Timor. It is spoken in Belu Regency in Indonesian West Timor, and across the border in East Timor, where it is one of the two official languages. In East Timor a creolized form, Tetun Dili, is widely spoken fluently as a second language; without previous contact, Tetum and Tetun Dili are not mutually intelligible.[5] Besides the grammatical simplification involved in creolization, Tetun Dili has been greatly influenced by the vocabulary of Portuguese, the other official language of East Timor.

History and dialects

Languages of Timor Island. Tetum is in yellow.

Tetum has four dialects:

Tetun-Belu and Tetun-Terik are not spoken or well understood outside their home territories. Tetun-Prasa is the form of Tetum that is spoken throughout East Timor. Although Portuguese was the official language of Portuguese Timor until 1975, Tetun-Prasa has always been the predominant lingua franca in the eastern part of the island.

In the fifteenth century, before the arrival of the Portuguese, Tetum had spread through central and eastern Timor as a contact language under the aegis of the Belunese-speaking Kingdom of Wehali, at that time the most powerful kingdom in the island. The Portuguese (present in Timor from c. 1556) made most of their settlements in the west, where Dawan was spoken, and it was not until 1769, when the capital was moved from Lifau (Oecussi) to Dili that they began to promote Tetum as an inter-regional language in their colony. Timor was one of the few Portuguese colonies where a local language, and not a form of Portuguese, became the lingua franca: this is because Portuguese rule was indirect rather than direct, the Europeans governing through local kings who embraced Catholicism and became vassals of the King of Portugal.[6]

When Indonesia occupied East Timor between 1975 and 1999, declaring it "the Republic's 27th Province", the use of Portuguese was banned, and Indonesian was declared the sole official language, but the Roman Catholic Church adopted Tetum as its liturgical language, making it a focus for cultural and national identity.[7] When East Timor gained its independence on 20 May 2002, Tetum and Portuguese were declared as official languages.

In addition to regional varieties of Tetum in East Timor, there are variations in vocabulary and pronunciation, partly due to Portuguese and Indonesian influence. The Tetum spoken by East Timorese migrants in Portugal and Australia is more Portuguese-influenced, as many of those speakers were not educated in Indonesian.



The Tetum name for East Timor is Timór Lorosa'e, which means "Timor of the rising sun", or, less poetically, "East Timor"; lorosa'e comes from loro "sun" and sa'e "to rise, to go up". The noun for "word" is liafuan, from lia "voice" and fuan "fruit". Some more words in Tetum:

Portuguese (left) and Tetum (right). From a Portuguese course for Tetum speakers. The Portuguese text says: "Our generation sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between 'j' and 'z'"

From Portuguese

Words derived from Portuguese:

From Malay

Tetum (left) and Portuguese (right). From a Portuguese course for Tetum speakers. The Portuguese text says: "Some people pronounce erroneously '*meja', '*uja' and '*abuja' instead of 'mesa', 'usa' and 'abusa'."

As a result of Bazaar Malay being a regional lingua franca, many words are derived from Malay, including:

In addition, as a legacy of Indonesian rule, other words of Malay origin have entered Tetum, through Indonesian.


However, Tetum speakers often use Malay/Indonesian or Portuguese numbers instead, such as delapan or oito "eight" instead of ualu (just like "eight" in Javanese: wolu), especially for numbers over one thousand.


Tetum has many hybrid words, which are combinations of indigenous and Portuguese words. These often include an indigenous Tetum verb, with a Portuguese suffix -dór (similar to '-er'). For example:

Basic phrases



Personal pronouns

Person Number
Singular Plural
1 Ha'u-(nia)
1INCL Ita-(nia)
1EXCL Ami-(nia)
2 Ó-(nia) Imi-(nia)
2(polite) Ita-(nia)
3 Nia(ninia) Sira-(nia)



(1)Hau rona asu hatenu
1Sheardog barking
"I hear the dog barking"
(2)Nia sosa sigaru
"'He/She buys cigarettes'"
(3)Ita rona rádiu?
"Are we hearing a radio?"
(4)Sia moris hotu ka?
3Paliveall ?
"Are they all alive?"

A common occurrence is to use titles such as Senhora for a woman or names rather than pronouns when addressing people.


(1) Senhora mai hori bain-hira?
"When did you arrive?"


The second person singular pronoun Ó is used generously with children or if the speaker intends to address someone of high social status.[9]


(1) Nina, Ó ihanebee?
"Nina, where are you?"

Nouns and pronouns


The plural is not normally marked on nouns, but the word sira "they" can express it when necessary.

feto "woman/women" → feto sira "women"

However, the plural ending -(e)s of nouns of Portuguese origin is retained.

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

Tetum has an indefinite article ida ("one"), used after nouns:

labarik ida – a child

There is no definite article, but the demonstratives ida-ne'e ("this one") and ida-ne'ebá ("that one") may be used to express definiteness:

labarik ida-ne'e – this child, the child
labarik ida-ne'ebá – that child, the child

In the plural, sira-ne'e ("these") or sira-ne'ebá ("those") are used:

labarik sira-ne'e – these children, the children
labarik sira-ne'ebá – those children, the children
Possessive and genitive

The particle nia forms the possessive, and can be used in a similar way to the Saxon genitive in English, e.g.:

João nia uma – João's house
Cristina nia livru – Cristina's book

The genitive is formed with nian, so that:

povu Timór Lorosa'e nian – the people of East Timor
Inclusive and exclusive "we"

Like other Austronesian languages, Tetum has two forms of "we", ami (equivalent to Indonesian and Malay kami) which is exclusive, e.g. "I and they", and ita (equivalent to Indonesian and Malay kita), which is inclusive, e.g. "you, I, and they".

ami-nia karreta – our [family's] car
ita-nia rain – our country

Nouns derived from verbs or adjectives are usually formed with affixes, for example the suffix -na'in, similar to "-er" in English.

hakerek "write" → hakerek-na'in "writer"

The suffix -na'in can also be used with nouns, in the sense of "owner".

uma "house" → uma-na'in "householder"

In more traditional forms of Tetum, the circumfix ma(k)- -k is used instead of -na'in. For example, the nouns "sinner" or "wrongdoer" can be derived from the word sala as either maksalak, or sala-na'in. Only the prefix ma(k)- is used when the root word ends with a consonant; for example, the noun "cook" or "chef" can be derived from the word te'in as makte'in as well as te'in-na'in.

The suffix -teen (from the word for "dirt" or "excrement") can be used with adjectives to form derogatory terms:

bosok "false" → bosok-teen "liar"


Derivation from nouns

To turn a noun into an adjective, the particle oan is added to it.

malae "foreigner" → malae-oan "foreign"

Thus, "Timorese" is Timor-oan, as opposed to the country of Timor, rai-Timor.

To form adjectives from verbs, the suffix -dór (derived from Portuguese) can be added:

hateten "tell" → hatetendór "talkative"

Tetum does not have separate masculine and feminine forms of the third person singular, hence nia (similar to dia in Indonesian and Malay) can mean either "he", "she" or "it".

Different forms for the genders only occur in Portuguese-derived adjectives, hence obrigadu ("thank you") is used by males, and obrigada by females. The masculine and feminine forms of other adjectives derived from Portuguese are sometimes used with Portuguese loanwords, particularly by Portuguese-educated speakers of Tetum.

governu demokrátiku – democratic government (from governo democrático, masculine)
nasaun demokrátika – democratic nation (from nação democrática, feminine)

In some instances, the different gender forms have distinct translations into English:

bonitu – handsome
bonita – pretty

In indigenous Tetum words, the suffixes -mane ("male") and -feto ("female") are sometimes used to differentiate between the genders:

oan-mane "son" → oan-feto "daughter"
Comparatives and superlatives

Superlatives can be formed from adjectives by reduplication:

barak "much", "many" → babarak "very much", "many"
boot "big", "great" → boboot "huge", "enormous"
di'ak "good" → didi'ak "very good"
ikus "last" → ikuikus "the very last", "final"
moos "clean", "clear" → momoos "spotless", "immaculate"

When making comparisons, the word liu ("more") is used after the adjective, followed by duké ("than" from Portuguese do que):

Maria tuan liu duké Ana — Maria is older than Ana.

To describe something as the most or least, the word hotu ("all") is added:

Maria tuan liu hotu — Maria is the oldest.


Adverbs can be formed from adjectives or nouns by reduplication:

di'ak "good" → didi'ak "well"
foun "new", "recent" → foufoun "newly", "recently"
kalan "night" → kalakalan "nightly"
lais "quick" → lailais "quickly"
loron "day" → loroloron "daily"

Prepositions and circumpositions

The most commonly used prepositions in Tetum are iha ("in") and ba ("to" or "for") while circumpositions are widely used. These are formed by using iha, the object and the position.

iha uma laraninside the house
iha foho tutunon top of the mountain
iha meza letenon the table
iha kadeira okosunder the chair
iha rai li'uroutside the country
iha ema leetbetween the people


Copula and negation

There is no verb "to be" as such, but the word la'ós, which translates as "not to be", is used for negation:

Timor-oan sira la'ós Indonézia-oan. — The Timorese are not Indonesians.

