We moved to Dili just over nine months ago and throughout this time there have been three constants in my life:
1. Its always hot
2. I always smell like 'RID' (mossie repellent)
3. I am always studying the local language - 'Tetum' (or Tetun)
I am relieved that the latter constant has come to an end, as I have just completed an Intermediate course through a local language school. That's 100 hours of face to face Tetum language classes since January, not to mention study at home and the times I even dreamt in Tetum in my sleep!
I have had many of my friends and family back home ask me 'What is this Tetum language you speak of with such confusion?' and so I thought it time I write a post on the 'local lingo'. Lets see how I go in not confusing you.
So lets go back to when I moved here. It quickly became apparent that some things in Timor Leste will always confuse me. Such as…
Why do Timorese men walk around with their shirts tucked up to expose their midriff? Are they hot and simply trying to cool down…or do they simply think they are HOT and want to show me their skinny torso?
Why do Taxi drivers start honking their horns in anger at the (few) sets of traffic lights in Dili the second they turn green…then proceed in driving in the middle of the road - at 15kmh?
Why do men with fish hanging from string on the side of the street automatically insist that I really NEED to buy a fish while going for a run?
Why do the local's bang pots and pans together loudly when there is an eclipse to ward off evil spirits?
Ahhh the list goes on.
And so my lessons in Tetum began…if I was going to understand the people, I needed to get some 'street cred.'
So here goes…
'The thing's you never knew you always wanted to know about the language Tetum':
There are several languages spoken in Timor-Leste, and while the average 'Jo-Blo' (or 'Jo-se Blo-se' in Timor) you meet down the street may not have had the opportunity to attend formal higher education, he/she can normally speak some Indonesian, Portuguese, English and Tetum (due to its complicated history of occupations and invasions). Plus if they come from one of the sub-districts then there is a dialect of Tetum they probably speak as well. Not bad Jo-se Blo-se.
Tetum is often described as a 'creolized' language, which draws much of its vocab from Portuguese - yet there are as many similarities as there are differences.
For example the word in Tetum for 'Like' is Gosta which is the same in Portuguese. Hanesan. So just when you think it would be easier to just learn Portuguese, you then learn than the word 'when' in Tetum is Bainhira and the Portuguese word for 'when' is 'Cuando'. La Hanesan.
Its interesting to see the 'hybrid' nature of some of the words where Tetum and Portuguese become one. For example the word to 'eat' in Tetum is han and therefor to say someone is a glutton is to say they are 'hanador'. The 'dor' comes from Portuguese.
'Ha'u la komprende' translates as 'I don't understand' in English. The Portuguese word for 'understand' is 'compreender'.
Grammatically they couldn't be more different, for in Portuguese (like all the 'classic' languages) the importance is placed on tenses and correct grammatical structure…and you better get it right! Lucky for me who has never been that successful in learning languages this is not the case in Tetum and one can get by with making many mistakes without the risk of offending anyone (at least I hope not!). For example the most common greeting you will hear on the streets of Dili is 'Di'ak ka lae' which the direct translation is 'Are you good or not?'
Then we have the numbers. I was SO relieved when I first learnt Tetum numbers and was able to reel off my telephone number in class without error. Imagine my dismay when in the following class our teacher produced a long list of Indonesian numbers for us to learn with the explanation that 'everyone speaks Tetum in Dili…except for the people at the markets who sell fruit and vegetables in which case you need to learn Indonesian numbers.'
WTF?!?! La Hanesan?
The more Tetum I am learning the more Portuguese I am also learning (with regards to vocab anyway) and depending on the topic it could be entirely Portuguese. For example when I was studying the topic on 'business and economics' most of the vocab was Portuguese.
What I have also enjoyed learning about is vocab unique to the Timorese people which then holds a looking glass into their customs and culture. Timorese are a superstitious and highly religious people, and so learning all about what the Timorese people hold 'lulik' (sacred) was a double barrelled lesson in language and culture.
So to when learning about getting married - the 'Kazamentu'. I was surprised to read that when Timorese people get married they need a 'Manu Ain' to act as a go-between for the bride and groom when wanting to get engaged. Manu Ain directly translates to 'Chicken Legs' and apparently that's the name for the fellow with the dubious honour of announcing the intentions of the couple to the other family.
I told you, some things I will just never understand.
The pronunciation of Tetum has got much easier for me and is important not to confuse words of similarity, such as the word for husband is 'Kaben' which needs to be pronounced with the emphasis on the 'a' - as if you put the emphasis on the 'e' Kabeen then you are referring to saliva or dribble. La Hanesan.
My favourite story is one I need to borrow from 'Hau nia KAAAben' (see, now you can speak Tetum too!), who when living here in 2008-2009, studied his own Tetum regularly down at one of the beachside cafes. Unbeknownst to my dearest when ordering his coffee he should have been asking for 'Kafe ho susubeen manas ki'ik' (Coffee with small hot milk). Rather, he delighted the waiting staff for many weeks by repeatedly asking for 'Kafe ho susun manas ki'ik' (Coffee with small hot breasts).
Correct the stupid 'Malae' (foreigner)? Of course not!
On a serious note, one of the reasons I also decided to aprende Tetum was that I like to think I am one who doesn't need my Tetum speaking husband (or anyone else) to help me out of sticky situations - and like it or not, Timor Leste is a developing country which on occasion, requires scruples and that 'street slang' I was talking about.
I HAVE had a few confrontations with Timorese in traffic, who yelled and confronted me for no particular reason, who I was able to deflect by yelling back in Tetum.
I HAVE delighted young Timorese sales people in shops when I have asked about a particular item in Tetum - and they have stood tall and smiled directly into my face with pride that I have chosen to learn their 'little old language' (reinforcing to them that they really DO matter and have a place in this world).
Most specifically my Tetum came into good use when Isabel broke her collarbone and I needed a preliminary X-Ray done for her at the Dili public hospital (a busy place where it was me, Isabel and our closest 500 Timorese pals in the waiting area), and the stress of the situation was dissipated by the fact I could fill in a form with her name and body part that needed attention without fuss or a translator.
It's totally a personal decision whether to learn a language or not and of course one can get by without doing so.
Halo Saida mak ita kontente! Do what makes you happy!
And what has made my experience so far go from being a frustrating one to a truly happy one has been to learn a little about this funny language.
It's also helped me understand better this sometimes crazy but very lovable Ema Timor…