Beranda BAHASA The peopling of Timor: the linguistic evidence

The peopling of Timor: the linguistic evidence


 James J. Fox

The mix of peoples on Timor is as complex as any other aspect of the island. Prehistorians consider Timor as one of the gateways for the movement of populations to Australia. Given the time-depth of these migrations, the search is on for the equivalent of ‘Solo man’ in Timor.

As yet, however, no human traces of this antiquity have been found in
the alluvial riverbeds or caves of Timor. The first evidence of early agriculture dates back to 3000 BC (Glover 1971).

This evidence is generally interpreted as an indication of the initial arrival of early seafaring Austronesian populations into the region. It is from these, and probably from subsequent migrations of Austronesian-language speakers, that the majority of Timor’s present languages derive.

Glover’s research also points to an earlier huntergatherer population whose flaked stone tradition he dates to approximately 11 500 BC. Whether this earlier population was assimilated or whether it gave rise to other non-Austronesian-speakers of Timor is still uncertain.   

All the languages of Timor belong to one of two major language groupings: the Austronesian language family or the Trans-New Guinea phylum of languages (see Map 1). 

The main Austronesian languages of Timor are Uab Meto (the language of the Atoni Pa Meto who are also referred to as Dawan or Vaikenu), Tetun, Mambai, Galoli, Tokudede and Kemak.

Other Austronesian languages, about which relatively little is known, are Waima’a (Uaima), Kairui-Midiki, Habu, Idate, Lakalei and Naueti. Some of these languages form contiguous dialect clusters.

The Austronesian languages of Timor are closely enough related to one another to form a recognisable subgrouping, which, in turn, shows relationships to the languages on the neighbouring islands of Flores, Solor and Maluku.   

The main Trans-New Guinea languages are Bunak, which is spoken on both sides of the border between East and West Timor; Makassae which is spoken in the Baucau district, and Dagada (Fatuluku) which is spoken at the eastern end of the island. There is also another TransNew Guinea language, Adabe, spoken on the island of Atauro.

Even less is known about the subdivisions and dialects of these TransNew Guinea languages than of East Timor’s Austronesian languages. The Trans-New Guinea languages of Timor are related to various languages spoken on the islands of Alor, Pantar and on the tiny island of Kisar.

In turn, these languages are related to languages in the Birdhead region (Vogelkop) in West Papua. Present linguistic evidence suggests that speakers of these Trans-New Guinea languages arrived on Timor after the initial migration of Austronesian speakers.[2]   

What is clear is that these languages, of two very different origins, have borrowed from and influenced one another over a considerable period of time. Thus Bunak shows considerable borrowings from Tetun, whereas the Austronesian languages, such as Kairui/Midiki and Naueti, have been influenced by neighbouring Trans-New Guinea languages.   

One striking feature of the socio-linguistics of Timor is the remarkable contrast between the eastern and the western halves of the island. Almeida
(1982) lists over 30 different languages and dialects in the East compared with only three languages in the West. The Wurm-Hattori Language Atlas of the Pacific Area (Wurm and Hattori 1981) which groups dialects, stillidentifies at least 17 distinct languages in East Timor compared to three
main languages – Dawan, Tetun and Helong – in the West.

This sociological difference between East and West is, to a large extent, the result of initial Portuguese historical involvement in the western half of Timor, which gave rise to the expansion of the Atoni population. As with much else on Timor, to understand this difference between East and West requires an historical perspective. It is essential therefore to consider the history of Timor over the past 450 years.

Professor Stephen Wurm, who was one of the first linguists to recognise the Trans-New Guinea phylum as a major grouping of languages, was a strong supporter of the view that Trans-New Guinea phylum speakers arrived in Timor after Austronesian speakers.

In his view, there is evidence in the languages of Timor (and Alor) of linguistic features that developed in the course of the migration of speakers of these languages from the east of New Guinea westward. Other linguists consider that there has been insufficient research on the Trans-New Guinea phylum as a whole and on the Timor-Alor languages in particular to confirm Wurm’s bold hypotheses.the Timor-Alor languages in particular to confirm Wurm’s bold hypotheses.


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