Infobox Language
nativename=Tetun, Lia-Tetun
states=East Timor, Indonesia, Australia, Portugal, United Kingdom
region=Southeast Asia
fam2=Malayo-Polynesian (MP)
fam3=Nuclear MP
fam4=Central-Eastern MP
fam5=Central MP
fam7=Nuclear Timor
fam8=East Timor
nation=East Timor
agency=National Institute of Linguistics

Tetum (also Tetun) is an Austronesian language, a national language and one of the two official languages of East Timor. Some of its dialects have been greatly influenced by Portuguese, the other official language of the country, especially in their vocabulary, but also in aspects of their grammar.

History and dialects

Tetum has four dialects:

*"Tetun-Dili", or "Tetun-Prasa" (literally "city Tetum"), is spoken in the capital, Dili, and its surroundings, in the north of the country.
*"Tetun-Terik" is spoken in the south and southwestern coastal regions.
*"Tetun-Belu", or the Belunese dialect, is spoken in a central strip of the island of Timor from the Ombai Strait to the Timor Sea, and is split between East Timor and West Timor (where it is considered a "bahasa daerah" or "regional language", with no official status in Indonesia, but in Roman Catholic rites, this Tetun Language, is to be used in Diocese of Atambua, Belu, West Timor). We believe that this Tetun Language came from Atambua, and now, used by many Timorese in East and West Timor.
*The "Nana'ek" dialect is spoken in the village of Metinaro, on the coastal road between Dili and Manatuto.

"Tetun-Belu" and "Tetun-Terik" are not spoken or well understood outside their home territories. "Tetun-Prasa" is the form of Tetum that is spoken throughout East Timor. Although Portuguese was the official language of Portuguese Timor until 1975, "Tetun-Prasa" has always been the predominant lingua franca in the eastern part of the island.

In the fifteenth century, before the arrival of the Portuguese, Tetum had spread through central and eastern Timor as a contact language under the aegis of the Belunese-speaking Kingdom of Wehali, at that time the most powerful kingdom in the island. The Portuguese (present in Timor from c. 1556) made most of their settlements in the west, where Dawan was spoken, and it was not until 1769, when the capital was moved from Lifau (Oecussi) to Dili that they began to promote Tetum as an inter-regional language in their colony. Timor was one of the few Portuguese colonies where a local language, and not a form of Portuguese, became the lingua franca: this is because Portuguese rule was indirect rather than direct, the Europeans governing through local kings who embraced Catholicism and became vassals of the King of Portugal. [ [http://www.asianlang.mq.edu.au/INL/langs.html "The languages of East Timor", by Dr. Geoffrey Hull, at the Timorese National Institute of Linguistics] ]

When Indonesia occupied East Timor in 1975, declaring it "the Republic's 27th Province", the use of Portuguese was banned, and Indonesian was declared the sole official language, but the Roman Catholic Church adopted Tetum as its liturgical language, making it a focus for cultural and national identity. [ [http://geo.ya.com/travelimages/timor/languages.html "Tetum and Other Languages of East Timor"] , from Dr. Geoffrey Hull's Preface to "Mai Kolia Tetun: A Course in Tetum-Praca (The Lingua Franca of East Timor)"] When East Timor gained its independence in 2002, Tetum and Portuguese were declared as official languages.

In addition to regional varieties of Tetum in East Timor, there are variations in vocabulary and pronunciation, partly due to Portuguese and Indonesian influence. The Tetum spoken by East Timorese migrants in Portugal and Australia is more Portuguese-influenced, as many of those speakers were not educated in Indonesian.



The Tetum name for East Timor is "Timor Lorosa'e", which means "Timor of the rising sun", or, less poetically, "East Timor"; "lorosa'e" comes from "loro" "sun" and "sa'e" "to rise, to go up". The noun for "word" is "liafuan", from "lia" "voice" and "fuan" "fruit". Some more words in Tetum:

*"aas" - "high"
*"aat" - "bad"
*"been" - "water"
*"belun" - "friend"
*"boot" - "big"
*"di'ak" - "good"
*"domin" - "love"
*"ema" - "person, people"
*"fatin" - "place"
*"feto" - "woman"
*"foho" - "mountain"
*"fuan" - "fruit"
*"funu" - "war"
*"han" - "food"
*"hemu" - "drink"
*"hotu" - "all"
*"ida" - "one"
*"ki'ik" - "little"
*"kraik" - "low"
*"labarik" - "child"
*"lafaek" - "crocodile"
*"lais" - "fast"
*"lalenok" - "mirror"
*"laran" - "inside"
*"lia" - "language"
*"liafuan" - "word" (from "lian" - voice and "fuan" - fruit)
*"lian" - "voice", "language"
*"loos" - "true"
*"lulik" - "sacred"
*"mane" - "man"
*"maromak" - "god"
*"moris" - "life"
*"rain" - "country"
*"tasi" - "sea"
*"tebes" - "very"
*"teen" - "dirt"
*"toos" - "hard"
*"uluk" - "first"
*"ulun" - "head"

From Portuguese

Words derived from Portuguese:

*"adeus" - "goodbye"
*"ajuda" - "help"
*"aprende" - "learn", from "aprender"
*"demais" - "too much"
*"desizaun" "decision", from "decisão"
*"edukasaun" "education", from "educação"
*"entaun" - "so", "well", from "então"
*"eskola" - "school", from "escola"
*"governu" - "government", from "governo"
*"igreja" - "church"
*"istória" - "history", from "história"
*"keiju" - "cheese", from "queijo"
*"komprende" - "understand", from "compreender"
*"menus" - "less", from "menos"
*"obrigadu/a" "thanks", from "obrigado/a"
*"paun" - "bread", from "pão"
*"povu" - "people", from "povo"
*"profesór" - "teacher", from "professor"
*"relijiaun" - "religion", from "religião"
*"semana" - "week"
*"serbisu" - "work", from "serviço"
*"serveja" - "beer", from "cerveja"
*"tenke" - "must", from "tem que"
*"xefe" - "chief", from "chefe"

From Malay

Words derived from Malay include:

*"atus" - "hundred", from "ratus"
*"barak" - "much", from "banyak"
*"bele" - "can", from "boleh"
*"besi" - "iron", from "besi"
*"malae" - "foreigner", from "melayu" "Malay"
*"manas" - "hot", from "panas"
*"rihun" - "thousand", from "ribu"
*"sala" - "wrong", from "salah"
*"tulun" - "help", from "tolong"
*"uma" - "house", from "rumah"


*"ida" - "one"
*"rua" - "two"
*"tolu" - "three"
*"haat" - "four"
*"lima" - "five"
*"neen" - "six"
*"hitu" - "seven"
*"ualu" - "eight"
*"sia" - "nine"
*"sanulu" - "ten"
*"ruanulu" - "twenty"

However, Tetum speakers often use Malay/Indonesian or Portuguese numbers instead, such as"delapan" or "oito" "eight" instead of "ualu"; especially for numbers over one thousand.

Basic phrases

*"Bondia" - "Good morning" (from Portuguese "Bom dia").
*"Di'ak ka lae?" - "How are you?" (literally "Are you well or not?")
*"Ha'u di'ak "- "I'm fine."
*"Obrigadu/Obrigada" - "Thank you", said by a male/female (from Portuguese "Obrigado/Obrigada").
*"Ita bele ko'alia Tetun?" - "Do you speak Tetum?"
*"Loos" - "Yes."
*"Lae" - "No."
*"Ha'u"' ["la"] "komprende" - "I [do not] understand" (from Portuguese "compreender").



Nouns and pronouns


The plural is not normally marked on nouns, but the word "sira" "they" can express it when necessary.

:"fetu" "woman/women" → "fetu sira" "women"

However, the plural ending "-(e)s" of nouns of Portuguese origin is retained.

:"Estadus Unidus" — United States (from "Estados Unidos"):"Nasoens Unidas" — United Nations (from "Nações Unidas")


Tetum has an indefinite article "ida" ("one"), used after nouns:

:"labarik ida" — a child

There is no definite article, but the demonstratives "ida-ne'e" ("this one") and "ida-ne'ebá" ("that one") may be used to express definiteness:

:"labarik ida-ne'e" — this child, the child:"labarik ida-ne'ebá" — that child, the child

In the plural, "sira-ne'e" ("these") or "sira-ne'ebá" ("those") are used:

:"labarik sira-ne'e" — these children, the children:"labarik sira-ne'ebá" — those children, the children

Possessive and genitive

The particle "nia" forms the possessive, and can be used in a similar way to the Saxon genitive in English, e.g:

:"João nia uma" — João's house:"Cristina nia livru" — Cristina's book

The genitive is formed with "nian", so that:

:"povu Timór Lorosa'e nian" — the people of East Timor

Inclusive and exclusive "we"

Like other Austronesian languages, Tetum has two forms of "we", "ami" (equivalent to Indonesian and Malay "kami") which is exclusive, e.g. "I and they", and "ita" (equivalent to Indonesian and Malay "kita"), which is inclusive, e.g. "you, I, and they".

:"ami-nia karreta" — our [family's] car:"ita-nia rain" — our country


Nouns derived from verbs or adjectives are usually formed with affixes, for example the suffix "-na'in", similar to "-er" in English.

:"hakerek" "write" → "hakerek-na'in" "writer"

In more traditional forms of Tetum, the circumfix "ma(k)- -k" is used instead of "-na'in". For example, the nouns "sinner" or "wrongdoer" can be derived from the word "sala" as either "maksalak", or "sala-na'in". Only the prefix "ma(k)-" is used when the root word ends with a consonant, for example, the noun "cook" or "chef" can be derived from the word "te'in" as "makte'in" as well as "te'in-na'in".

The suffix "-teen" (from the word for "dirt" or "excrement") can be used with adjectives to form derogatory terms:

:"bosok" "false" → "bosok-teen" "liar"


Derivation from nouns

To turn a noun into an adjective, the particle "oan" is added to it.

:"malae" "foreigner" → "malae-oan" "foreign"

Thus, "Timorese" is "Timor-oan", as opposed to the country of Timor, "rai-Timor".

To form adjectives from verbs, the suffix "-dór" (derived from Portuguese) can be added:

:"hateten" "tell" → "hatetendór" "talkative"


Tetum does not have separate masculine and feminine forms of the third person singular, hence "nia" (similar to "dia" in Indonesian and Malay) can mean either "he", "she" or "it".

Different forms for the genders only occur in Portuguese-derived adjectives, hence "obrigadu" ("thank you") is used by males, and "obrigada" by females. The masculine and feminine forms of other adjectives derived from Portuguese are sometimes used with Portuguese loanwords, particularly by Portuguese-educated speakers of Tetum.

:"governu demokrátiku" — democratic government (from "governo democrático", masculine):"nasaun demokrátika" — democratic nation (from "nação democrática", feminine)

In some instances, the different gender forms have distinct translations into English, for example:

:"bonitu" — handsome:"bonita" — pretty

In indigenous Tetum words, the suffixes "-mane" ("male") and "-feto" ("female") are sometimes used to differentiate between the genders:

:"oan-mane" "son" → "oan-feto" "daughter"

Comparatives and superlatives

Superlatives can be formed from adjectives by reduplication:

:"barak" "much", "many" → "barak" "very much", "many":"boot" "big", "great" → "boboot" "huge", "enormous":"di'ak" "good" → "didi'ak" "very good":"ikus" "last" → "ikuikus" "the very last", "final":"moos" "clean", "clear" → "momoos" "spotless", "immaculate"

When making comparisons, the word "liu" ("more") is used after the adjective, followed by "duké" ("than" from Portuguese "do que"):

:"Maria tuan liu duké Ana" — Maria is older than Ana.

To describe something as the most or least, the word "hotu" ("all") is added:

:"Maria tuan liu hotu" — Maria is the oldest.


Adverbs can be formed from adjectives or nouns by reduplication:

:"di'ak" "good" → "didi'ak" "well" :"foun" "new", "recent" → "foufoun" "newly", "recently" :"kalan" "night" → "kalakalan" "nightly" :"lais" "quick" → "lailais" "quickly":"loron" "day" → "loroloron" "daily"

Prepositions and circumpositions

The most comonly used prepositions in Tetum are "iha" ("in") and "ba" ("to" or "for") while circumpositions are widely used. These are formed by using "iha", the object and the position.

:iha "uma" laran — "inside" the house:iha "foho" tutun — "on top of" the mountain:iha "meza" leten — "on" the table:iha "kadeira" okos — "under" the chair:iha "rai" li'ur — "outside" the country:iha "ema" leet — "between" the people


Copula and negation

There is no verb "to be" as such, but the word "la'ós", which translates as "not to be", is used for negation:

:"Timor-oan sira la'ós Indonézia-oan." — The Timorese are not Indonesians.

The word "maka", which roughly translates as "who is" or "what is", can be used with an adjective for emphasis:

:"João maka gosta serveja." — It's John who likes beer.


The interrogative is formed by using the words "ka" ("or") or "ka lae" ("or not").

:"O bulak ka?" — Are you crazy?:"O gosta ha'u ka lae?" — Don't you like me?

Derivation from nouns and adjectives

Transitive verbs are formed by adding the prefix "ha-" or "hak-" to a noun or adjective:

:"been" "liquid" → "habeen" "to liquify", "to melt":"bulak" "mad" → "habulak" "to drive mad":"klibur" "union" → "haklibur" "to unite":"mahon" "shade" → "hamahon" "to shade", "to cover":"manas" "hot" → "hamanas" "to heat up"

Intransitive verbs are formed by adding the prefix "na-" or "nak-" to a noun or adjective:

:"nabeen" — (to be) liquified, melted:"nabulak" — (to be) driven mad:"naklibur" — (to be) united:"namahon" — (to be) shaded, covered:"namanas" — (to become) heated up



Whenever possible, the past tense is simply inferred from the context, for example:

:"Horisehik ha'u han etu " — Yesterday I ate rice.

However, it can be expressed by placing the adverb "ona" ("already") at the end of a sentence.

:"Ha'u han etu ona" — I've (already) eaten rice.

When "ona" is used with "la" ("not") this means "no more" or "no longer", rather than "have not":

:"Ha'u la han etu ona" — I don't eat rice anymore.

In order to convey that an action has not occurred, the word "seidauk" ("not yet") is used:

:"Ha'u seidauk han etu" — I haven't eaten rice (yet).

When relating an action that occurred in the past, the word "tiha" ("finally" or "well and truly") is used with the verb.

:"Ha'u han tiha etu" — I ate rice.


The future tense is formed by placing the word "sei" ("will") before a verb:

:"Ha'u" sei "fó hahán ba sira" - I "will" give them food.

The negative is formed by adding "la" ("not") between "sei" and the verb:

:"Ha'u" sei la "fó hahán ba sira" - I "will not" give them food.



The perfect aspect can be formed by using "tiha ona".

:"Ha'u han etu tiha ona" — I have eaten rice / I ate rice.

When negated, "tiha ona" indicates that an action ceased to occur:

:"Ha'u la han etu tiha ona" — I didn't eat rice anymore.

In order to convey that a past action had not or never occurred, the word "ladauk" ("not yet" or "never") is used:

:"Ha'u ladauk han etu" — I didn't eat rice / I hadn't eaten rice.


The progressive aspect can be obtained by placing the word "hela" ("stay") after a verb:

:"Sira serbisu hela." — They're (still) working.


The imperative mood is formed using the word "ba" ("go") at the end of a sentence, hence:

:"Lee surat ba!" — Read the letter!

The word "lai" ("just" or "a bit") may also be used when making a request rather than a command:

:"Lee surat lai" — Just read the letter.

When forbidding an action "labele" ("cannot") or "keta" ("do not") are used:

:"Labele fuma iha ne'e!" — Don't smoke here!:"Keta oho sira!" — Don't kill them!

Orthography and phonology

As Tetum did not have any official recognition or support under either Portuguese or Indonesian rule, it is only recently that a standardised orthography has been established by the National Institute of Linguistics (INL). However, there are still widespread variations in spelling, one example being the word "bainhira" or "when", which has also been written as "bain-hira", "wainhira", "waihira", "uaihira". The use of "w" or "u" is a reflection of the pronunciation in some rural dialects of "Tetun-Terik".

The current orthography originates from the spelling reforms undertaken by Fretilin in 1974, when it launched literacy campaigns across East Timor, and also from the system used by the Catholic Church when it adopted Tetum as its liturgical language during the Indonesian occupation. These involved the transcription of many Portuguese words that were formerly written in their original spelling, for example, "educação" → "edukasaun" "education", and "colonialismo" → "kolonializmu" "colonialism".

