Portuguese: Tétum
Native toIndonesia
East Timor
Native speakers
500,000, mostly in Indonesia (2010–2011)[1]
  • Belunese (Tetun Belu)
  • Terik (Tetun Terik)
Official status
Official language in
 East Timor
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2tet
ISO 639-3tet
Distribution in East Timor of Tetum Belu (west) and Tetum Terik (southeast). The majority of Tetun speakers, who live in West Timor, are not shown.
Tetun Dili
Tetun Prasa
Portuguese: Tétum Praça
Tetun Dili, Tetun Prasa
Native toEast Timor
Native speakers
390,000 (2009)[1]
L2: 570,000 in East Timor[2]
  • Belunese (Tetun Belu)
  • Terik (Tetun Terik)
Latin (Tetum alphabet)
Official status
Official language in
East Timor
Regulated byNational Institute of Linguistics
Language codes
ISO 639-3tdt
Distribution of Tetum Prasa mother-tongue speakers in East Timor
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Tetum (Tetun [ˈt̪et̪un̪]; Indonesian: Bahasa Tetun; Portuguese: Tétum [ˈtɛtũ])[3] is an Austronesian language spoken on the island of Timor. It is one of the official languages of Timor-Leste and it is also spoken in Belu Regency and in Indonesian West Timor.

There are two main forms of Tetum as a language:

Ethnologue classifies Tetun Terik as a dialect of Tetun.[1] However, without previous contact, Tetun Dili is not immediately mutually intelligible,[4] mainly because of the large number of Portuguese origin words used in Tetun Dili.[citation needed] Besides some grammatical simplification, Tetun Dili has been greatly influenced by the vocabulary and to a small extent by the grammar of Portuguese, the other official language of East Timor.


The English form Tetum is derived from Portuguese, rather than from modern Tetum. Consequently, some people regard Tetun as more appropriate.[5] Although this coincides with the favoured Indonesian form, and the variant with m has a longer history in English, Tetun has also been used by some Portuguese-educated Timorese, 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.

History and dialects

Languages of Timor Island. Tetum is in yellow.

According to linguist Geoffrey Hull, Tetum has four dialects:[6]

Tetun-Belu and Tetun-Terik are not spoken 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.[12]

When Indonesia occupied East Timor between 1975 and 1999, 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.[13] After the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) took over governance in September 1999, Tetun (Dili) was proclaimed the country's official language, even though according to Encarta Winkler Prins it was only spoken by about 8% of the native population at the time, while the elite (consisting of 20 to 30 families) spoke Portuguese and most adolescents had been educated in Indonesian.[14] When East Timor gained its independence on 20 May 2002, Tetum and Portuguese were declared as official languages. The 2010 census found that Tetum Prasa had 385,269 native speakers on a total population of 1,053,971, meaning that the share of native Tetum Prasa/Dili speakers had increased to 36.6% during the 2000s.[15]

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 Timór 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:

Portuguese (left) and Tetum (right). From a Portuguese course for Tetum speakers. The text says: "Our generation sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between 'j' and 'z'"

From Portuguese

Words derived from Portuguese:

From Malay

Tetum (left) and Portuguese (right). From a Portuguese course for Tetum speakers. The text says: "Some people pronounce wrongly '*meja', '*uja' and '*abuja' instead of 'mesa', 'usa' and 'abusa'."

As a result of Bazaar Malay being a regional lingua franca and of Indonesian being a working language, many words are derived from Malay, including:

In addition, as a legacy of Indonesian rule, other words of Malay origin have entered Tetum, through Indonesian.


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.[citation needed]


Tetum has many hybrid words, which are combinations of indigenous and Portuguese words. These often include an indigenous Tetum verb, with a Portuguese suffix -dór (similar to '-er'). For example:

Basic phrases



Personal pronouns

Singular Plural
1st person exclusive Ha'u(-nia) Ami(-nia)
inclusive Ita(-nia)
2nd person familiar O(-nia) Imi(-nia)
polite Ita(-nia) Ita boot sira(-nia)
3rd person Nia (ninia) Sira(-nia)











Hau rona asu hatenu

1S hear dog barking

"I hear the dog barking"








Nia sosa sigaru

3S buys cigarettes

"He/She buys cigarettes"








Ita rona rádiu?

1PL hearing radio

"Are we hearing a radio?"










Sira moris hotu ka?

3P alive all ?

"Are they all alive?"

A common occurrence is to use titles such as Senhora for a woman or names rather than pronouns when addressing people.










Senhora mai hori bain-hira?

Mrs come PAST when

"When did you arrive?"[16]

The second person singular pronoun Ó is used generally with children, friends or family, while with strangers or people of higher social status, Ita or Ita boot is used.[17]










Nina, Ó iha nebee?

Nina 2S.FAM LOC where

"Nina, where are you?"

Nouns and pronouns


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

feto 'woman/women' → feto sira 'women'

However, the plural ending -s of nouns of Portuguese origin is sometimes retained.

Estadus Unidus – United States (from Estados Unidos)
Nasoens Unidas – United Nations (from Nações Unidas)

Tetum has an optional 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

The particle nia forms the inalienable possessive, and can be used in a similar way to 's in English, e.g.:

João nia uma – 'João's house'
Cristina nia livru – 'Cristina's book'

When the possessor is postposed, representing alienable possession, nia becomes nian:

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 Malay kami) which is exclusive, e.g. "I and they", and ita (equivalent to 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'

The suffix -na'in can also be used with nouns, in the sense of 'owner'.

uma 'house' → uma-na'in 'householder'

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 a nominalised adjective, the word oan ('person, child, associated object') is added to it.

malae 'foreigner' → malae-oan 'foreign'

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

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

hateten 'tell' → hatetendór 'talkative'

Tetum does not have separate masculine and feminine gender, hence nia (similar to ia/dia/nya in 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 men, and obrigada by women. 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:

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' → babarak '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, optionally 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 commonly used prepositions in Tetum are the verbs iha ('have', 'possess', 'specific locative') and baa/ba ('go', 'to', 'for'). Most prepostional concepts of English are expressed by nominal phrases formed by using iha, the object and the position (expressed by a noun),optionally with the possessive nia.

iha uma (nia) laran — ' inside the house'
iha foho (nia) 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 (nia) 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 fronted phrases for focusing/ 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? — 'Do 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'
Conjugations and inflections (in Tetun-Terik)

In Tetun-Terik, verbs inflect when they begin with a vowel or consonant h. In this case mutation of the first consonant occurs. For example, the verb haree ('see') in Tetun-Terik would be conjugated as follows:

ha'u karee — 'I see'
ó maree — 'you (sing.) see'
nia naree — 'he/she/it sees'
ami haree — 'we see'
imi haree — 'you (pl.) see'
sira raree — 'they see'



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

See also: Tetum alphabet

The influence of Portuguese and to a lesser extent Malay/Indonesian on the phonology of Tetun has been extensive.

Tetum Vowels
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open ä

In the Tetum language, /a/, /i/ and /u/ tend to have relatively fixed sounds. However /e/ and /o/ vary according to the environment they are placed in, for instance the sound is slightly higher if the proceeding syllable is /u/ or /i/.[18]

Tetum consonants
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n (ɲ ~ i̯n) (ŋ)
Stop (p) b t d k (ɡ) ʔ
Fricative f (v) s (z) (ʃ) (ʒ) h
Approximant j w
Lateral l (ʎ ~ i̯l)
Flap ɾ
Trill (r)

All consonants appearing in parentheses are used only in loanwords.

Stops: All stops in Tetum are un-aspirated, meaning an expulsion of breath is absent. In contrast, English stops, namely 'p' 't' and 'k' are generally aspirated.

Fricatives: /v/ is an unstable voiced labio-dental fricative and tends to alternate with or is replaced by /b/; e.g. [aˈvoː][aˈboː] meaning 'grandparent.'[16]

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). The standard orthography devised by the institute was declared official by Government Decree 1/2004 of 14 April 2004.[19] 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, educaçãoedukasaun 'education', and colonialismokolonializmu 'colonialism'.

