Language Primer: Tetun

Whilst Tetun is not renowned as a major player in the international language stakes, it is symbolic of its mother country, Timor Leste. As one of two official languages in the former Indonesian province – along with Portuguese – it can represent something of a culture shock. It bristles with a kinetic rhythm and can be totally bewildering to any new arrivals; a packed bemo ride around Dili, for instance, with three or four loud conversations happening at once will prove to be a trying experience.

However, once visitors have settled down and locked into the country’s flow, the language itself is easy enough to pick up. Certainly those familiar with Portuguese should have no problems. Timor was a colony of Portugal and while the physical remnants of that time are obvious – in terms of architecture, food and street names, for example –  so too is Tetun a cultural vestige of the former occupiers. (Streber Editor: Is that clunky? Let us know in the comments below.)

Since East Timor is not a widely travelled country, with the majority of foreigners living there in NGO, charity or teaching guises, it can be presumed a lot of visitors will be familiar with next-door Indonesia and, by extension, Bahasa. The Indonesian language is also spoken in Dili and should be understood by a lot of people, although this is not applicable everywhere; there are many dialects spread around the country. Heading further away from the capital will increase the need to use even the most basic Tetun.

It could be said that Tetun reflects the youth of Timor, which gained independence from Indonesia in 1999 and became a sovereign state in 2002. The country is still finding its feet after the chaotic and violent parting from its neighbour and there is some confusion about the status of the official language. Some are calling for Portuguese, 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 offers 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.) 

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