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What’s in a name? For the Timorese, quite a lot

How to refer to our young neighbour to the north? Is it East Timor, Timor Lorosa’e or Timor-Leste? Gordon Peake and Piers Kelly investigate.

Gordon Peake and Piers Kelly write:

With allegations  of Australian chicanery during the Timor Sea negotiations, a definitional dilemma emerges for the media: just what is the correct name of our northern neighbor?  Is it East Timor or Timor-Leste? The ABC and the Guardian seem to working off different style guides on the question. In the main, journos tends to use the former with talking heads more frequently opting for the latter.

The ‘-Leste’ part is a Portuguese-derived term meaning ‘East’ and its position after the word ‘Timor’ is consistent with the rules of both Portuguese and the national language Tetun. Why then, is it becoming habitual to use this term in English-language contexts? After all, we tend not to talk about going on holidays to Italia or Deutschland for which well-established and better-understood English counterparts are available.

It turns out that there are good reasons for this.

First of all, it’s what the Timorese government calls itself. Despite the fact that ‘Leste’ is a word of Portuguese origin – and Portuguese remains an official language of Timor-Leste – this is very much a local word. The use of the term ‘Timor-Leste’ in local Timorese languages is perfectly natural, just as Latin-via-French derived words like ‘local’ and ‘language” have long sounded native to English-speakers. The emblematic power of ‘Timor-Leste’, even in English-speaking contexts, is also important as a way of emphasizing a hard-won sovereign identity. There are precedents in other former colonial enclaves: in 1986 The Republic of the Ivory Coast was officially changed to Côte d’Ivoire in English-language publications. And elsewhere, terms such as Eire for Ireland and Aotearoa for New Zealand are used by some activists as markers of political legitimacy.

Up to about 2006, you often heard Timorese refer to their country via the Tetun word Timor Lorosa’e (literally Timor ‘sun rises’) but that phrase seems to have dropped out of use. That’s probably because, during the country’s crisis of that year, ‘lorosa’e’ came to be a signifier of difference rather than unity. ‘Lorosa’e was one of the words used to refer to people from the east of the country, as opposed to those from the west who were referred to as Timor Loromonu (‘Timor sun down’).

Second, it’s what the Australian government now officially calls the country, the name switch coming during Bob Carr’s tenure as Foreign Minister.  The first time we’ve found an official preference in English for ‘Timor-Leste’ over ‘East Timor’ was in a bright-eyed blog piece he (or, probably more accurately, some DFAT staffer) penned in May 2012, on the tenth anniversary of the restoration of the country’s independence.  Prior to that, there did not seem to be much rhyme nor reason as to what name was deployed.

(Etymologists might also want to point out that both Timor-Leste and East Timor are a form of translation tautology, given that timur is a widely understood term for ‘east’ in regional lingua francas like Indonesian. Thus ‘Timor-Leste’ would literally mean ‘East-East’, in the same way that Lake Titikaka means ‘Lake Lake’.)

There’s no doubt that ‘Timor-Leste’ is gaining ground.  A quick search of Factiva shows that between 1990 and 2000  there were 90,789 instance of ‘East Timor’ in the English-language press and just 4,229 instances of ‘Timor-Leste’.  From 2000 to 2010 the figures are 151,115 for ‘East Timor’ and 13,835 for ‘Timor-Leste’. But  in the past three years alone ‘East Timor’ has been used on 28,320 occasions while ‘Timor-Leste’ has turned up 9,249 times. In other words, usage of ‘Timor-Leste’ over ‘East Timor’ has increased from 4.5 percent in the decade from 1990 to 24.6 percent today.

A deliberate preference for indigenous words in English contexts may sound alien to our ears, but perhaps that is the point.  For new or emergent nations, being recognised as ‘foreign’ is a significant end in itself.

Gordon Peake is a Research Fellow at the Australian National University and author of Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles & Secrets from Timor-Leste, published by Scribe.  Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthro and an old Fully (sic) hack. Special thanks to the Fully (sic) crew for input.


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  • 1
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    “Portuguese-derived” … err, Leste seems to be just plain, ordinary Portuguese. A more interesting question may be how to pronounce it. Seems the trailing ‘e’ should be soft, as it is in the name of that famous mining company (Vale — which of course is Brazilian Portuguese, though nearly every ignorant foreigner pronounces it the Spanish way).

  • 2
    Ken Westmoreland
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    I can live with ‘Timor Leste’, although ‘East Timor’ has more poignancy for me having followed its independence struggle since the late 1980s. In the UK, I still have to deal with people who have never heard of East Timor (‘what was it called before?’) so don’t use ”Timor Leste”.

    One thing that annoys me about people who do use ‘Timor Leste’ in English is that they often still use ‘East Timorese’ as an adjective or demonym. I would suggest ‘Timor Lestean’ – even if it does have echoes of George W Bush. In fact, the Pocket Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus already lists it. In Tetum (sorry, I still use the Portuguese-influenced spelling of its name) somebody from a place is called a child of it, so Timor Leste oan is not too dissimilar, while the Mambai Timor Leste ana is even closer.

