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.

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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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