The word maka, which roughly translates as "who is" or "what is", can be used with an adjective for emphasis:

João maka gosta serveja. — It's John who likes beer.

The interrogative is formed by using the words ka ("or") or ka lae ("or not").

O bulak ka? — Are you crazy?
O gosta ha'u ka lae? — Do you like me?
Derivation from nouns and adjectives

Transitive verbs are formed by adding the prefix ha- or hak- to a noun or adjective:

been "liquid" → habeen "to liquify", "to melt"
bulak "mad" → habulak "to drive mad"
klibur "union" → haklibur "to unite"
mahon "shade" → hamahon "to shade", "to cover"
manas "hot" → hamanas "to heat up"

Intransitive verbs are formed by adding the prefix na- or nak- to a noun or adjective:

nabeen — (to be) liquified, melted
nabulak — (to be) driven mad
naklibur — (to be) united
namahon — (to be) shaded, covered
namanas — (to become) heated up
Conjugations and inflections (in Tetun-Terik)

In Tetun-Terik, verbs inflect when they begin with a vowel or consonant h. In this case mutation of the first consonant occurs. For example, the verb haree (to see) in Tetun-Terik would be conjugated as follows:

ha'u karee — I see
ó maree — you (sing.) see
nia naree — he/she/it sees
ami haree — we see
imi haree — you (pl.) see
sira raree — they see



Whenever possible, the past tense is simply inferred from the context, for example:

Horisehik ha'u han etu – Yesterday I ate rice.

However, it can be expressed by placing the adverb ona ("already") at the end of a sentence.

Ha'u han etu ona – I've (already) eaten rice.

When ona is used with la ("not") this means "no more" or "no longer", rather than "have not":

Ha'u la han etu ona – I don't eat rice anymore.

In order to convey that an action has not occurred, the word seidauk ("not yet") is used:

Ha'u seidauk han etu – I haven't eaten rice (yet).

When relating an action that occurred in the past, the word tiha ("finally" or "well and truly") is used with the verb.

Ha'u han tiha etu – I ate rice.


The future tense is formed by placing the word sei ("will") before a verb:

Ha'u sei fó hahán ba sira – I will give them food.

The negative is formed by adding la ("not") between sei and the verb:

Ha'u sei la fó hahán ba sira – I will not give them food.



The perfect aspect can be formed by using tiha ona.

Ha'u han etu tiha ona – I have eaten rice / I ate rice.

When negated, tiha ona indicates that an action ceased to occur:

Ha'u la han etu tiha ona – I didn't eat rice anymore.

In order to convey that a past action had not or never occurred, the word ladauk ("not yet" or "never") is used:

Ha'u ladauk han etu – I didn't eat rice / I hadn't eaten rice.


The progressive aspect can be obtained by placing the word hela ("stay") after a verb:

Sira serbisu hela. – They're (still) working.


The imperative mood is formed using the word ba ("go") at the end of a sentence, hence:

Lee surat ba! – Read the letter!

The word lai ("just" or "a bit") may also be used when making a request rather than a command:

Lee surat lai – Just read the letter.

When forbidding an action labele ("cannot") or keta ("do not") are used:

Labele fuma iha ne'e! – Don't smoke here!
Keta oho sira! – Don't kill them!

Tetun Grammar Tenses Daudaun - pasadu prolongadu Hela - prezente prolongadu Ona - perfeitu Tiha - pasadu Sei - futuru Atu - futuru prósimu Foin - (just) Ba - (going to)


Orthography and phonology

See also: Tetum alphabet

The influence of Portuguese and to a lesser extent Malay/Indonesian on the phonology of Tetun has been extensive.

Tetum Vowels
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open ä

In the tetun language, /a/ /i/ and /u/ tend to have relatively fixed sounds. However /e/ and /o/ vary according to the environment they are placed in, for instance the sound is slightly higher if the proceeding syllable is /u/ or /i/.[10]

Tetum consonants
Labial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ
Stop pb td kg
Fricative fv sz ʃʒ h
j w
l ʎ
Flap ɾ
Trill ɲ

Stops: All stops in tetun are un-aspirated, meaning an expulsion of breath is absent. In contrast, English stops namely ‘p’ ‘t’ and ‘k’ are generally aspirated.

