Chamorro Orthography rules

Spelling contested

Rooted in the oral tradition, the Chamorro people’s transition toward the written word is a relatively young process. With the Americanization and the emphasis on literacy during the last century, the implications of this transition became very visible at the turn of the century when the spelling of the word used to identify the indigenous population of the Marianas came under public scrutiny in Guam. Though the word “Chamorro” has had many spelling variations in accounts written in the post-European contact period, the “-r-o” spelling had come to be used in general practice.

After years of work a Chamorro Standard Orthography was adopted in 1983. While the Chamorro Language Commission had decided to adopt a spelling system that was very correct in its reflection of Chamorro pronunciation, it decided not to change the spelling of proper nouns as it would be too difficult and unpopular. If the orthography mandated a change in proper names, for instance, Cruz would be spelled Krus, Terlaje would be Tetlahi, Fegurgur would be Fegutgut. The Commission knew that even though the change would be a strong move toward cultural purity, it would be resented and subjected to endless controversy.

This traditional spelling, however, was questioned in light of the orthographic standards adopted by the Chamorro Language Commission. As such, as part of a series of public hearings held in 1993 to discuss proposed changes to village names, the Chamorro Language Commission publicly announced its decision to change the official spelling of “Chamorro” to “Chamoru” to conform to the Chamorro Standard Orthography.

Suggested change taken as an attack by some

Met with vehement opposition, the spelling change was not readily welcomed by many, and a few vocal opponents launched a campaign in the media and the Legislature to prevent its adoption. Among their main contentions, opponents argued that rule number one of the orthography, which specifies that names of people shall retain their spelling, supersedes any other rule that may have otherwise been applied to the spelling. In terms of practicality, opponents also argued that such a change would pose significant logistical challenges in updating existing documents with the modified spelling. But the main argument of the opposition rested on the premise that the “-r-o” spelling was the traditional spelling of a term that, regardless of its origin, had become firmly embedded in the identity of the island’s people. To change its spelling was viewed by some to be a fundamental attack against the very culture it represented.

Change represented a decision to take ownership

Proponents of the change, however, pointed out that the “-r-o” spelling was just one spelling among many variations used historically, including T-s-a-m-o-r-u, C-h-a-m-o-r-r-u, and C-h-a-m-u-r-u. Furthermore, rule number one, which made provisions for proper names of families, was a language convention and not a linguistic rule. Thus, the argument for the spelling change represented a faithfulness to the phonological rules of the language, rather than to the rules addressing acceptable language practices. More importantly, proponents argued that the traditional spelling of “-r-o” reflected Spanish orthography, and not Chamorro. The “-r-u” spelling was not an alteration of the way the term was pronounced, but instead an accurate reflection of how the word is actually pronounced. The change to the “-r-u” spelling thus represented a conscious decision to take ownership of an otherwise imposed or borrowed name.

Debated publicly at village meetings, in print via the local newspaper, and formally on the legislative floor, the controversy was less than cordial, and often stirred bitter confrontations between stakeholders in the Chamorro Language Commission, other public officials, and private citizens. Ultimately the debate became a platform to challenge the authority of the language commission – one that would eventually contribute to its demise.

Status quo or assertion of indigenous identity

Though it is unclear to which specific language rules the “-r-u” spelling conforms, what became evident at the height of the public controversy was its political underpinnings in the greater framework of the socio-political development of the Chamorro people. Use of the “-r-o” spelling became associated with the status quo, which by extension was a tacit acceptance of the existing state of affairs of the political development of the indigenous people. In contrast, the “-r-u” spelling was a visible, practical assertion of Chamorro identity.

As such, the argument was more than just an orthographical one; it was inherently political. How a person spelled the word was often used as an indicator of one’s political philosophy. To use the traditional spelling was to accept a system that had been imposed on the indigenous people for hundreds of years. Use of the “-r-u” spelling, in contrast was a conscious assertion of the indigenous population on its own terms – that is, through a system that is self-defined and self-adopted, and thus not imposed by any external authority.

Legislature chooses “Chamorro”

The highly emotional and politically charged debate ended, perhaps prematurely, through a legislative act of the Twenty-second Guam Legislature. Viewed by many proponents as an act of subterfuge that circumvented the authority of the commission, the 1994 law was the result of a petition launched by opponents and submitted to the legislative floor in its final session hours. Tacked on as a rider to anti-graffiti legislation, the law mandated “Chamorro” to be the official spelling. Ultimately the rider bypassed the authority granted to the Chamorro Language Commission, and arbitrarily ended the process that had been established for adopting such changes. Ironically, the law that would disband the commission five years later also repealed the section in the Guam code that made the “Chamorro” spelling official. With neither a mandate nor an authoritative language commission in place to address such issue, the matter it seems has reverted to its pre-controversial state of ambiguity.

Though the politically charged controversy has since faded from the public eye, the issue has not disappeared from the cultural consciousness. For many the issue still conjures bitter memories of personal attacks and questionable political tactics. And though “Chamorro” was once made the official spelling by virtue of public law, use of the “-r-u” spelling over the traditional “-r-o” has become a matter of personal choice.

While staunch loyalists remain on both sides of the issue, for some an acceptable compromise equates to the use of “Chamorro” when writing in English, and “Chamoru” when writing in the native tongue. Ultimately, the issue that strikes at the core of Chamorro identity is one that may never be settled by mandate. With its potential to draw divisive lines among the Chamorro people, it may also be one that many are none too eager to resurrect.

By Gina E. Taitano

For further reading

Guam Legislature. An Act to Amend §§ c of § 34.50, to Add a New §§ c to § 34.60, All of Title 9, Guam Code Annotated… Public Law 22-149. 22nd Guam Legislature. 19 December 1994.

––– An Act to Create the ‘Dipåttamenton i Kaohao Guinahan Chamorro,’ or ‘Department of Chamorro Affairs’. Public Law 25-69. 25th Guam Legislature. 8 July 1999.

Onedera, Peter R., ed. Nå’an Lugåt Siha gi ya Guåhan (Guam Place Names). Hagåtña: Chamorro Language Commission, 1988.

Supreme Court of Guam Compiler of Laws. “Chapter 46 Chamorro Language Commission.” In Guam Code Annotated, Title 17. Last modified 16 November 2018.