Tetum: Not Malay or Indonesian

Tetum is a language of the Austronesian family and, along with Portuguese, is spoken in East Timor.

And, while it is strongly influenced by Malay and Indonesian, it is, indeed, a different language.

Some history to understand why Portuguese and Tetum are spoken in this area

Back in the 15th century, language spoken in Central and East Timor was Tetum. By 1500, the Portuguese had settled in West Timor, where Uab Meto (Dawan) was also spoken.

It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century, when the capital was moved to Dili, that Tetum became the language for communication between regions. Timor became a Portuguese colony with local language.

In this fusion of languages, that is, Tetum with Portuguese, Indonesian influence also entered into play following its occupation between 1975 and 1999. Not only was Timor declared as a province of Indonesia, but in addition, Portuguese was banned and Indonesian was declared to be the only official language.

However, the Catholic Church adopted Tetum as its liturgical language; this was not the case with Indonesian, and so the local language could not be completely eradicated.

When East Timor gained independence in 2002, both Tetum and Portuguese ​​were declared as the official languages of this new nation.

Some words with Portuguese influence include the following:

demais – too much (also ‘barakliu’)

eskola – school

igreja – church

istoria – history

paun – bread

Some Tetum words derived from Malay:

barak – a lot (Banyak)

uma – house (rumah)

dalan – street (jalan)

karreta – car (kereta)

Tetum Today

Certain reforms included streamlining words of Portuguese origin: educação became edukasaun.

We can note the transliteration of ‘lh’ and ‘nh’ from Portuguese as ‘ll’ and ‘ñ,’ as is the case with Spanish as well: Senhor became señor in Tetum; trabalhador became traballador.

If you have any material you need translated from Tetum, please send your inquiry to Translation Services and one of our representatives will be happy to assist you.