Students of Timorese languages will soon learn that Timor is a land of many different languages and dialects with relatively few speakers of each. Consequently, the total area in which each language or dialect is spoken is very restricted, except Tetun-Dili, which has speakers over all of Timor. This dialect of Tetun is a simplified version introduced by the Portuguese to give a common commercial tongue among all the people. Therefore there is a wide variety of expertise among these speakers, who will invariable have another language as their mother tongue or first language.

The number of distinct languages within East Timor will vary according to the way a language is designated. Listed are the main languages and dialects, with the town merely being the nearest to the area in which the language is spoken[(A. Cappell, 1934)]

Table 1.1. "Languages by Region"

LanguageTown LanguageTown
BunakBobonaro  Dagada Lautem
Galole Manututu  Galole Laclo
Galole Laleia   Idate Laklubar
KemakBobonaro   Makasae Laga
Makasae Ossu   Mambae Aileu
Mambae Ainaro   Midiki Baguia
Na'uete Uato Karabau   Nogo-Nogo Kailaku
Nogo-Nogo Atabae  Tukudede Likisa
Tukudede Maubara   Uaimo'a Baukau

Tetun all dialects

Bubu Susu
Fatu Berliu
Fatu Lulik
Fatu Mea
Foho Ren
Ue Keke

While Tetun is understood in all areas of Timor, there is a wide variation in the pronunciation and vocabulary, as the above languages have influenced Tetun in the areas of use. Similarly many words have been adopted from other languages. Even in areas where Tetun is regarded as the mother tongue there are a number of distinct dialects to add to the student's confusion.

Over many millennia the Timorese have developed a strong skill in the art of story telling, which is demonstrated in poetry by the Na'i Lia's eloquent and expansive oratory.


This dictionary has endeavoured to follow the general usage wherever possible therefore TETUN rather than TETUM is regarded as being the correct name for the language because the Portuguese spell many words with 'M" where the phonetic sound is 'N', and this is what they have done with the word TETUM. Some people have erroneously adopted the 'M' spelling as the phonetic sound.

The wise old men (KATUAS) tell us that the people who lived on the plains (TETU, adjective), therefore the people who spoke the language were of the plains (TETUN, noun). There can be no argument as to the name of the language or its spelling as adjectives are changed to nouns by adding N. In any case no other Tetun word ends in M.

The biggest concentration of natural Tetun speakers occurs in the central south coast of East Timor, from Luka in the east to Alas in the west. While there are small regional differences within this area they are not sufficient to consider any of them a separate dialect. The dialect of this area has been called TETUN-LOS, and has been regarded as standard Tetun in this dictionary.

Broadly, Tetun can be divided into four main dialects:

TETUN-LOS centered around the town of Soidada and the Kingdom of Samoro and along the coast between Alas and Luka. No attempt has been made to include the more complex ritual language of poetry, which is used throughout all areas which Tetun is spoken.

TETUN-TERIK, spoken in the north-west of East Timor and the north-east of West Timor. This dialect is closely related to Tetun-Belu.

TETUN-BELU, spoken in the south-west of East Timor and the south-east of West Timor. Both this dialect and Tetun-Terok are often regarded as distinct languages from Tetun-Los because of different definitions for individual words, but the grammar and syntax are still synonymous.

TETUN-DILI (also known as TETUN-PRASA), the dialect taught to the Portuguese and other people needing a common language for commerce. This language is simpler in grammar than the other dialects and was regarded as the lingua franca in Portuguese times, but is now being challenged by Bahasa.