Economist: East Timor: Dili-Dallying Over Language
Dili-dallying over language
The problem of choice
CREATING the world's 192nd state is tough when you are facing an unemployment rate of 70%, an illiteracy rate of 43%, and an average daily income equivalent to 55 cents. Complicating matters further is a heated debate over language. After four centuries of Portuguese rule, 24 years of Indonesian occupation, and two years of United Nations' administration, East Timor gained independence in May. The new constitution designates Tetum (the indigenous lingua franca) and Portuguese as official languages, and English and Indonesian Bahasa as working languages. Yet many question the viability of Tetum, the wisdom of promoting Portuguese at the expense of English, and the future of Indonesian Bahasa.
Why should Portuguese be retained, given that barely a quarter of the population speaks it? Its use by the leaders of the independence struggle gives it symbolic value as a language of resistance. Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader and now president, deems Portuguese vital to East Timor's culture, a hybrid of indigenous and Portuguese elements. Retaining Portuguese also sets the country apart from its domineering neighbours, Indonesia and Australia.
Geoffrey Hull, the Australian-based author of the first English-Tetum dictionary, further argues that Portuguese is the world's sixth most widely spoken language and should help the emerging tourism industry. Partly on the basis of its Latinate architecture in Dili and elsewhere, the country hopes to sell itself as a slice of the Mediterranean in South-East Asia. Portuguese-speakers can pick up French, Italian and Spanish, important languages in tourism. Portuguese is not very different from Tetum in terms of its sounds, grammar and vocabulary, so it should be relatively easy for the Timorese to learn, and it is being introduced into primary schools. Yet the young may prefer to learn English.
The future of Tetum is similarly unclear. As the language of the royal rulers in the 16th century, Tetum became dominant on the island. Following Indonesia's invasion in 1975 Tetum became a language of resistance. Its survival was aided by the Roman Catholic church's decision in 1981 to adopt it as the language of ritual, in place of Portuguese. Yet Tetum's written form remains incomplete and there is a shortage of published materials.
Portuguese and Tetum are also challenged by the use of English and Bahasa as languages of trade. While Bahasa is being officially phased out, Indonesia remains East Timor's largest trading partner. The unofficial status of English is not expected to prevent its spread, but it is feared as a notorious killer of indigenous languages and cultures.
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