A smart friend told me recently she loves learning Tetun because language is instructive of culture, and you can learn a lot about a culture from the words it has for certain things and the ones it leaves unnamed.
English, for example, language of neurotics, has the different words think, wonder, stress, worry, worried, remember, pity, consider, recall and opinion, where in laidback Timor, the simple Tetun word hanoin stands in for all of them (and the hilarious-sounding haluha means to forget).
That’s not to say Tetun is lacking, though – not at all. Where I describe my sibling relationships in English as “older sister” and “younger sister”, Tetun has the far silkier biin, alin feto and the optional titles mana and alin to use when addressing each of them as a substitute for their names – and the option to use those titles with women you’re not biologically related to.
Efficiently, Tetun often uses a base noun as the beginning point for a family of words to neatly capture words that English randomly gathers together: for example, the word oan, child, begins oan feto (child-female; daughter), oan-fatin (child-place; womb), and oan rasik (child-own; my child); the word rai, land, begins rai naruk (land-long; cliff), rai ulun (land-face; to describe Timor’s eastern tip), and rai liur (land-outside; abroad); and the word for “goat” and “sheep” share the root bibi, but goats, which are native, are called bibi timor, and sheep; introduced – bibi malae. Foreign goat.
The Tetun word for word, lifuan, is a portmanteau of the words for “voice” and “fruit” – an image a little bit more poetic than the one conjured by a word that shares its name with a Microsoft Office program.
And fuan – fruit – among other things can also mean “heart” – because, as a friend said, the fruit is the heart of the tree, no? (The word for tree, ai, gets mashed with fuan to make aifuan; the equivalent of the English noun “fruit” – fuan is a little more abstract and can mean “fruitful”, too). If a child is a fuan, they’re both your heart, and the fruit of your heart – your love; and if you’re heartbroken, you’re either heart wound (or fruit wound) – fuan kanek – or wounded inside: laran kanek.
(If you’re hungover, you’re also talking about your insides: larak baik; stupid inside).
There’s no really clear way of using passive verb forms here – you can’t say “I was struck by the pole” (you say instead, “the pole struck me”). To offer someone a drink, you assume they’re thirsty and ask what they want to hemu, drink, rather than asking if they want to at all. And when you’re asking someone how they’re going, your question translates literally as “good or no” – all good practise for a passive-aggressive gal trying to learn assertiveness.
In Tetun, you don’t say north, south, east and west: instead, you use the directions of the rising and setting sun (loro sae – sun rising – for the east; and loro mono – sun going down – for the west). The sea to the north of Timor is calm, so Tetun speakers use the (terribly gendered) tasi feto – female sea – to describe that direction; and tasi mane – male sea – to describe anything to the south, where the rough, wild ocean is.
Tetun takes some of its vocabulary from Bahasa Indonesia – a language influenced by that country’s Dutch colonists, whose language shares its West Germanic roots with English – so, English-sounding words often crop up in Tetun. My favourite: es crim. Ice cream.
Tetun also takes a lot of Portuguese loanwords from its own colonists – a language which falls into the same broad Indo-European category as English (and French) – and although English is more like German than either of those languages, frequently the Portuguese words sound English, too. For me, agricultura has been a lifesaver at work.
And, as with all languages, Tetun also has idioms. Just like learning vocabulary and historical roots, the idioms teach me more about Timorese culture – including, unsurprisingly, that Timorese people love a party.
Where the word festa by itself won’t do, there’s fase bikan – literally, wash plates, but as an idiom, to have a small party after a larger party (like when my dad pulls out a Penfolds and keeps dinner guests straggling on). Or to hamanas tenda – literally, to make the tent warm, but as a colloquialism, to pre-game: to have a small party before the real festa.
My uptight Type-A tendencies don’t fly so well in Timor – a country with an idiom, etu sai sasoru, to describe not being able to change the what’s already happened. The rice becomes porridge (Timorese people, of course, make porridge from rice, not oats).
There’s an idiom about wisdom, where you can describe an intelligent person as being like a grain of rice before it’s picked, because the grain’s weight makes the rice grass bend. Their head full of knowledge makes them top-heavy.
As a poorly-travelled Australian from temperate Perth, I’ve actually never seen rice grown (and googling “rice plant” to see whether “grass” was the correct word to use in that paragraph was the first time I’ve seen a picture of the plant). Now I’m wondering whether every tropical country’s language has rice-related idioms (perhaps not, but see these delightful food idioms).
Every time I get frustrated with myself for forgetting Tetun words, I’m going to come back to this – it’s charming and hilarious learning more about Tetun and Timorese culture through this language’s clever phrases.