Why do some Melanesians speak Portuguese?


In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at the language choices Timor-Leste (East Timor) has made and ask ourselves why people in East Timor speak Portuguese as a national language.

IT is difficult to say exactly where the western border of Melanesia is, but most people say that the new nation of Timor-Leste (East Timor) lies within Melanesia and many people say that the island of Timor is the westernmost part of Melanesia. The island itself is split between the independent nation of Timor Leste and West Timor, part of the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara. Timorese people look Melanesian and there are languages there that are related to PNG languages.
Although it is much smaller than PNG, as a Melanesian country Timor-Leste shares many characteristics with PNG, including its language environment. Like PNG, Timor-Leste has many local languages. These 20 languages include both Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages. The non-Austronesian languages are often called Papuan languages and like the non-Austronesian languages of PNG and West Papua, are the descendants of the languages spoken by the earliest known people to come to the region. The Austronesian languages are the descendants of languages spoken by much later migrations of people and have their origins on Taiwan. These Austronesian languages of Timor-Leste are related distantly to Austronesian languages spoken in PNG, such as Motu, Dobu, and Kuanua.

Timor-Leste coin in Portuguese in Tetum (photo from Wikimedia).

PNG was colonised by Germany and Britain and then later by Australia. Similarly, Timor-Leste was colonised first by Portugal and later, at the end of the 20th century, by Indonesia. In the same way that PNG continued to use the English language of its colonisers as the language of education and government after independence, when Timor-Leste became independent in 2002, it chose to keep Portuguese as an official language and as the main language of education.
This was even though education levels were quite low and the country had been occupied by Indonesia for a quarter of a century, most Timorese at that time did not speak the language. Most used Tetum Prasa to communicate across language barriers. Tetum Prasa is like Hiri Motu; just as Hiri Motu is a simplified form of “true” Motu spoken by Motuan people in the national capital, Tetum Prasa (“Market Tetum”) is a simplified form of the “true” Tetum Terik language spoken in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste.
Both PNG and Timor-Leste were therefore similar at independence in that the colonial languages were not spoken by most people and the common languages that people used to communicate across language barriers were pidgin languages: Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu in PNG, and Tetum Prasa in Timor-Leste.
Portuguese was chosen as the language of education because of the historical links Timor-Leste had with Portugal and because it is a well-established international language with many books published in it, especially in Portugal and Brazil. But while English serves PNG as both a language of education and a common language throughout the South Pacific and Asia-Pacific regions to which PNG belongs, Portuguese is not used by any other countries in the region. For this reason, many Timorese learn Bahasa Indonesia and/or English to use in business and for travel outside Timor-Leste.
PNG did not specifically state its official languages in the national constitution, although English, Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and local languages (tok ples) are mentioned in several places. In contrast, Timor-Leste did make specific reference to the official status of different languages in its national constitution.
The 20 local languages of the country are called “national languages”. They are given special mention, but no national roles. The national government is not bound to promote them and, in fact, as in PNG, some of the local languages spoken by smaller groups are in danger of disappearing. These “national languages” are used for local oral communication, but as with local languages in PNG, they are rarely written.
The official languages of the country are Tetum and Portuguese. Like Tok Pisin in PNG, Tetum is the language that most people use to speak with people outside their local group. As with Tok Pisin in PNG, today many children use Tetum as their dominant or even only language.

Sign in Tetum and English in Timor Leste- Wikipmedia picture

People with good education, especially politicians, often mix it with many Portuguese words, just as many of their educated PNG counterparts do the same, mixing English words in their Tok Pisin. Portuguese is more of a language of school than of everyday life. When I visited Timor-Leste, I was surprised at how many people did not speak Portuguese. Even some university students did not seem comfortable speaking with me in Portuguese. I got the impression that English is much more part of PNG urban life than Portuguese is a part of Timorese urban life.
One reason for this is the fact that we don’t see a lot of written Tok Pisin in PNG. When we do, it is usually a short notice telling us not to smoke or that some product is “gutpela” or “i gat pait”. In Timor-Leste, however, even university notices or the names of government buildings (Parliament House, Supreme Court, etc) are usually written in Tetum. Unlike Tok Pisin in PNG, Tetum is a subject at school and students are taught to read and write the language properly. There are, however, few books to read in the language, not even many textbooks.
Often I met people who spoke better English than Portuguese. One man explained that this was because Portuguese was really necessary only in teaching or government jobs. Outside of government jobs, people can use Tetum for everyday life and do not need to read or speak Portuguese. In business or technical jobs, English is more useful than Portuguese, because with English, people can read instruction manuals that accompany foreign imports of machinery or they can communicate with Timor-Leste’s trading partners in Australia and Asia.
Many other people speak better Bahasa Indonesia than Portuguese. This includes older people, who were educated in Bahasa Indonesia during the long Indonesian occupation that didn’t end until 1999. Others know Bahasa Indonesia because they often take buses across the border to Indonesian West Timor or prefer watching Indonesian TV.
For people who come from monolingual countries such as Australia, this might all seem confusing or burdensome. But for a Melanesian country like Timor-Leste, being multilingual and using different languages for different purposes is a natural way of life. This way of juggling several languages at once will not seem at all strange to Papua New Guineans as well.

  • Professor Volker is an adjunct professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.