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Fataluku Lukulukuni - Language

About the Fataluku and English wordlists

These wordlists are an aid to learning the Fataluku language, the language of about 36,000 people in the eastern part of East Timor.

From 1975 to 1999 the territory of East Timor was brutally occupied by the Indonesian army, backed by the Australian, U.S. and British governments, who found it in their interests to support the occupying military in return for political co-operation and favourable treatment for their business from the Indonesian government.

In spite of this, I find that the Fataluku people – and as far as I know the other peoples of East Timor – bear no ill-will towards the people of those countries and have a great sense of friendly solidarity with the people of Indonesia, their neighbors.  They can tell the difference between governments and people, between the brutality of an unaccountable military system and the good will of ordinary people.

East Timor gained its independence in 1999, when Australia, the US and others finally accepted that they could not go on supporting the failed Suharto regime in Indonesia, and must cut their losses, switching sides to line up with democracy and freedom.  It took 25 years of bitter struggle by the East Timorese people, and some 200,000 deaths to win their right to govern themselves.

East Timor has adopted two languages as national languages.  One is Tetun, a mixture of the native Tetun Terik and simplified Portuguese; the other is Portuguese.  (Portugal was the colonial ruler before the invasion by the Indonesian military.)  Many of the younger generation, who were brought up under Indonesian occupation prefer to speak Tetun and Bahasa Indonesia (Malay).  As I said before they hold no ill-will for the people and culture of their neighbors.

Beginning with a number of young men who fled from arrest and torture by the army in the 1990s, Fataluku-speaking and other East Timorese have made their way to Europe and Australia.  In the two years after the Indonesian withdrawal, due to one of the more fortunate accidents of their tragic history, the country was technically and legally once again a part of Portugal, preparing for independence.  This gave them access to Portugal, thence to the rest of the European Union and particularly Ireland and Britain.

There is now a sizeable East Timorese community in each of these countries, mostly young men working to support their families in East Timor or studying.  To my knowledge, there are Fataluku-speaking communities in Lisbon, Dungannon, Belfast, Crewe, Dover and Oxford.  My knowledge of the language comes from close association since 1999 with the Fataluku-speaking people of Oxford.

The wordlists (vocabularies) are not a dictionary.  I am not able to show the range of meanings or English equivalents for each Fataluku word, and vice versa, which is the job of a dictionary.  It is simply a list, in which I show a Fataluku equivalent for each English word in the list.  English is the starting point and therefore becomes the “control” language – which is of course, a serious limitation.  The right way to learn Fataluku, or any language, is to start with that language and absorb its categories of observing, thinking and expressing.

From time to time, particularly in the boxed coloured lists, I have been able to move in a more appropriate direction, with Fataluku as the starting point, but unfortunately I know too little of the language and culture to make this my whole approach.

I developed the basic English lists over many years, as an aid to studying other languages.  In my attempts to learn various other languages, I had found myself hampered mostly by the difficulty of building up vocabulary.  I was painfully slow.  However, I found that I learnt best and remembered best, when words were grouped in categories, with similar or related meanings in each block.

Eventually, I expanded this approach to cover the whole range of language – a full list of 4000 – 5000 words grouped in 9 main categories, each divided into several sections, made up of blocks (ideally 6 words) for learning.  The categories and divisions are of course subjective, and reflect my use of the English language.  To give one example: there is no category or division headed “religion”.  This is because of my own strong conviction that religion is in the very web of life and that its words have their right places scattered among all the related words of our experience.  “Communion” comes with “food”, “gospel” with other aspects of communication.

Fataluku is not a written language.  A number of things have been written (e.g. mass and scripture texts by European Catholic missionaries) and all Fataluku speakers I know are able to write notes, send e-mails and engage in internet chat using Fataluku.  But there is not yet an official orthography agreed and used by the Fataluku-speaking people.  Work on written Fataluku is currently being carried out by the “Fataluku Language Project” ( www.fataluku.com ) their Fataluku partners and the East Timor Government .

I have used the Roman alphabet as used for Tetun and Bahasa Indonesia (Malay).  As far as I can see, all written Fataluku takes this approach.  The consonant sounds are mostly as in English (sufficiently so to be recognised) except that c has always the sound of ch and s is always hard (as in “sing”).

Vowels are “pure” as in Italian or Spanish, not nasalized as in Portuguese or slurred into diphthongs as in English.

a                        a    in “path”

e            =            e    as in “bed” or ai as in “fair”.

i            =            ee  in “meet”

o            =            ou  in “fought”

u            =            oo  in “food”

  • At the end of a word “i” and “e” are sometimes interchangeable / indistinguishable (to my ear).
  • At the end of a noun “i” and “u” sometimes replace each other.  This also appears to reflect different usages, but may have a grammatical basis.

Vowel length and diphthongs            

Vowels can be lengthened or repeated. e.g.

ceru                 call

lee                   house

 As the “e” sound is longer than in “ceru”, I use a double “e”.

e’enate            stand around

                          The symbol ‘ shows that the “e” sound is repeated, said twice

   but without a break between the repeated sounds.

he-e                difficult

                             The “e” sound is repeated, but with a break (glottal stop) in  between.

Diphthongs (ai, au, ae, ou, ei, oi) are not run together as completely as in most Western  European languages.  You can always hear the different parts of the sound.  However, sometimes the separation is clearer, more distinct.  In such cases, I use the symbol    to show the separation. e.g.

rau  (raoo)              good

ra’u (ra-oo)             plate

There are also local variations, where some put an “h” between two vowels which others treat as a diphthong. e.g.

pai                     “pig”            is sometimes             pahi

I understand that an official orthography has been devised, but when you deal with something as close to the heart as language, “official” may not mean “final”.  I wait to see what the Fataluku speaking people decide, their elders, their poets, their speakers, the ordinary people and their children.  As they begin to write and read their language, they will have the best feel for what is sensible and coherent spelling.


My informants have all been Fataluku speakers living in Oxford, England.  Mostly they are young men brought up under Indonesian rule with Indonesian schooling.  (They almost always count in Malay.)  For many, their early life was disrupted by war and some had to live on the run with guerrillas or hiding with friends away from their homes.  For some of them, knowledge of Fataluku has been a matter of memory rather than continuous experience.   All learnt to use Bahasa Indonesia (Malay) at school and most are fluent in Tetun.  Some speak Portuguese.

However, few have sufficient knowledge of English to ensure there were no misunderstandings about my questions, and I do not have the training of a linguist or anthropologist that might have got around the difficulties.  Consequently, there is always the possibility of error, that I have misunderstood and incorrectly translated some of the words.

Traditionally, one would not have gone for publication until some way had been found of producing a more professionally finished work.  However, I believe that the Internet has changed all that.  It is now possible to share notes before reaching the final text of a publication.  My intention is to make these wordlists available through the internet in the form of excel sheets, which users will be able to correct and rearrange for themselves as they get better information.


To the people of East Timor who have shown us again that freedom is worth fighting and dying for even if you are pitched against vastly superior forces with the backing of superpowers.

To the people of Dili and Lospalos and the other towns of East Timor, who have shown us that the answer to a smashed-up city is not to bomb and invade the “perpetrators” but to stand for your own freedoms and to build bridges with your enemies.

To the East Timorese of Oxford (and other UK cities) whose willingness (like that of other immigrants) to work hard in spite of low pay and poor conditions makes many of our services and businesses viable.

To friends who have shared their language with me:

Latumalai   Lefi    Marilia  Falucai  
Amorim  Timoteo   Norai  Resifalu  
Narciso  Rainumalai  Falumalai Anselmo  
Alino Pitinumalai  Nomalai   Lolivatu  

and many other Timorese in Oxford, and, in East Timor, Ilario.

My thanks also to Sorotmalai and his colleagues in the Fataluku Language Project, University of Leiden, for offering a place to present the first samples of the English – Fataluku wordlists.

And thanks to Tim Murphy (Oxford) who has done most of the work of setting up this new website.

Jim Hewitt (Haluso), August 2007.