Whilst Tetun is not a renowned player in the international language stakes, the vernacular still symbolises its mother country, Timor-Leste. One of two official languages in the former Indonesian province, alongside Portuguese, Tetun represents a kind of culture shock. It bristles with a kinetic rhythm and can bewilder any new arrivals; a packed bemo ride around Dili, for instance, with three or four loud conversations happening at once can prove a stimulating, albeit synapse-pummelling, experience.
However, once visitors have settled down and locked into the flow of Timorese life, the language itself is easy enough to pick up. Those familiar with Portuguese should have no problems; in the same way that the architecture, food and street names signify Timor’s time as a former Portuguese colony, so too does Tetun represent a cultural vestige of occupation. (Streber Editor: Is that clunky? Let us know in the comments below.)
Timor-Leste is not a widely travelled country, and many foreigners who do make it there often do so in NGO, charity or teaching guises. Thus, the assumption is that visitors, professional or tourist, will be familiar with next-door Indonesia and, by extension, Bahasa, itself used throughout Dili. However, this is not true everywhere; with many dialects spread around the country, heading away from the capital will increase the need for even the most basic Tetun.
For some, Tetun reflects the youth of Timor, which gained independence from Indonesia in 1999 and became a sovereign state in 2002. However, confusion reigns over the lingua franca; symptomatic, perhaps, of the country finding its feet after the violent parting from its neighbour. Some call for Portuguese while others want to keep Tetun. It is somehow fitting that a country still in flux should have a language with such a disparate etymology.
This list is by no means definitive, but it hopefully gives a flavour of Tetun. It was gleaned from conversations around the country and provides an enlightening glimpse into this most intriguing of nations.
Useful Tetun words and phrases
Hello – Elo
Good morning – Bondia
Good afternoon – Botarde
Goodbye – Adeus/Hau ba lai
Please – Favor ida
Thank you (very much) – Obrigadu (barak)
No, thank you – Diak, obrigado
Excuse me – Kolisensa
I’m sorry – Deskulpa
How are you? – Diak ka lai
I’m fine, thank you – Diak, obrigadu
What is your name? – Ita nia naran saida?
My name is… – Han nia saida…
What is this? – Nee saida?
How far is it? – Dook ka lae?
Where is…? – Iha nebee?
How much does it cost? – Nee folin hira?
Where are you going? – Bá neʼebé
I’m going (home) – Haʼu bá (uma)
Home – Uma
Market – Mercado
Hotel – Otél
Airport – Aeroportu
I like your nose – Hau gosta o ita nia inus *
Beard – Hasrahun
Bald – Botak
Bald Englishman – orang ingris botak/gundul
I like to (laugh) – Hau gosta (hamnasa)
Laugh – Hamnasa
Play – Halimar
With you – O ita
I like to watch stars with you again – Hau gosta hare fitun o ita fila fali
Happy to meet you – Contenté hasoru ita
See the way (sign of respect when people are leaving) – Haré daran
I’ve spent one week in Timor Leste – Semana ida ona iha Timor Leste
How long have you been in Timor Leste? – Cleorona iha Timor Leste?
Day – Loron
Week – Semana
Month – Fulan
Year – Tinan
Die (death) – Maté
*We defy you to find any better icebreaker in any language on the planet. From Dili to Gleno to Dare to Maubisse to Aelieu and beyond, any time we used this phrase we were met with uncomprehending silence, then a chuckle followed by a lightbulb above the head and finally mighty laughs and broad smiles as people worked out what we said. It was a fantastic way to meet new people and conversations really flowed after that.
(Tenuous Link Editor: Although an interesting language to learn and simple enough to speak, Tetun is not widely spoken. You will, for example, find it spoken on Watabo’o Beach (presuming you actually come across anyone there) but may struggle to use it in England, Sri Lanka or Morocco. However, those last three destinations are plenty pretty to look at nevertheless.)