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.

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