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Portuguese and Tetum in the same country?

What is and where can we find East Timor?

East Timor, just the eastern part, is a country located in the southeast of Asia. As its name explains quite clearly, it occupies just half of the island of Timor. The other half, towards the west, forms part of Indonesia. Other neighboring islands include Atauro, Jaco, and Oecusse-Ambenu.

Why are such different languages spoken together?

East Timor recognizes two official languages, both from completely distant linguistic roots, but ones that history has kept together right until today: Portuguese and Tetum.

A little history…

A brief historical overview can explain why these two languages, so different from each other, can coexist in such a small territory…

The Portuguese

They arrived to the island in the 16th century, seeking to expand their colonies and market. This island initially attracted them for its richness in sandalwood, a prime material for their fine furnishings and perfume industry. This explains why the island used to be called Portuguese Timor, and why Portuguese has been spoken on the island for centuries, with subsequent cultures incapable of wiping it out.

In the 19th century, the Portuguese lose the eastern part of Timor along with other nearby islands: the islands of Flores and Sumba. The island finally made the decision to become independent from its great European mother country in 1975. The independence, however, did not last long…


Shortly after, the other half of Timor invades and conquers East Timor. This invasion is what gives the island its second official language: Tetum.

While East Timor may have finally achieved its independence from Indonesia in 2002, Tetum continued to be the language of the island following the Asiatic invasion.

Since its independence, the official name of the island is the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, and Portuguese and Tetum are recognized as its official languages.

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(Versión en español: