Subject: JP comment - Let's learn Tetum

Jakarta Post

June 15, 2007

Let's learn Tetum

I'm commenting on an article Timor Leste needs Indonesian language more than others by Janet Steele and Jerry Macdonald (The Jakarta Post, June 11).

The fact that Timor Leste's new president, Jose Ramos Horta, has begun learning Indonesian is not only welcome, it is long overdue -- he should have done this years ago. However, not even he would agree with Janet Steele and Jerry Macdonald's assertion that Indonesian, not Tetum, is the country's lingua franca.

One of the most positive developments since 1999 has been the increased use of Tetum as a written language, and the absence of a standardized spelling and grammar has proved no barrier at all. Despite its name, most of the locally written articles in Suara Timor Lorosae are now in Tetum, not Indonesian.

Unfortunately, some Indonesian-educated people are as just as guilty of having an inferiority complex about Tetum as Portuguese-educated ones. Under Soeharto's Indonesia, Tetum in East Timor was just another bahasa daerah (local dialect), spoken, but not written, having no more status than it did under Salazar's Portugal.

Tetum is neither a dialect nor a creole, it is a language in its own right, but just as English and Indonesian have derived much of their vocabulary from other languages, so too has Tetum.

Many Portuguese-derived words in Tetum are similar to those used in English or Indonesian, because they share the same Latin roots. For example, konstituisaun (from constituigco) is similar to "constitution". Some purists use the term ukun fuan inan, but this is no different from Indonesians using undang-undang dasar instead of konstitusi. However, few languages are pure, while a pure lingua franca is an oxymoron, be it Swahili in East Africa or Indonesian in Southeast Asia.

Yet despite the European influences, Tetum remains a Malayo-Polynesian language, with many words, such as bua, besi, tahan, sala and matan shared with Indonesian, although words like mane (man), feto (woman), foho (mountain), lia (voice) and fuan (fruit) are not. The Tetum for "word" is liafuan, literally "voice fruit".

Given that Tetum shares so many words with these other languages, and is not grammatically complex, would it really be a challenge for outsiders living in Timor Leste, be they Indonesians, Australians or Portuguese, to make the effort to learn it?

The argument that Tetum is "undeveloped" or "not yet developed" should be dispelled once and for all. If it is adequate for newspaper articles and discussion forums, it is perfectly adequate for public signs and official documents. NGOs like the women's network Rede Feto have called for legal documents to be written in Tetum since it (not Indonesian or Portuguese) "is the preferred language of the people".

Mai ita hotu aprende Tetun (let's all learn Tetum).


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