Reforms suggested by the International Committee for the Development of East Timorese Languages (IACDETL) in 1996 included the replacement of the digraphs ⟨nh⟩ and ⟨lh⟩ (borrowed from Portuguese, where they stand for the phonemes /ɲ/ and /ʎ/) with ⟨n̄⟩ and ⟨l̄⟩ , respectively (as in certain Basque orthographies), to avoid confusion with the consonant clusters /nh/ and /lh/, which also occur in Tetum. Thus, senhor 'sir' became sen̄ór, and trabalhador 'worker' became trabal̄adór. Later, as adopted by IACDETL and approved by the INL in 2002, ⟨n̄⟩ and ⟨l̄⟩ were replaced by [[⟨ñ⟩]] and [[⟨ll⟩]] (as in Spanish). Thus, sen̄ór 'sir' became señór, and trabal̄adór '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, and most speakers actually pronounce ñ and ll as [i̯n] and [i̯l], respectively, with a semivowel [i̯] which forms a diphthong with the preceding vowel (but reduced to [n], [l] after /i/), not as the palatal consonants of Portuguese and Spanish. Thus, señór, traballadór are pronounced [sei̯ˈnoɾ], [tɾabai̯laˈdoɾ], and liña, kartilla are pronounced [ˈlina], [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 bootbot 'large' and ki'ikkiik 'small'.

The sound [z], which is not indigenous to Tetum but appears in many loanwords from Portuguese and Malay, often changed to [s] in old Tetum and to [ʒ] (written ⟨j⟩) in the speech of young speakers: for example, meja 'table' from Portuguese mesa, and kamija 'shirt' from Portuguese camisa. In the sociolect of Tetum that is still used by the generation educated during the Indonesian occupation, [z] and [ʒ] may occur in free variation. For instance, the Portuguese-derived word ezemplu 'example' is pronounced [eˈʒemplu] by some speakers, and conversely Janeiru 'January' is pronounced [zanˈeiru]. The sound [v], also not native to the language, often shifted to [b], as in serbisu 'work' from Portuguese serviço (also note that a modern INL convention promotes the use of serbisu for 'work' and servisu for 'service').

See also


  1. ^ a b c Tetum at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  2. ^ "Table 14: Second language/dialect by sex for the population over four years of age". Timor-Leste Population and Housing Census 2015. Timor-Leste Ministry of Finance.
  3. ^ Bauer, Laurie (2007). The Linguistics Student's Handbook. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  4. ^ a b c Tetun Dili at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  5. ^ "A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun". www.gnu.org. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  6. ^ a b Manhitu, Yohanes (2016). Tetum, A Language For Everyone: Tetun, Lian Ida Ba Ema Hotu-Hotu. New York: Mondial. p. vii-viii. ISBN 9781595693211. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  7. ^ Grimes, Charles E.; Tom Therik; Grimes, Barbara Dix; Max Jacob (1997). A Guide to the People and Languages of Nusa Tenggara (PDF). Kupang: Artha Wacana Press. p. 52. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2021-03-02. Retrieved 2019-11-12.
  8. ^ Hull 2004
  9. ^ Catharina Williams-van Klinken, 2011 (2nd ed.), Tetun Language Course, Peace Corps East Timor, 2nd ed. 2011, footnote, p.58
  10. ^ Catharina Williams-van Klinken states otherwise,[9]
  11. ^ Chen, Yen-Ling (2015), "Tetun Dili And Creoles: Another Look" (PDF), Working Papers in Linguistics, vol. 46, no. 7, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
  12. ^ Hull, Geoffrey (24 August 2004). "The Languages of East Timor: Some Basic Facts". Archived from the original on 2008-01-19.
  13. ^ "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)
  14. ^ Encarta-encyclopedie Winkler Prins (1993–2002) s.v. "Oost-Timor. §1.5 Onafhankelijkheid". Microsoft Corporation/Het Spectrum.
  15. ^ "Table 13: Population distribution by mother tongue, Urban Rural and District". Volume 2: Population Distribution by Administrative Areas, Population and Housing Census of Timor-Leste (PDF). Timor-Leste Ministry of Finance. p. 205.
  16. ^ a b c Williams-van Klinken, Catharina; Hajek, John; Nordlinger, Rachel (2002). Tetun Dili: A grammar of an East Timorese language (PDF). Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, The Australian National University. doi:10.15144/pl-528. hdl:1885/146149. ISBN 0858835096.
  17. ^ Williams-van Klinken, Catharina; Hajek, John (2006). "Patterns of address in Dili Tetum, East Timor". Australian Review of Applied Linguistics. 29 (2): 21.1–21.18. doi:10.2104/aral0621.
  18. ^ Hull, Geoffrey. (1999). Tetum, Language Manual for East Timor. Academy of East Timor Studies, Faculty of Education & Languages, University of Western Sydney Macathur.
  19. ^ "Governo Decreto no. 1/2004 de 14 de Abril "O Padrão Ortográfico da Língua Tétum"" (PDF).