    Some Portuguese-speaking Timorese call themselves ‘Leste-Timorense’ in English, which is just pretentious – even the Portuguese just call them timorenses in Portuguese itself.

    The first internet domain name for the country was ‘.tp’ for ‘Timor Português’, which while incorrect politically, was legally, as the UN regarded it as a ‘non-self-governing territory under Portuguese administration’ until 1999. Only later on was it changed to ‘.tl’, which works in both official languages as ‘Timor Leste’ or ‘Timór Lorosa’e’.

  • 3
    J Nestorius
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    terms such as Eire for Ireland … are used by some activists as markers of political legitimacy.

    Actually, Ireland provides an opposite example. Although the idea of using Éire as the English name of the state originated with the nationalist prime minister Éamon de Valera, he very quickly thought better of it and within months of his 1937 Constitution taking effect the term was being used (apart from Irish-language contexts) only by outsiders: mainly well-intentioned, though liable to be interpreted by the more thin-skinned among the Irish as a deliberate snub. Diplomats demand the name Ireland (not Eire) in English, Irlande (not Eire) in French, etc.

    More at Wikipedia: Names of the Irish state.

  • 4
    Kim McGrath
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    For the record – Timor-Leste was the official name, in English, used in the resolution adopted by the General Assembly at its 57th session on 2 October 2002 formally admitting the “Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste” to membership of the United Nations. (http://preview.tinyurl.com/mf79una) There was no reason, other than denial, for Australia to continue using East Timor. The USA and most other western nations have been using Timor-Leste since at least 2006.

  • 5
    Charlie Scheiner
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article, with which I agree. There are many examples of independent nations choosing to name themselves in the language of their former colonizers — Costa Rica, Sierra Leone, San Marino, Cabo Verde — even if that language isn’t English. The Timorese struggled long and hard for their independence — and slaughtered beginning 38 years ago today — so why don’t they have the same right?
    The accurate name of the country, specified in the Constitution, is República Democrática de Timor-Leste, or the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste in English.
    The English-language list of UN member states at http://www.un.org/en/members/index.shtml contains a variety of languages.
    One oddity is Puerto Rico, still a colony but is named in the language of its previous colonizer.

  • 6
    Hamis Hill
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Anything ever written about the “other” Timorese?
    Anything ever thought about the “other” Timorese?
    Doesn’t seem so does it?
    Is this some aspect of political correctedness, that a whole group of our near neighbours are deemed to just not exist?
    Pathetic, isn’t it.

  • 7
    Ken Westmoreland
    Posted December 10, 2013 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    San Marino is not a former colony of anywhere – if anything, it survived being colonised at the time of Italian unification, no small feat given that it’s an enclave in Italy. In English we still use ‘Rome’, ‘Milan’, ‘Turin’ and ‘Naples’, but ‘Leghorn’ for Livorno has almost disappeared because it’s not considered important enough.

    São Tomé e Príncipe is called that in English – I have rarely ever seen it called ‘Saint Thomas and Prince’ but Cape Verde is a mix of English and Portuguese.

    The original Taino name of Puerto Rico was Borikén, or Borinquen in Spanish and the island’s anthem is La Borinqueña, but given that most islanders are of Spanish descent, there aren’t many calls for a change of name. Same applies to Costa Rica. New Caledonia became Vanuatu on independence, and Melanesian independence campaigners in New Caledonia have advocated changing its name to Kanaky – which the white settlers oppose.

    Hamis, West Timor is part of Indonesia, and while there are similarities to the people of East Timor, they have not sought independence from Jakarta. However, it is a shame that West Timor, along with Flores and other islands east of Bali, is overlooked – direct flights between Kupang and Darwin should be restored.

  • 8
    Hamis Hill
    Posted December 10, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Ken for that further information.
    But more importantly than being part of Indonesia, West Timor is firstly part of Timor.
    European colonial boundaries, even after centuries, will not change that reality for the Timorese.
    And more protectorates rather than colonies.
    That single and original Timorese identity transcends artificial boundary lines drawn up by outsiders.
    It seems that the division was and is inspired more by religion than nationalism.
    One might have thought that the division of Vietnam, post the French occupation, on the basis of a foreign religion might have taught us something about the costs of such unsustainable artifices.

  • 9
    Charlie Scheiner
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Ken, according to the UN English-language list of member states, it’s “Sao Tome and Principe,” a hybrid.
    If/when New Caledonia achieves independence, it might be called Kanaky. Vanuatu’s colonial name was New Hebrides, and it’s not surprising they didn’t want to be thought of as part of the UK any more (although New Zealand and PNG seem content with that sort of name — chacun à son goût.)

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