Tetum has four dialects:
Tetun-Belu and Tetun-Terik are not spoken or well understood outside their home territories. Tetun-Prasa is the form of Tetum that is spoken throughout East Timor. Although Portuguese was the official language of Portuguese Timor until 1975, Tetun-Prasa has always been the predominant lingua franca in the eastern part of the island.
In the fifteenth century, before the arrival of the Portuguese, Tetum had spread through central and eastern Timor as a contact language under the aegis of the Belunese-speaking Kingdom of Wehali, at that time the most powerful kingdom in the island. The Portuguese (present in Timor from c. 1556) made most of their settlements in the west, where Dawan was spoken, and it was not until 1769, when the capital was moved from Lifau (Oecussi) to Dili that they began to promote Tetum as an inter-regional language in their colony. Timor was one of the few Portuguese colonies where a local language, and not a form of Portuguese, became the lingua franca: this is because Portuguese rule was indirect rather than direct, the Europeans governing through local kings who embraced Catholicism and became vassals of the King of Portugal.
When Indonesia occupied East Timor in 1975, declaring it "the Republic's 27th Province", the use of Portuguese was banned, and Indonesian was declared the sole official language, but the Roman Catholic Church adopted Tetum as its liturgical language, making it a focus for cultural and national identity. When East Timor gained its independence in 2002, Tetum and Portuguese were declared as official languages.
In addition to regional varieties of Tetum in East Timor, there are variations in vocabulary and pronunciation, partly due to Portuguese and Indonesian influence. The Tetum spoken by East Timorese migrants in Portugal and Australia is more Portuguese-influenced, as many of those speakers were not educated in Indonesian.
Words derived from Malay include:
However, Tetum speakers often use Malay/Indonesian or Portuguese numbers instead, such as delapan or oito "eight" instead of ualu; especially for numbers over one thousand.
The plural is not normally marked on nouns, but the word sira "they" can express it when necessary.
However, the plural ending -(e)s of nouns of Portuguese origin is retained.
Tetum has an indefinite article ida ("one"), used after nouns:
There is no definite article, but the demonstratives ida-ne'e ("this one") and ida-ne'ebá ("that one") may be used to express definiteness:
In the plural, sira-ne'e ("these") or sira-ne'ebá ("those") are used:
The genitive is formed with nian, so that:
Like other Austronesian languages, Tetum has two forms of "we", ami (equivalent to Indonesian and Malay kami) which is exclusive, e.g. "I and they", and ita (equivalent to Indonesian and Malay kita), which is inclusive, e.g. "you, I, and they".
In more traditional forms of Tetum, the circumfix ma(k)- -k is used instead of -na'in. For example, the nouns "sinner" or "wrongdoer" can be derived from the word sala as either maksalak, or sala-na'in. Only the prefix ma(k)- is used when the root word ends with a consonant, for example, the noun "cook" or "chef" can be derived from the word te'in as makte'in as well as te'in-na'in.
The suffix -teen (from the word for "dirt" or "excrement") can be used with adjectives to form derogatory terms:
To turn a noun into an adjective, the particle oan is added to it.
Thus, "Timorese" is Timor-oan, as opposed to the country of Timor, rai-Timor.
To form adjectives from verbs, the suffix -dór (derived from Portuguese) can be added:
Tetum does not have separate masculine and feminine forms of the third person singular, hence nia (similar to dia in Indonesian and Malay) can mean either "he", "she" or "it".
Different forms for the genders only occur in Portuguese-derived adjectives, hence obrigadu ("thank you") is used by males, and obrigada by females. The masculine and feminine forms of other adjectives derived from Portuguese are sometimes used with Portuguese loanwords, particularly by Portuguese-educated speakers of Tetum.
In some instances, the different gender forms have distinct translations into English, for example:
In indigenous Tetum words, the suffixes -mane ("male") and -feto ("female") are sometimes used to differentiate between the genders:
Superlatives can be formed from adjectives by reduplication:
When making comparisons, the word liu ("more") is used after the adjective, followed by duké ("than" from Portuguese do que):
To describe something as the most or least, the word hotu ("all") is added:
Adverbs can be formed from adjectives or nouns by reduplication:
There is no verb "to be" as such, but the word la'ós, which translates as "not to be", is used for negation:
The word maka, which roughly translates as "who is" or "what is", can be used with an adjective for emphasis:
The interrogative is formed by using the words ka ("or") or ka lae ("or not").
Transitive verbs are formed by adding the prefix ha- or hak- to a noun or adjective:
Intransitive verbs are formed by adding the prefix na- or nak- to a noun or adjective:
Whenever possible, the past tense is simply inferred from the context, for example:
However, it can be expressed by placing the adverb ona ("already") at the end of a sentence.
When ona is used with la ("not") this means "no more" or "no longer", rather than "have not":
In order to convey that an action has not occurred, the word seidauk ("not yet") is used:
When relating an action that occurred in the past, the word tiha ("finally" or "well and truly") is used with the verb.
The future tense is formed by placing the word sei ("will") before a verb:
The negative is formed by adding la ("not") between sei and the verb:
The perfect aspect can be formed by using tiha ona.
When negated, tiha ona indicates that an action ceased to occur:
In order to convey that a past action had not or never occurred, the word ladauk ("not yet" or "never") is used:
The progressive aspect can be obtained by placing the word hela ("stay") after a verb:
The imperative mood is formed using the word ba ("go") at the end of a sentence, hence:
The word lai ("just" or "a bit") may also be used when making a request rather than a command:
When forbidding an action labele ("cannot") or keta ("do not") are used:
As Tetum did not have any official recognition or support under either Portuguese or Indonesian rule, it is only recently that a standardised orthography has been established by the National Institute of Linguistics (INL). However, there are still widespread variations in spelling, one example being the word bainhira or "when", which has also been written as bain-hira, wainhira, waihira, uaihira. The use of "w" or "u" is a reflection of the pronunciation in some rural dialects of Tetun-Terik.
The current orthography originates from the spelling reforms undertaken by Fretilin in 1974, when it launched literacy campaigns across East Timor, and also from the system used by the Catholic Church when it adopted Tetum as its liturgical language during the Indonesian occupation. These involved the transcription of many Portuguese words that were formerly written in their original spelling, for example, educação → edukasaun "education", and colonialismo → kolonializmu "colonialism".
More recent reforms by the INL include the replacement of the digraphs "nh" and "lh" (borrowed from Portuguese, where they stand for the phonemes /ɲ/ and /ʎ/) by "ñ" and "ll", respectively (as in Spanish), to avoid confusion with the consonant clusters /nh/ and /lh/, which also occur in Tetum. Thus, senhor "sir" became señór, and trabalhador "worker" became traballadór. Some linguists favoured using "ny" (as in Catalan and Filipino) and "ly" for these sounds, but the latter spellings were rejected for being similar to the Indonesian system. However, most speakers actually pronounce ñ and ll as [i̯n] and [i̯l], respectively, with a semivowel [i̯] which forms a diphthong with the preceding vowel (but reduced to [n], [l] after /i/), not as the palatal consonants of Portuguese and Spanish. Thus, señór, traballadór are pronounced [sei̯ˈnoɾ], [tɾabai̯laˈdoɾ], and liña, kartilla are pronounced [ˈlina], [kaɾˈtila]. As a result, some writers use "in" and "il" instead, for example Juinu and Juilu for June and July (Junho and Julho in Portuguese).
As well as variations in the transliteration of Portuguese loanwords, there are also variations in the spelling of indigenous words. These include the use of double vowels and the apostrophe for the glottal stop, for example boot → bot "large" and ki'ik → kiik "small".
The sound [z], which is not indigenous to Tetum but appears in many loanwords from Portuguese and Malay, often changed to [ʒ] in old Tetum (written "j"): for example, meja "table" from Portuguese mesa, and kemeja "shirt" from Portuguese camisa. In modern Tetum, [z] and [ʒ] may occur in free variation. For instance, the Portuguese-derived word ezemplu "example" is pronounced as [eˈʒemplu] by some speakers, and conversely Janeiru "January" is pronounced as [zanˈeiru]. The sound [v], also not native to the language, often shifted to [b], as in serbisu "work" from Portuguese serviço.