Timor is an island of hybridity. Its people are not only divided by a national frontier, but also by a deeper linguistic divide: in Timor, unlike most other places in eastern Indonesia, speakers of Papuan languages live cheek by jowl with speakers of Austronesian languages. It remains a mystery how this situation came into existence. The conventional understanding of Indonesian prehistory states that Austronesian speakers gradually overwhelmed pre-existing populations of Papuan-speaking hunter-gatherers when they arrived in the region. However, on the basis of anthropological patterns, McWilliam (2007)* suggests that the reverse took place in Timor and that Papuan languages arrived on the island after the Austronesian languages.
In this talk, I aim to show how linguistics can contribute to our understanding of the (pre-)historic interactions between the Austronesian and Papuan-speaking populations of the island. I focus on the eastern tip of East Timor, where three of the island’s four Papuan languages are clustered, and report on ongoing research using two types of linguistic evidence, namely a) a study of place name etymologies, and b) a linguistic reconstruction of proto-Eastern Timor, the ancestor of the three Papuan languages spoken there today.
Juliette Huber is a linguist specializing in the Papuan languages of Timor, particularly Makalero and Makasae. She completed her doctoral dissertation, a descriptive grammar of Makalero, at Leiden University in 2011. She has since worked as a research fellow at Lund University (Sweden) and the University of Newcastle (Australia), and as a lecturer in General and Comparative Linguistics at the University of Regensburg (Germany). Juliette’s research interests include descriptive and comparative-typological linguistics, spatial language as well as historical linguistics and linguistic (pre)history.
*McWilliam, Andrew, ‘Austronesians in linguistic disguise: Fataluku cultural fusion in East Timor‘, Journal of Southeast Asian
Studies 3, 2007.
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