Nov 25, 2015 Last Updated 4:29 AM, Nov 24, 2015

Standard Tetum-English dictionary

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Review: How standard?

Catharina van Klinken

Geoffrey Hull's dictionary of the East Timorese lingua franca Tetun (pronounced 'Tetun', but Hull follows the Portuguese spelling with final 'm') has a clear and simple layout, with most entries having a single part of speech and a short English meaning.

The word 'standard' in the title is unfortunate, since there is as yet no agreement on what constitutes standard Tetun. The compiler seems to acknowledge this himself when he includes words from rural dialects as well as from the urban and lingua franca variety called Tetun-Prasa, without always specifying which variety they are from. In a conscious attempt to enlarge and modernise the vocabulary, Hull has included many Portuguese words which are not, so far at least, actually used in Tetun. Unfortunately these additions are not marked as innovations. Meanwhile the compiler consciously rejects those words which have been borrowed from Indonesian over the last quarter century. He does make a concession to the fact that such borrowing is widespread by including an appendix of 'Indonesianisms in current colloquial use'.

This dictionary uses what Hull calls 'the standard orthography of Eastern Tetun'. This description, too, is misleading, as there are several spelling systems currently in use for Tetun in East Timor, and the one used in this book is Hull's own innovation. Hull spells Portuguese loans as if they were Tetun (eg Portuguese ciclone 'cyclone' is written siklone), making this system easier for non-Portuguese-speaking people to use.

The main unnecessary complication in Hull's spelling system is that he sometimes writes long vowels using a double vowel, and sometimes with a single vowel (with or without an acute accent). So if you can't find moos, try looking up mos and m?s as well. For Tetun-Prasa, ignore any glottal stops (marked by apostrophes) as they are only pronounced in some rural dialects.

In short, use this dictionary cautiously to give you an approximate idea of the meaning of a word, but do not use it to try to write in Tetun, as a lot of it won't be understood.

Geoffrey Hull, Standard Tetum-English dictionary, Sydney: Allen & Unwin in assoc with Univ of Western Sydney Macarthur, 1999, 340+xxvi pp, ISBN 1-86508-206-6, Rrp AU$24.95

Dr Catharina van Klinken ( is the author of A grammar of the Fehan dialect of Tetun, an Austronesian language of West Timor, which is soon to appear with Pacific Linguistics (Australian National University).

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000

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