Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The final words on the East Timorese language choices

By Geoffrey Hull - posted Friday, 11 October 2002

On behalf of East Timor’s national language authority, the Instituto Nacional de Linguística, I should like to address fourteen points contained in Dr Sean Foley’s piece "The article by Alfred Deakin and the reply from Geoffrey Hull deserve comment" which adds new errors to those made by the original correspondent.

1. There are not thirty languages in East Timor, but sixteen. Dr Foley apparently does not have sufficient knowledge of the linguistic environment of East Timor or enough familiarity with the principles of language classification to be able to make the requisite distinction between a language and a dialect.

2. The East Timorese Justice Minister’s personal preference for the use of Portuguese should not be misinterpreted as ignorance of Tetum. The cocksure tone of Dr Foley’s assertion suggests that he at some time personally administered a Tetum language examination to Dr. Ana Pessoa.


3. That Indonesian is widely known and spoken by younger people in East Timor should surprise or impress no-one, given the systematic manner in which it was imposed on the country after 1975. A fact about which Dr Foley appears to be ignorant is that before 1975 the Indonesian language was virtually unknown in Portuguese Timor. There are well-documented cases of 19th century Malay-speaking visitors to the territory being amazed that almost no-one there knew Malay. This fact—and the flimsy 24-year pedigree of Indonesian in East Timor—stand in stark contrast with the Pan-Indonesian sentiments behind Dr Foley’s assertion that Malay "belongs to the people of the [Malay] archipelago", of which he evidently sees East Timor as an integral part, culturally as well as geographically. Despite the popular tendency to simplify all complex things, the world is full of anomalies, and East Timor is one of them.

4. That Dr Foley does not "recall ever hearing Timorese using Portuguese among themselves" makes no difference whatsoever to the observable fact that numerous East Timorese (particularly clergy, politicians, intellectuals, teachers and artists) frequently use Portuguese in conversation with Timorese peers. It is doubtful in any case that Dr Foley — whose chief linguistic accomplishment apart from English appears to be fluent Indonesian — was qualified to distinguish Portuguese and the acrolectal register of Tetum which draws heavily on Portuguese and appropriates its phonological inventory.

5. If Dr Foley’s intention was to offer an objective corrective to my alleged errors, his reference to Tetum speakers "littering their conversation with Indonesian" (no epithet) and with "bits of mangled Portuguese" (negative epithets) would appear to be a particularly unfortunate revelation of parti pris.

6. The assertion that my stating (not "suggesting") the verifiable fact that two thirds of the vocabulary of Tetum is Portuguese "is to suggest that Tetum is not an indigenous language" proves not a "delightful self-contradiction" on my part, but Dr Foley’s naivete in matters of language. Many languages have vocabularies of predominantly foreign, not native, origin, and the most famous example of this in the world is English. If, in Foleyian linguistics, the large Portuguese component in Tetum makes Tetum a non-indigenous language, then neither is English (with its majority of French, Latin and Greek words) an indigenous language of England.

7. The figures produced by the UN Development Report do not constitute a clear "refutation of Hull’s implicit assertion that Portuguese is widely understood" but proof of the fact that this body was not qualified to conduct a linguistic census with all this implies of gathering accurate information about active and passive knowledge of languages, bilingualism, polyglossia, diglossia and so on. There is nothing in Dr Foley’s reply that effectively refutes on scientific grounds my statement — based on direct empirical observation — that Tetum speakers have a natural ability to understand a good deal of Portuguese.

8. Dr Foley’s objections to the Portuguese language (and perhaps to Tetum also) on frankly utilitarian and philistine grounds are unanswerable by those who consider languages to play a wider role in the social, cultural and spiritual lives of human beings than that of mere media of rational communication.


9. Equally unanswerable is the claim that the reinstatement of Portuguese is "a craven reversion to colonialism." Such statements — against which all the facts, Timorese patriotic sentiment and hundreds of learned studies are impotent — can only be made by those with a breathtakingly vast ignorance of East Timorese culture and history.

10. That Dr Foley finds the Tetum epithet lorosa’e ‘eastern’ romantic and the Portuguese epithet leste "boring" makes no difference to the fact that both words mean exactly the same thing (and Portuguese leste, of French and ultimate Germanic derivation, also originally referred to the rising sun). Linguistic facts in any case transcend political arrangements: the Tetum name of East Timor is Timór Lorosa’e, and the Portuguese synonym is Timor-Leste or Timor Oriental.

11. The results of the consultation of the Planning Commission which produced a "clear, explicit and vocal, almost universal, rejection of Portuguese as an official language" contrast with the results of the CNRT’s district-to-district consultation on the draft Constitution, which showed overwhelming support for Article 13 (on language) one year later. This may explain the suppression of the results of the 2000 survey in the final report.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

This article is a response to "The article by Alfred Deakin and the reply from Geoffrey Hull deserve comment" written by Sean Foley.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Geoffrey Hull is Director de Investigações e de Edições Instituto Nacional de Linguística Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Geoffrey Hull
Related Links
Instituto Nacional de Linguística Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e
United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy