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  • By Johanna Salinas

CHamoru: Say it right, write it right

If there are CHamoru language police at every CHamoru karaoke night, they would be blowing the whistle many times. Or screaming.

“You’re not pronouncing the words right!” Or “The words are not spelled properly!” Even native speakers who know CHamoru by heart are unsure of the proper ways to write the language.

Even language scholars clash. CHamoru— derived from Chamorri or Chamoli, meaning “noble”— is an Austronesian language that has, over time come to incorporate many Spanish words. And the conflict between the CHamoru people of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands makes it even more confusing.

The word “CHamoru” itself has long been a subject of contention as it has had many spelling variations in accounts written in the post-European contact period. Tsamoru, Chamorru and Chamuru among others. “Chamorro” had come to be used in general practice until the Kumision I Fino' CHamoru officially adopted “CHamoru” last November.

The Kumision I Fino' CHamoru hopes to address this matter by creating a consistent spelling system between the Northern Marianas and Guam speakers.

“The collaborative process with the NMI began formally with this Kumision when we attended the PIBBA Conference in Saipan in 2018,” said Dr. Laura Souder, a member of the commission. “We had the opportunity to meet with our counterparts who were newly appointed by Governor Ralph Torres at a meeting he convened at his office.”

Souder is thankful that the CNMI’s government is aware of the urgency to protect the CHamoru language. “We expressed our interest to explore ways we can collaborate on a common orthography for CHamoru across the Marianas while recognizing regional and preferential differences between Guam and the Northern Marianas,” Souder said. “The governor assured us that he would support our future collaboration with a joint meeting between the two bodies charged with preserving and protecting our CHamoru language.”

The need to protect CHamoru is not a new issue.

Rosa Palomo, also a commission member, said the first orthography that was formalized for standardization was in 1971. Things seemed to be moving forward in 1983 with the formation of the commission but they had minimal progress. “For almost 20 years the commission didn't function. They said it had to do with the new law that created the Department of CHamoru Affairs,” Palomo said. “Just late 2016, a group of us, including Dr. Souder and Rlene Steffy, pushed the law as it exists today to create the Kumision. The group doesn't just address orthography but the history of the people.”

Standardizing the orthography was one of the commission’s primary mandates. “The process was a lot of putting our heads together,” Palomo said. “We all come with different experiences--some claim to be new to the phenomenon of standardizing spelling. My colleagues are very smart and intellectual people.”

One of the Kumision’s first accomplishments was creating a Pictionary for CHamoru language learners entitled, Ineyak Fino' CHamoru Para Famagu'on. “The Pictionary for children is the first publication and there are plans to do more when we have more money,” Palomo said.

Palomo is optimistic that the commission will get more support from the community. "We hope to get funding for a GDOE and Kumision partnership. We hope to have a revitalization center at one of GDOE facilities," Palomo said. "Kumision would contribute in preparing and planning activities that promote language being utilized and not in the classroom context, but in a community context. Just because it's going to be in a GDOE facility, it's not necessary just for students--it's a place for the community to come to learn and speak CHamoru. This depends on whether we get the budget or not."

Rosa Palomo holds a copy of the Official Chamorro English dictionary and the picture book Ineyak Fine Chamorro. Photo by Johanna Salinas

Souder hopes the government will continue to help the commission’s mission to protect and promote CHamoru. “There are many projects that we hope to embark on during the next fiscal year with the funding we are requesting from the legislature,” Souder said.

“The Kumision is engaged in several projects that are aimed at CHamoru revitalization. We have initiated training opportunities with GovGuam representatives to introduce them to the Orthography. We are refining the Orthography and adding examples to clarify the rules.”

Spreading their message in the 21st century is one of the commission’s main goals. “We have established partnerships with and the Department of Education to work collaboratively on expanding and enhancing the CHamoru language-learning platforms they currently operate,” said Souder.

The commission wants to continue to increase the CHamoru presence online with its new website The site features five vignettes that were filmed with UOG’s CHamoru studies to promote CHamoru values. The commission launched the new site at its second orthography workshop on April 12.

One of the presenters at the second workshop, Dr. Robert Underwood, looks forward to more projects by the Kumision to promote CHamoru. Underwood believes that although Guam and NMI are separate jurisdictions, people working together for one spelling system can multiply the effects of CHamoru. "I think it would make it easier obviously for publications. It's not necessary, but it would facilitate the growth of publications," said Underwood. “Orthography is the system and like any other system you have to obey it. It's not like we spend all our time arguing about it. There's a lot of things that I don’t personally agree with in the orthography but that's the decision and so we just move on.”


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