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CHamoru or Chamorro: The spelling confusion

By Raquel Bagnol


If you have encountered the words CHamoru and Chamorro several times and wondered about the difference between the two, you are not alone. The two words have been inconsistently used for so many years. Guam spells the word “CHamuro,” but the Northern Mariana Islands spells it as Chamorro.


But first, a look back at the origin of the word. The early settlers of the Mariana Islands did not call themselves or their language “Chamorro.” The Spaniards introduced the word “Chamorro” during the colonial period to refer to the people of the Mariana Islands.

One of the Catholic missionaries in 1670 reported that the natives of the Mariana Islands sported “shaven heads with only a finger-length amount of hair at the crown.”  

In Spanish, “Chamorro” meant “bald, shorn, or close-cropped.” According to narratives, it was easy to see how the Spanish applied the word to the natives after seeing how the men wore their hair.

The word Chamorro has other meanings in Spanish, including “beef shank,” “leg of pork” and “beardless wheat.”

The Chamorro Standard Orthography, or the spelling system and other rules for writing language, was adopted in 1983. The customary spelling is “Chamorro,” but the first CHamoru Language Commission established “CHamoru” as the orthographically correct spelling in 1983.

The change in spelling was not readily accepted by everybody. Many educators and community advocates resisted, opposed and challenged the change. Some viewed the change as a fundamental attack against the Chamorro culture.



Spelling explained

So why the unique spelling with two capital letters in the beginning?

According to the Kumisión’s website, the CHamoru alphabet does not include the letters “c” and “z.” The CHamoru alphabet also does not have the “double rr” from the Spanish language.

To pronounce the “tze” which is a very common sound in the spoken CHamoru language, the 1983 Orthography established a rule to combine the letters “ch” to constitute one CHamoru letter representing that sound.

This means “CH” is two letters representing one sound. It is capitalized because it is the first letter of a proper noun. The letter “u” is also used at the end of CHamoru instead of the letter “o” in the word Chamorro to reflect a pattern of speech in spoken CHamoru.

Dr. Robert A. Underwood, a member of the Commission on Chamorro Language and the Teaching of the History and Culture of the Indigenous People of Guam, said "CHamoru" reflects the actual pronunciation and the use of CH as one letter in the alphabet.

He said the hesitancy to use it in the Northern Marianas is driven by the disagreement over the use of CH as a single letter or as two letters. “The argument from the Guam Kumision is that "c" has no existence in the CHamoru alphabet. Therefore, it shouldn't really appear alone. You would only notice it in a word that is capitalized,” Underwood said.

Citing as an example, he said nobody is arguing about chenchule' or CHenchule' unless the latter was the first word in a sentence when you would normally capitalize the first letter. 

Underwood said that using “morro” or “moru” is really an argument about proper nouns, adding that in the original conventions of the spelling system (Marianas Orthography 1971), proper nouns were not to be changed to conform with the orthography. “It is ironic in the case of the word Chamorro for obvious reasons. Adhering to the orthography could lead to Krus for Cruz, and Dabet for David. For some it is a bridge too far. For others, it is time that we crossed that bridge,” he said.

The Kumision i Fino' CHamoru yan i Fina'nå'guen i Historia yan i Lina'la' i Taotao Tåno' (Commission on CHamoru Language and the Teaching of the History and Culture of the Indigenous People of Guam) were tasked, among other things, to revitalize the CHamoru language, and develop as well as maintain a standard set of rules as guidance for the written CHamoru.

The CHamoru Heritage Act of 2016 established the current Kumisión’s standardized written literacy in the CHamoru language.


  Death sentence for the Chamorro language

A quick trip down history lane will take us back to the period when speaking in Chamorro was banned. In an article by Gina E. Taitano in, formal schools were established where basic English was taught when the U.S. government took over Guam. 

In 1917, the US Naval Administration issued Executive General Order No. 243 designating English as the official language of Guam, and banning the use of Chamorro except for official interpretations.

By the early 1920s, Gov. Adelbert Althouse noted that only a few children could speak English with any degree of efficiency. Chamorro remained the predominant language. Drastic measures were implemented where children were prohibited from speaking Chamorro in the classrooms and playground. Chamorro-English dictionaries were collected and burned. Children who spoke Chamorro in schools were punished, and parents were sometimes fined, until the mid-1970s when the ban was lifted.

In 1974, the Guam Legislature made CHamoru the island’s official language alongside English. However, after the language ban for so many decades, the number of speakers continued to decline.

To address the need to develop a standardized spelling system for the Chamorro language, the Marianas Orthography Committee was organized with eight members in January 1971. It did not stop there. A series of revisions and modifications followed, as well as challenges and resistance.

Several Chamorros on Guam viewed the changes to the written Chamorro language as an attack against the Chamorro culture. Public hearings resulted in heated and emotional debates in the villages, where many residents rejected and mocked the changes.

And today, the indigenous language is fighting for survival.


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