Saturday, January 23, 2010

East Timor languages on the verge of extinction

East Timor census usually varies a lot in numbers from one publication to another. One of them elaborated by UN (2006) and the most quoted one East Timor Suco Survey (2001) have showed some dreadful information about languages.
The population of the country it is about 900.000, and only three languages have more than 100.000 speakers: Tetum, Mambae, and Makasae. A large numbers of languages have speakers among 8% and 3% such as: Kemak, Bunak, Galolen, Tokodede, Fataluku and Baikenu. This fact is alarming because there are about 6 languages with less than 60.000 speakers.

But the most shocking information is that there are even more languages (and its varieties) with less than 20.000 speakers, such as: Makalero, some Atauran, Idalaka, and Kawaimina dialects, Isni, Lolein, Bekais and Makuva, in percentage these languages have less than 2% speakers of East Timor population.

Another disturbing problem related with this is that most of those languages were not even documented, and some of these that were documented are 'underdescribed' until nowadays (my next post will talk about the exactly numbers of grammars and grammatical sketches available on East Timor langauges).

A language to be considered ‘healthy’ and stable usually has to be more than 100.000 speakers. With less than 100.000 a language can be considered endangered (what is the case of at least 6 languages of East Timor), and with a number inferior than 10.000 speakers a language is in a very dangerous situation, in this case is about at least 8 languages.

So, we are about to lose East Timor languages together with all its contributions to linguistics theory together with all its cultural elements unknown to us that a native community can possibly have.


The Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and The United Nations development Programme. East Timor Suco Survey, October 2001.

National Board of Statistics, Timor-Leste Census of Population and Housing 2004. Priority Tables, ed. National Board of Statistics and the United Nation Fund for Population, April 2006.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More resources available on web

The French Scientific journals portal give free access to a long list of papers, and several others publications available to download. Two French publications that have papers on East Timor ethnic groups are Archipel and L’Homme. Amongst them can be mentioned the followings:

Berthes’s papers on Bunak: one paper is an ethnographic analyze of ceremonial weddings in Bunak society (Berthe, 1961), another one is some remarks on Bunak’s pronominal system and affixes (Berthe, 1963). Furthermore, there are two reviews of Berthe’s work Bei Gua, Itinéraire des ancêtres. Mythes des Bunaq de Timor (1972) by Hicks (1973) and Lombard (1974).

There is a paper on Ema people – Kemak language speakers – by Clamagirand (1972) about cotton fabication by this people, the paper is called Le travail du coton chez les Ema de Timor portugais.

Another paper, this one by Fracillon (1989), analyzes Tetum – the society of Tetum-Terik speakers that is called in this paper Tetun du Sud – weddings and kinship structure that according to this author is matrilineal and uxorilocal.

So, this website above mentioned, and these papers are worth to be read by scholars and anyone who have interest in East Timor issues.


Berthe, Louis. 1961. Le mariage par achat et la captation des gendres dans une société semi-féodale: les Buna' de Timor central. L'Homme, Vol. 1, N. 3. p. 5 – 31
________. 1963. Morpho-syntaxe du Buna' (Timor central). L'Homme, Vol. 3, N. 1. p. 106 - 116
________. 1972. Bei Gua, itinéraire des ancêtres: mythes des Bunaq de Timor. Paris : Ed. CNRS.

Clamagirand, Brigitte.1972. Le travail du coton chez les Ema de Timor portugais. Archipel, Vol. 3, N.1. p. 55 - 80

Francillon, Gérard. 1989. Un Profitable échange de frères chez les Tetun du Sud, Timor central. L'Homme,Vol. 29, N. 109. p. 26 - 43

Hicks, David. 1973. L. Berthe, Bei Gua, itinéraire des ancêtres: mythes des Bunaq de Timor. 'Homme, Vol. 13, N. 4. p. 166 - 167

Lombard, Denys. 1974. Louis Berthe, Bei Gua, Itinéraire des ancêtres. Mythes des Bunaq de Timor. Archipel, Vol. 7, N. 1. p. 202 - 204

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Standard Orthography of East Timor Languages

East Timor languages do not have untill nowadays a fixed Standard Ortography. This affirmation is shared for some linguists, but not all.

Tetum-Praça as oficcial language of East Timor has a Standard Orthography proposed by INL (Instituto Nacional de Lingüística) in Hakerek Tetun tuir Banati (INL, 2006) and it has been aproved by a Government Decree (April, 2004 - retrievable at:

The parameters fixed on this book are very reasonable, due to the following facts:

  • it solves typing problems, such as Portuguese nh  is in Tetum-Praça ñ: 'rascunho' > TP 'raskuñu', PT 'senhor' > 'señór';

  • it has a linguistic accuracy: most of the itens has a match phonolgy=writing ( c, qu > k PT 'escola' > TP 'eskola', PT 'que' > TP 'ke'), this not exists in Portuguese ortography that has a historical ortography based mostly on an ancient literary tradition and on Latin language;

  • it has a good linguistic proposal to deal with linguistics facts of TP, such as: stress and long vowels.

The major problem of Standard Ortography of TP is that it is not accepted, nor used, for a great part of timorese population. Government, media, and catholic registers, the three major institutions that produce writing documents in Tetum do not use it.

All the Government Institutions have a variability in its registers, do not using any fixed orthography. Examples, on the same documents can be found even four different registers of the same lexical item: English 'this' TP ne'e~nee~ne~né.

About media and catholic registers Williams-van Klinken (2002) has an analysis based on several writing documents. Basically, we can say that catholic registers has an influence of Tetun-Terik, Portuguese loans basically refers to religious lexical itens, and some semantic changes on TP, such as: EN 'to help' TP tulun ~ ajuda (PT 'ajudar'), but 'tulun' nowadays has a sacred meanig, and 'ajuda' comprises the others uses. Press registers it is exactly contrary to catholic register: it has a great number of Portuguese loans, and even some grammatical features of Portuguese language, such as gender and number agreement of the loan words.

At Fataluku Language Project website  (  there are proposals of Standard Orthography to Fataluku, Makasae, Makalero and Makuva. But the others languages - Mambae, Tokodede, Kemak, Bunak, Kawaimina, Idalaka, Habun, Galolen - remains without any modern proposals, existing only ancient documents dating the beginning of XX century.

So, a lot of things are yet to be done on East Timor languages, and we hope that the current ongoing researches continue with their contributions to timorese population and to linguistics.

INL. 2006, Hakerek Tetun tuir Banati. Dili, INL/UNTL.

Williams-van Klinken, Catharina. 2002, High registers of Tetun Dili: Portuguese press and purist priests. Proceedings of the 2001 Conference of the Australian Linguistics Society. Retrievable at: