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Established to set language policy

Created by public law in 1964, the Kumision I Fino’ Chamorro, or Chamorro Language Commission, was established as the recognized authority on Chamorro language policy for the island of Guam. Tasked with the primary duty of describing and prescribing the Chamorro language in its written form, the commission was also mandated to prepare an updated Chamorro-English dictionary.

Although the commission was eventually absorbed into the organizational structure of the Department of Chamorro Affairs through Public Law 25-69, it nevertheless made its mark in Guam history during its more than thirty-year tenure as the island’s foremost authority on indigenous language policy. And though the mandate to create the dictionary was never fulfilled prior to the commission’s dissolution in 1999, the commission did make significant progress in the standardization of the written Chamorro language.

Board composition

Led by an appointed chairman, the commission comprised nine members who were appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The nine-member team served staggered terms ranging from one-to-three years. In its infancy, the commission operated without a separate budget and was authorized by law to utilize existing resources from the local education department and the University of Guam. The law also allowed the commission to accept donations and charge fees for its services, and permitted the commission to request additional funding through legislative appropriation.

By 1983, legislators passed Public Law 17-10, mandating the commission to develop and adopt a standardized orthography to be used by all government agencies. In the same law, the commission was designated as the Guam Place Name Commission. By Fiscal Year 1984, the commission was appropriated a budget just over $42,000, which covered the cost of one full-time employee, operating and utility expenses, and commission member stipends.

With an operating budget and an updated mandate, the commission was better equipped to fulfill its duties. The commission officially adopted the Chamorro Language Orthography on September 17, 1983. The orthography delineated seventeen language rules that governed written Chamorro. By law, the rules were also to be used in the spelling of Chamorro place and street names.

The Chamorro Language Commission also worked with government agencies in the 1980s to give Chamorro titles to agency signs and names. This was a yearlong process that took a great deal of participation from many agencies. This work can still be seen in some agencies today, most notably at the Guam International Airport.

Spelling controversy

But the orthography, and its resulting implications, did not come without controversy. During the Ricardo J. Bordallo administration while Pilar Lujan was the chairwoman of the commission, it approved a spelling system that was very correct in its reflection of Chamorro pronunciation, but it was heavily influenced by a linguist from the Philippines hired to review the spelling system. For instance taitai would be spelled taytay, matai would be spelled matay. The spelling made Chamorro look like Tagalog, a Filipino dialect. This spelling system was controversial and eventually was retracted.

Chamorro vs. Chamoru

The authority of the commission came under public scrutiny again in 1994 when it formally changed the spelling of “Chamorro” to “Chamoru” to conform to the language structure rules specified in the official orthography. Opponents of the change launched public protests in the printed media, and campaigned to the commission and the legislature to oppose the spelling change.

The opposition prompted a request by the commission to obtain a legal opinion from the Office of the Attorney General, which in its response stated that the commission held the implied authority to correct misspelled words and conform them to Guam’s orthographic rules. Upheld by the authority of the commission on one side, and vehemently opposed by vocal supporters of the traditional spelling on the other, the debate became a significant indicator of the maturing political awareness among the indigenous population, and the resulting divisions that arose in their assertions of their political identity.

If the Chamorro Language Commission rightly held the authority to make such spelling change, however, this authority was rendered moot through legislation passed during the final hours of I Mina’ Bente Dos na Liheslaturan Guahan/the Twenty-second Guam Legislature’s last session. Introduced as a rider to anti-graffiti legislation, “Chamorro” was mandated as the official spelling to be used in all Chamorro names of streets, places, buildings, facilities and other geographical areas in Guam.

Representing a dramatic shift in support from the actions of previous lawmaking bodies, the law appeared to be the beginning of the commission’s demise. By 1999, Public Law 25-69 was passed, which repealed the law establishing the Chamorro Language Commission, and transferred its functions to the newly created Department of Chamorro Affairs.

By Gina E. Taitano

For further reading

Department of Chamorro Affairs. “About Us.”

Guam Legislature. An Act Making General Appropriations for the Operation of the Executive and Judicial Branches of Government of Guam… Public Law 17-25. 17th Guam Legislature. 29 October 1983.

––– An Act Relative to the Duties of the Chamorro Language Commission, and for Other Purposes. Public Law 17-10. 17th Guam Legislature. 24 June 1983.

––– An Act to Repeal and Reenact § 19655 of the Government Code of Guam Relative to Creation and Use of the Tourist Attraction Fund, and for Other Purposes. Public Law 17-65. 17th Guam Legislature. 7 September 1984.

––– An Act to Repeal and Reenact §46107, Title 17, Guam Code Annotated, to Give the Chamorro Language Commission Authority in the Naming of Streets, Places, Buildings, and Facilities. Public Law 21-08. 21st Guam Legislature. 19 April 1991.

––– 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.

Office of the Attorney General of Guam. Memorandum from the Attorney General. Ref. CLC 94-0767. 16 September 1994.

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