More recent reforms by the INL include the replacement of the digraphs "nh" and "lh" (borrowed from Portuguese, where they stand for the phonemes IPA|/ɲ/ and IPA|/ʎ/) by "ñ" and "ll", respectively (as in Spanish), to avoid confusion with the consonant clusters IPA|/nh/ and IPA|/lh/, which also occur in Tetum. Thus, "senhor" "sir" became "señór", and "trabalhador" "worker" became "traballadór". Some linguists favoured using "ny" (as in Catalan and Filipino) and "ly" for these sounds, but the latter spellings were rejected for being similar to the Indonesian system. However, most speakers actually pronounce "ñ" and "ll" as IPA| [i̯n] and IPA| [i̯l] , respectively, with a semivowel IPA| [i̯] which forms a diphthong with the preceding vowel (but reduced to IPA| [n] , IPA| [l] after IPA|/i/), not as the palatal consonants of Portuguese and Spanish. Thus, "señór", "traballadór" are pronounced IPA| [sei̯ˈnoɾ] , IPA| [tɾabai̯laˈdoɾ] , and "liña", "kartilla" are pronounced IPA| [ˈlina] , IPA| [kaɾˈtila] . As a result, some writers use "in" and "il" instead, for example "Juinu" and "Juilu" for June and July ("Junho" and "Julho" in Portuguese).

As well as variations in the transliteration of Portuguese loanwords, there are also variations in the spelling of indigenous words. These include the use of double vowels and the apostrophe for the glottal stop, for example "boot" → "bot" "large" and "ki'ik" → "kiik" "small".

The sound IPA| [z] , which is not indigenous to Tetum but appears in many loanwords from Portuguese and Malay, often changed to IPA| [ʒ] in old Tetum (written "j"): for example, "meja" "table" from Portuguese "mesa", and "kemeja" "shirt" from Portuguese "camisa". In modern Tetum, IPA| [z] and IPA| [ʒ] may occur in free variation. For instance, the Portuguese-derived word "ezemplu" "example" is pronounced as IPA| [eˈʒemplu] by some speakers, and conversely "Janeiru" "January" is pronounced as IPA| [zanˈeiru] . The sound IPA| [v] , also not native to the language, often shifted to IPA| [b] , as in "serbisu" "work" from Portuguese "serviço".


The English spelling "Tetum" is derived from Portuguese, rather than from modern Tetum orthography. Consequently, some people regard "Tetun" as more appropriate. [ [http://www.gnu.org/software/tetum/contributors/cliffMorris-xhtml/index.html A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun, by Cliff Morris] ] Although this coincides with the favoured Indonesian spelling, and the spelling with "m" has a longer history in English, "Tetun" has also been used by some native speakers of Tetum, such as José Ramos-Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

Similar disagreements over nomenclature have emerged regarding the names of other languages, such as Swahili/Kiswahili and Punjabi/Panjabi.

ee also

*Languages of East Timor
* at Wikisource



* [http://web.archive.org/web/20080119191225/http://www.asianlang.mq.edu.au/INL/ National Institute of Linguistics, National University of East Timor (Archived)] includes several bilingual Tetum dictionaries, and articles about Tetum
*Hull, Geoffrey, "Standard Tetum-English Dictionary" 2nd Ed, Allen & Unwin Publishers ISBN 978-1-86508-599-9
* [http://www.timor-leste.gov.tl/AboutTimorleste/rellang.htm Official Web Gateway to the Government of Timor-Leste - Religion & Language]
* [http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.asianlang.mq.edu.au/INL/orthhist.pdf#search=%22orthography%20Tetum%20language%22 The standard orthography of the Tetum language] (PDF)
* [http://www.uc.pt/timor/language.htm Colonization, Decolonization and Integration: Language Policies in East Timor, Indonesia, by Nancy Melissa Lutz]
* [http://web.archive.org/web/20080119191225/http://www.asianlang.mq.edu.au/INL/speech1.html Current Language Issues in East Timor (Dr. Geoffrey Hull)]

External links

*, using Tetum, published in the East Timorese newspaper Lia Foun in Díli (from Wikimedia Commons)
* [http://vcsymposium.massey.ac.nz/presenters/presentations/Newman/www/Tetun/home.html Tetun] website with sound files
* [http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s476770.htm Teach yourself Tetum...] an interview with some information on the history of Tetum
* [http://www.gnu.org/software/tetum/contributors/cliffMorris-xhtml/index.html A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun] includes some information on grammar, based on the "Tetun-Terik" dialect
* [http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=tet Ethnologue report for Tetum]
* [http://laurel.ocs.mq.edu.au/~leccles/easttimor.html Sebastião Aparício da Silva Project for the Protection and Promotion of East Timorese Languages]
* [http://www.suaratimorlorosae.com/ "Suara Timor Lorosae" Daily newspaper in Tetum and Indonesian]
* [http://www.semanario.tp/nacional%20tetum.htm "Jornal Nacional Semanário" Tetum page]
* [http://www.1000dictionaries.com/tetum_dictionaries_1.html Tetum dictionaries]

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