The Tetun Minefield

Now that the end of formal Tetun approaches, one can reflect on some of the forthcoming issues.

Firstly, not everyone in Timor Leste speaks Tetun. There are about 33 different languages. Tetun is but one of them. Although it is spoken in a number of areas, there are many local variations and local accents which may make it appear different anyway.

Tetun also comes in a number of forms – Tetun Prasa (also known as Tetun Dili and Tetun Franca), Tetun Terik, Tetun Loos and Tetun Classic. It is for another day to ponder the similarities and differences between them. At this stage, it is fair to assume that although there is a familiar core, there are differences in both vocabulary and grammar.

While Tetun Terik, Tetun Loos and Tetun Classic use pure Tetun words, Tetun Prasa includes a liberal spray of Portuguese and Indonesian. And just to complete the spray, it appears it is up to the speaker to decide just how much of these other 2 languages to include. As a student with little Portuguese or Indonesian knowledge, this can be confusing.

Although it could be said that Tetun is fairly easy to learn, it does suffer from a lack of high quality learning materials and a lack of freely available written material to supplement this. There is only 1 Tetun news source on the internet and we have used this in class as study material. It takes about 5 seconds to realise that the standard of Tetun is not high, with a casual regard to grammar, spelling and amount of Portuguese or Indonesian spray.

As for other texts available for reading, there is the Timor-Leste Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bible. Choices, choices … not.

Me thinks that Tetun will not have made it until Herge’s Adventures of TinTin is published in pure Tetun.

Tetun Traps

Now that I am half-way through my Tetun course, I can comment on some of the easy bits & some of the hard bits. We were told that Tetun was easy. Compared to Chinese, this must surely be the case.

For instance, Tetun verbs do not change, no matter what the tense. Think of “is, am, are, was, were, will be, would be” as many of the variations for the word to be. Even better, Tetun does not even have “to be”. But “I am/was/were a drunk” etc. literally becomes “I drunk” (ha’u lanu). And “I drink” becomes “ha’u hemu”. “Hemu” is always “hemu”. Nice one that.

However, Tetun is a bit short on words compared to English. Where you might be able to say something 10,000 ways in English, there may only be 5 ways in Tetun. And sometimes, some concepts are incredibly difficult to translate.

The Tetun word “hein” can mean “to wait”, “to guard/watch over” or “to hope”. As for which one it is at any time, you have to work it out yourself. So maybe “ha’u hein serveja ida” means “I am waiting for a beer”, “I am guarding a beer” or “I am hoping for a beer”.

Now, when you have spent your whole life living in a village without a TV, refrigerator, cold beer, rugby, take-away pizza and have never had a 9 to 5 job because all of your time is taken up growing your own food, rearing your own animals etc., you don’t need a word for weekend. So there isn’t one.

When I attempted to use the word for run or jog (as per the dictionary), I was informed that (until recently) the only word that covers this concept really meant “to flea” (halai) as in run to escape being shot. The teacher said “why else would you need to run”. Good point. Common-sense has prevailed & the quaint habit of running for no reason (a foreigner thing) has also adopted this word.

And if you say you run “to stop getting fat”, the response is “why would you work so hard in the fields in order to provide more food to get fat when you could be relaxing”. Another good point.

So it seems the only people who go running in Timor Leste are those crazy foreigners.