Tales and Names: An Abui Example on Building Identity

Team of students under the NTU’s Undergraduate REsearch Experience on CAmpus (URECA) https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/abui/


Have you ever wondered how cultural identity is constructed among various groups of people? How do people living pre-literate and indigenous societies, with the absence of an established writing system, note their history, ideas, traditions, and rituals – crucial aspects of any culture? In fact, they rely heavily on oral culture. These traditional stories are passed from one generation to another and create a sense of identity and belonging! This is a trend we will see in our story on the Abui people.

You might be thinking, who are these Abui people and what does the word Abui even mean? The word Abui, in the Abui language, means ‘mountain’ or ‘enclosed space’. In Bahasa Malay, Abui also refers to the Abui speakers who define their language as Abui tangà, ‘mountain language’, and call themselves Abui lokù, ‘mountain people’. This ‘mountain language’, or Abui, is a Papuan language spoken in Alor Island (Alor-Pantar Archipelago, South-East Indonesia, Timor area) by about 17,000 speakers (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: A map of Alor Island

NTU and the Abui people and language

NTU has had a longstanding history of conducting research on the Abui people and language. Early work in NTU’s Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies (LMS) was done by Assistant Professor Frantisek Kratochvíl. Frantisek’s Doctoral Thesis published in 2007, A Grammar of Abui, is widely regarded as the first comprehensive work on Abui phonology, morphology, and syntax – areas relating to the structure and “look” of the Abui language. Frantisek has conducted fieldwork in Alor Island since the 2000s, resulting in the publication of an Abui storybook and dictionary – valuable tools in protecting and passing down this language – especially when the teaching of the Abui language is banned in schools in Alor Island.

Current research done by Dr Francesco Perono Cacciafoco, together with Associate Professor Francesco Cavallaro focuses on the Abui people. In particular, they study Abui oral traditions which shape cultural identity. Abui myths and legends, known as tira, focus on historical events and answer questions like: where did the Abui people come from, what does it mean to be Abui, where do places get their names from, among others. Such questions are vital for a culture to trace its beginnings and thereafter, commemorate how far it has come as a “civilisation”. Abui oral traditions detail how the Abui people settled in Alor in ancient times. Some people later moved to the Kabola territory in Alor Island (see Figure 1) where they lived in caves in the mountains of Mainàng, giving rise to their identity as mountain people. Oral traditions are also highly intertwined with Abui toponyms, or place names. The Abui people use stories to explain the names of certain places. These narrative genres also prove the lasting connection between the Abui people and their physical surroundings rocks, caves, water bodies, places, and coastal areas) – as the Abui people name their physical environment according to events they believed took place at these locations!

Abui people and language also features in the plethora of modules LMS offers. For example, in modules like Morphology and Syntax and Historical Linguistics, we see examples of the structure of the Abui language and how it has changed over time. In the Introduction to Toponymy and Toponomastics, we observe how the Abui people name their places according to both geospatial, socio-cultural, and even religious influences. Many times, the practice of naming places is linked to using oral traditions and stories to justify the place name! Finally, in the course on Language and Oral Traditions, we studied a few Abui oral traditions, some of which also explain the origins of the Abui people (Figure 2). In the legend of Mon Mot, a story is told of Mon Mot, a giant snake that ate all the inhabitants of a village. Only one pregnant lady escaped and hid in a cave (a common geographical feature in the Abui landscape). She gave birth to twins who eventually kill Mon Mot. After the snake dies, the twins place parts of Mon Mot’s skin and body in the village, and villagers miraculously re-appear and re-populate the entire Alor Island. The Abui people hence believe that this story explains their existence.

Figure 2: An Abui storyteller telling the story of Mon Mot

It is evident that the Abui people use oral stories in building a cultural identity. How else do they record key history, ideas, traditions, and rituals? We share two ways in which they do so – using oral stories and through naming places.

