Monday, September 14, 2009

Preliminary note 3: Number of Languages

The exactly number of native languages spoken in East Timor until nowadays remain uncertain. Besides Government, UN, and others agencies census and/or reports (which do not have the linguistic accuracy necessary), the only significant works dealing with the number of languages that exists in East Timor territory are the Ethnologue (Lewis 2009) and Hull’s papers (1998, 2001, 2002).

The newest Ethnologue edition, the sixteenth, released this year, has brought conspicuous information. Firstly, it mentions a Papuasic language called Adabe which is supposedly spoken in Atauro Island, but the time I lived in East Timor I do not find anybody who knew or spoken this language. I do not find any linguistic material and/or paper on this language as well. Secondly, the acronym Kawaimina (Kairui, Waimaha, Midiki, and Naueti) and Idalaka (Idate, Lakalei, and Isni) were forged by Hull, that classified the above mentioned in brackets as different dialects of the same language, appears separately as distinct languages as follow: Kairui-Midiki, Nauete, and Waima’a, for Kawaimina, and Idaté, and Lakalei for Idalaka (the names are just as appears in Ethnologue). Thirdly, the genetic affiliation, as others linguistics information, miss scientific accuracy: only thing that mentions are some terminology and some bibliographical references (As you can see on:

Hull made a research on East Timor native languages during the 90s and the beginning of the 21 century. He published a lot of papers dealing on descriptive and historical linguistics of those languages. His first attempt of classification was based in a vast lexical comparison amongst the Austronesian languages (Hull 1998), further studies were published, but a brief review of the results of these studies can be found in Hull (2001). An introductory text to the East Timor native languages is available on:
Hull’s research reveal that some languages has great dialectal variety (as Kawaimina, and Idalaka already mentioned, but others as Mambae, Makasae, and Fataluku), but the exactly number of native languages are sixteen.

Thus, with the lack of information and studies that could solve this problem a linguist has to adopt a theoretical position. So, mine is to consider the number of languages spoken in East Timor as sixteen, as Hull’s papers, due to the fact of these studies of his have a scientific foundation.


Hull, G., 1998. “The Basic Lexical Affinities of Timor’s Austronesian Languages: A Preliminary Investigaion”. Studies in Languages and Cultures of East Timor 1: 97-202.
2001. “O Mapa Lingüístico de Timor Leste: Uma Orientação Dialectológica”. Studies in Languages and Cultures of East Timor 4: 1-19.
2002. The Languages of East Timor. Some basic facts. Available on:

Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version:

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