Fricatives: /v/ is an unstable voiced labio-dental fricative and tends to alternate with or is replaced by /b/; e.g. [a’vo:] – [a’bo:] meaning grandparent.[8]

As Tetum did not have any official recognition or support under either Portuguese or Indonesian rule, it is only recently that a standardised orthography has been established by the National Institute of Linguistics (INL). However, there are still widespread variations in spelling, one example being the word bainhira or "when", which has also been written as bain-hira, wainhira, waihira, uaihira. The use of "w" or "u" is a reflection of the pronunciation in some rural dialects of Tetun-Terik.

The current orthography originates from the spelling reforms undertaken by Fretilin in 1974, when it launched literacy campaigns across East Timor, and also from the system used by the Catholic Church when it adopted Tetum as its liturgical language during the Indonesian occupation. These involved the transcription of many Portuguese words that were formerly written in their original spelling, for example, educaçãoedukasaun "education", and colonialismokolonializmu "colonialism".

More recent reforms by the INL include the replacement of the digraphs "nh" and "lh" (borrowed from Portuguese, where they stand for the phonemes /ɲ/ and /ʎ/) by "ñ" and "ll", respectively (as in Spanish), to avoid confusion with the consonant clusters /nh/ and /lh/, which also occur in Tetum. Thus, senhor "sir" became señór, and trabalhador "worker" became traballadór. Some linguists favoured using "ny" (as in Catalan and Filipino) and "ly" for these sounds, but the latter spellings were rejected for being similar to the Indonesian system. However, most speakers actually pronounce ñ and ll as [i̯n] and [i̯l], respectively, with a semivowel [i̯] which forms a diphthong with the preceding vowel (but reduced to [n], [l] after /i/), not as the palatal consonants of Portuguese and Spanish. Thus, señór, traballadór are pronounced [sei̯ˈnoɾ], [tɾabai̯laˈdoɾ], and liña, kartilla are pronounced [ˈlina], [kaɾˈtila]. As a result, some writers use "in" and "il" instead, for example Juinu and Juilu for June and July (Junho and Julho in Portuguese).

As well as variations in the transliteration of Portuguese loanwords, there are also variations in the spelling of indigenous words. These include the use of double vowels and the apostrophe for the glottal stop, for example bootbot "large" and ki'ikkiik "small".

The sound [z], which is not indigenous to Tetum but appears in many loanwords from Portuguese and Malay, often changed to [s] in old Tetum and to [ʒ] (written "j") in the speech of young speakers: for example, meja "table" from Portuguese mesa, and kamija "shirt" from Portuguese camisa. In the sociolect of Tetum that is still used by the generation educated during the Indonesian occupation, [z] and [ʒ] may occur in free variation. For instance, the Portuguese-derived word ezemplu "example" is pronounced [eˈʒemplu] by some speakers, and conversely Janeiru "January" is pronounced [zanˈeiru]. The sound [v], also not native to the language, often shifted to [b], as in serbisu "work" from Portuguese serviço (also note that a modern INL convention promotes the use of serbisu for "work" and servisu for "service").


The English spelling "Tetum" is derived from Portuguese, rather than from modern Tetum orthography. Consequently, some people regard "Tetun" as more appropriate.[11] Although this coincides with the favoured Indonesian spelling, and the spelling with "m" has a longer history in English, "Tetun" has also been used by some Portuguese-educated Timorese, such as José Ramos-Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

Similar disagreements over nomenclature have emerged regarding the names of other languages, such as Swahili/Kiswahili and Punjabi/Panjabi.

See also

Tetum edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


  1. 1 2 Tetum at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Tetum". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Tetun Dili". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  5. http://www.ethnologue.com/language/tet
  6. "The languages of East Timor", by Dr. Geoffrey Hull, at the Timorese National Institute of Linguistics
  7. "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)
  8. 1 2 3 Williams-van Klinken, C, Hajek, J & Nordlinger, R. (2002). Tetun Dili – A grammar of an East Timorese Language. The Australian National University; Canberra Australia, Pacific Linguistics.
  9. Williams-van Klinken, Catharina; Hajek, John. (2006) Patterns of address in Dili Tetum, East Timor. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics. 29(2) pp.21.1-21.18.
  10. Hull, G. (1999). Tetum, Language Manual for East Timor. Academy of East Timor Studies, Faculty of Education & Languages, University of Western Sydney Macathur.
  11. A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun, by Cliff Morris
Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Tetum
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 10/13/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.