Building cultural identity through oral stories

Oral stories are integral in establishing and propagating the social norms and values among Abui people. In our fieldwork, we found that gender roles was a central theme in many of these stories. The story of Meeting Laai Kaloqul ‘young betel nut liana’ is a case in point. This legend is a tale of six brothers who wanted to kill their younger sister because it was seen as “manly”. Another example is Taweei Moti ‘everybody’s ears skilled, indicted skilled trumpet’ which revolves around the lives of three siblings – two brothers and their sister. After their sister became pregnant with Tama Nera ‘a son of the sea’, she was in great distress. Consequently, her brothers wanted to take revenge and killed Tama Nera. In these stories, men are portrayed as potentially violent and sexually exploitative who victimise or attack Abui women. Through these stories, we can also see how men are expected to hunt and fish while women are expected to manage household affairs and babysit children. The social roles present in the stories are still very much alive within Abui society today. Hence, oral stories can be said to preserve Abui traditional society and set out the roles that both Abui men and women play in society.

Something interesting we found is that oral stories are also utilised in Abui healthcare practices. What happens when an Abui child or teenager living in the mountains falls sick? The nearest “clinic” is hundreds of kilometres away. Parents resort to using natural plant remedies to treat these ailments. Locals often tell of the medicinal properties through the word-of-mouth although there might be no scientific basis for it! For example, Abui locals believe that jackfruit can treat leprosy. All you need to do is extract the bark of the east side of the jackfruit tree. The Abui people believe that only the east side of the jackfruit tree bark is effective as treatment, something which has not been scientifically proven! Oral stories are also connected with superstition and some aspects of the mythical world. The Abui people mention that kaalamaal banana, a type of banana found locally, is an agent of good luck. Accordingly, because of the good fortune that this banana brings, locals recommend consuming it to treat chest pains after an accident!

Building cultural identity through the naming process

What do place names and the process of naming places show? After collecting over 50 place names in Alor Island, we concluded that place names and the place-naming processes are rich cultural artefacts showing facets of Abui culture! Certain notable characteristics stand out:

Firstly, we found that Abui places are often christened after horticultural and agricultural plants grown in the landscape. This also indicates the agricultural economy and agrarian way of life of the Abui people. Many names include the name of the plant together with a basic landscape feature like ravines (Meabuung ‘mango ravine’), villages (Mea Meelang ‘mango village’, Wata Meelang ‘coconut village’ and Muur Meelang ‘old lemon village’), and plains (Wata Fuui ‘lit. coconut plain’). Other names indicate a property of the type of crop found at the location such as Wata Kiika ‘red coconut’ and Kanaai Ron Loohu ‘long straight canarium (tree)’. Some place names, like Kanaai Pea ‘nearby canarium’ and Kanaai Awee Pe ‘near top of canarium’ are connected with the short distance of the places from the related species. Indeed, there is a close relationship between the Abui people and their physical environment.

Besides, some Abui place names also talk about kinship ties! This is evident in places like Fiyaai Lelang ‘lit. candlenut kins’ and Daalelang ‘lit. cassava kins’. The morpheme -lelang indicates kinship ties. Why would places be named after family relations? It is possible that people living in these areas are related or it could also be due to the importance of the family in the Abui culture.

Some Abui places have also been termed after religious rituals and leaders. In the case of Wata Meelang ‘coconut village’, locals say that the village may have gotten its name from the religious practice of roasting rice in a coconut. Others claim that a local religious leader used to live under the coconut tree in that area, hence giving birth to the place name.

In sum, place names are related and relevant to a culture. In the case of Abui place names, we observe how place names showcase facets of socio-cultural identity like locals’ way of life, the human-environmental relationship, familial ties, and even religious practices and ideas.


Oral stories and traditions are the essence of every society’s cultural identity, and the Abui example is no exception. These oral materials are not only omnipresent in the hearts and minds of the Abui people but are also visible in many tangible aspects of daily life, including the plant remedies they use to treat illnesses and the names of the places around them. In each tale and name, are pieces of valuable Abui culture just waiting for us to uncover. By collecting and documenting information on its language and culture, we hope to contribute to the conversation surrounding it and the conservation efforts that we must undertake to protect the untouched wonders of the Abui people.

About the authors:

We are a group of students under the NTU’s Undergraduate REsearch Experience on CAmpus (URECA) where we worked on a year-long project. Supervised by Dr Francesco Perono Cacciafoco, our individual projects focused on the Abui people and culture, specifically how oral traditions and stories are intertwined with facets like culture, medicinal properties of plants, and toponyms (or place names). Collectively, we have also worked on an online corpus of a list of common Abui plants, accessible at https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/abui/

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close