Thursday, September 30, 2010

When Silence Is Not Golden


READING the press release entitled “Use of the Portuguese language makes it hard for a number of parliamentarians to debate the draft civil code” posted on the 31st July 2010 in the East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin, I could only imagine how hard it would be to remain silent in a prestigious forum, where one is expected to say something essential and decisive in favour of those who have entrusted him with their aspirations and expectations. In such a situation one could totally be both speechless and powerless, not because he has nothing at all to say, but rather because he has not mastered well (or feels uncomfortable with) the means of communication that should allow him to express himself with full dignity and capacity. Even a non-parliamentarian can imagine being in a small-group discussion where some participants are reluctant to ask and answer questions because the language used is almost Greek to them. In this case, silence is not golden.

I am touching on this matter simply because I am interested in both Tetum (Tetun) and Portuguese—the two languages that have been living side by side for many centuries in the eastern part of Timor Island. So this writing is not aimed at interfering with the affairs of another country or a certain foreign national body having its own policies and regulations. My opinions should, therefore, be regarded as mere concern and attention of a language aficionado residing in the nearest neighbouring country.

As far as I know, it has been clearly stated in article 13 of the East Timor’s constitution that the first official language of the country is Tetum (the second being Portuguese), implying that Tetum (lia-tetun) should be given more priority. Therefore, I think it would be a better idea to always provide Tetum translations in advance when something is going to be communicated in Portuguese only. When necessary, this method could be applied vice versa. Although helpful, it is not always easy to provide very lengthy (official) documents full of technical terms in two languages, let alone it all East Timorese national languages. But what else could be the best way to show that both official languages—Tetum and Portuguese—are valued.

In order that Tetum be properly used in all aspects of life—including that of the House of Representatives (Parlamentu Nasionál)—East Timorese people ought to promote the language and be proud to use it in their daily lives. Since members of the parliament represent the people (lori povu nia lian no naran), it is not uncommon that they should speak the language of the people and master it to a certain extent that allows them to express themselves with ease. But in spite of their adequate Tetum mastery, the legislative body should first establish its own language policy. The question one could possibly raise is: Why did they choose Portuguese, not Tetum? It is possible to suppose that they chose Portuguese for a merely practical reason: since Tetum, in the process of its development to be a fully capable means of communication, still—as some believe—lacks technical terms to be used by the parliamentarians in dealing with their duties, especially to express their opinions in parliamentary fora.

If it is the case, experts in all fields of human life in East Timor should work hand in hand to provide good dictionaries of technical terms in order to facilitate a ‘high-level’ speech in Tetum. Such dictionaries could be based on ‘international’ and national languages. Drawing words from the national languages of East Timor will not only allow the incorporation of cultural elements into ‘high-level’ practice but also enrich and foster cultural identity. In order to undertake such a valuable task, experts could take at least four measures: (1) coining new words from Tetum itself (like what the Maori people do), (2) adopting traditional Tetum terms with new meanings, (3) borrowing specific words from non-Tetum languages (East Timorese languages besides official Tetum, Tetum-Prasa and Tetum-Terik), and (4) borrowing highly technical terms from Portuguese (this has been done by adopting a large number of words).

All the aforementioned measures have their strengths and weaknesses. Firstly, coining new words from Tetum itself will be a good way of enriching the language with ‘original’ words. But at the same time it requires efforts to make people understand what they actually mean. And by doing so, it would be difficult for foreigners to learn the language, especially if the number of these newly invented words increases from time to time. Secondly, adopting traditional Tetum terms (from Tetum-Terik) with new meanings will, like the first measure, enrich the language with ‘original’ words. However, without precise definitions, people could misunderstand and misuse them (since official Tetum is based on Tetum-Praca, whose speakers are, to some extent, unfamiliar with Tetum-Terik words). Thirdly, enriching Tetum with specific words from non-Tetum languages is a decisive measure. And it is not impossible since East Timor is rich in language and culture, which are valuable resources for the development of Tetum as first official and national language. However, it would be difficult to materialise in a very short period of time. And fourthly, borrowing highly technical terms from Portuguese is a good and easy choice because Portuguese is quite rich in those terms that can borrowed forever, without thinking about returning them (it still happens). But, it is important to bear in mind that the more we borrow such terms, the more we make it difficult for people to distinguish the borrowings from the original ones. In the case of East Timor, it could create difficulties since Tetum (the borrowing language) and Portuguese (the constant lending language) are both used as official languages. Someone well-informed about this matter understands what difficulties people are facing. Therefore, it is important that experts should think about this borrowing issue and try to find a good solution. Another possible and could the best measure to enrich Tetum with new terms is integrating all the aforementioned measures by carefully considering their strengths and weaknesses.

Concluding this piece of writing, I would like to say that people usually say things better, clearer, and louder when they say them in the language they understand best. It would seem impossible to reach the other side of a river, if we try to do it by crossing a bridge, whose form we are not sure about. But sometimes, under certain circumstances, exceptions should be made. And in this case, it is normal for someone to suggest that since vox populi, vox Dei, let the parliamentarians express their opinions in Tetum (the most widely used language in the country) in favour of the people until the time they are fully ready to do it also in the other official language—Portuguese. Good luck!

Yogyakarta, 4th August 2010

Further readings:


Francois Peroni said...

Senhor Yohanes,
Let me recommend you to visit la Swiss. Nobody is discussing what is they have to learn first and why. All my friends speak Italian, German and French et point final!
In Timor-Leste the Portuguese classes are free and for everyone, why the MPs can not understand a latin language? They need to be more intelectually challenged. It's amazing how I manage to speak Portuguese with the people of Sao Tome e Principe and not with the ones from Timor-Leste. Why is that happening? A mere lack of interest and culture. You have got this great opportunity to grow up with two national languages, we are having three and nobody complains. We are actually happy with that! It's an intelectual kick.
By the way, it's a shame not see the names of Luis Cardoso (Timorese) and Jose Saramago (Portuguese) in your favourite book's list. They are really a must.
Francois Peroni

Charlie Scheiner said...

Perhaps Yohanes and other friends should attend a meeting of Timor-Leste's parliament. Virtually all the discussion and debate are in Tetum, as are the daily press releases issued by the Parliamentary secretariat. I doubt that an MP ever "remains silent" because he/she is unable or uncomfortable to speak in Portuguese, as that language (whatever its positives and negatives) is almost never used in Parliamentary discussions.

The problem is that written legislation and Committee reports are in Portuguese, which hinders the understanding of some Parliamentarians, as well as others in the society, of what they actually contain. We consistently advocate that draft legislation should be translated into Tetum prior to public consultation and Parliamentary discussion, and it's slowly getting better.

Anonymous said...

Well, get the MPs reading Luis Cardoso and Jose Saramago. Get their brains with some linguistics exercise.
And if this language issue is so important why in the Australian parlement people are not speaking a native language (a proper Australian language) such as Tiwi?
Once again, you should come to Switzerland and check out how to live with 3 official languages (unfortunetaly I don't know what has happened to Suisse-Romanche).

Abe Barreto Soares said...

Belun Yohanes,

A great article! I will read it throroughly.

Salam dari Dili,

Ken Westmoreland said...

The comparison with Australia is not valid because most people in East Timor are indigenous, not descended from European settlers. Is the language spoken by most people in the Canadian province of Quebec an indigenous one? Non, c'est le français!