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A forgotten language on East Timor

In the country's history, East Timor has been populated by two streams of migrants.  For a long time it was thought that the Papuans from New Guinea represented the oldest migrant group, but recent research into Makuva, a forgotten language, by Dr Aone van Engelenhoven from the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL), questions this theory.  In his opinion, it was the Austronesian population group, originating from Taiwan, who were there first.

Aone van Engelenhoven: 'Makuva is a language in coma, a bit like Latin.'

'Archaeologists claim that the Austronesians forced the Papua-speakers out,' explains Van Engelenhoven. 'And this is supposedly the reason why only four Papua languages now survive on East Timor.  That seems very plausible, because on a particular mountain in East Timor there is one Papua language, Bunaq, which is completely hemmed in by Austronesian.' As well as this, the term Papua language is in this case somewhat misleading.  With the Papua languages there is evidence of several non-related language families and it's difficult to prove the relationship of the languages of Timor with the languages of New Guinea .  It's more appropriate to talk of Austronesian and non-Austronesian.  The area of the Austronesian language family stretches from Madagascar to Easter Island and from Hawaii to New Zealand, and the correlation between the languages is generally easier to demonstrate.'  

Language in coma
In the nineteen-fifties, a report was made of a non-Austronesian language on the eastern tip of Timor, Makuva, which was then on the point of extinction.  By chance, Van Engelenhoven discovered that the language may well no longer be a living language, but it is far from dead.  'It is a language in coma, comparable with Latin.  It is not a language which you learn as a child and then use, but a ritual language which you may only learn when you are around sixty, and then only if you are one of the chosen few.'  Because of his special bond with the country (see dialogue box) Van Engelenhoven applied for and was granted offricial approval to learn the language.  

Aone van Engelenhoven is a descendent on his mother's side of a clan of story-tellers from the island of Leti, which lies close to East Timor. When he arrived in Leti in 1989, he was welcomed as a lost son and was taught the skills of his tribe: story-telling.  This skill was of enormous benefit to him in his research on East Timor, where Van Engelenhovens clan originated from, according to the stories he had learned.  For a long time there had been a lively trade between the different islands in the southern Moluccans, to which Leti and Timor belong, as well as cultural exchange.

Many Austronesian cultures are permeated with taboos.  The word taboo itself originates from an Austronesian language, probably the Polynesian language of Fiji.  'A number of taboos really get in the way of research,' says Van Engelenhoven. 'As a researcher you don't automatically get to hear what is or could be interesting, but you have to ask very specific questions.  Which is very difficult if you don't know what to ask about.' Van Engelenhoven's roots and his skills as a story-teller were recognised in 2006, when he was made a member of the Makuva-speaking  tribe, which gives him particular privileges.  But he still has to pose very specific questions in order to reveal knowledge which is steeped in taboos.

The inhabitants of the eastern tip speak  Fataluku, clearly a non-Austronesian language, but this is not the original language.  The original language is Makuva, an Austronesian language, which was thought to be the language of a small group of immigrants. Van Engelenhoven: 'The story is precisely the opposite.  The Makuvas were the first group of settlers in East Timor, and the Fatalukus came much later from the west.' The fact that he is so sure of his theory is related to the mythological origin myths of the different tribes. According to these stories, the Makuvas were native to the island and the Fatalukus were the immigrants.

A Rusenu rock painting of a boat.









'Fataluku means the right language,' says Van Engelenhoven. A strange name which he believes indicates that the Makuvas gradually began to adopt Fataluku.  Apart from Makuva, there is one other language in the far east of Timor, as Van Engelenhoven discovered on 27 January this year.  On that day he heard about a dead language, Rusenu.  When he questioned another informant about it, it appeared that the language was spoken by just one speaker, a woman in her eighties.  Recordings are now being made of her language, so that it can be described. And if Resenu, like Makuva, turns out to be an Austronesian language, this wil further validate Van Engelenhoven's theory.   

A Rusenu rock painting of a mask









Rock paintings
'On the eastern tip of the island there is a mountain called Ilikerekere,' explains Van Engelenhoven. 'The name means described mountain in Fataluku. One of the walls of the mountain shows traces of rock paintings. The Fatalukus claim not to know who made the paintings: ('They have always been there') and, silenced by taboos, the Makuvas refuse to make any comment.' Because of his very special position, Van Engelenhoven has now learned that the paintings were made by the Resenu.


(20 March 2007/SH)

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