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:

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