Friday, May 25, 2012

Not Just a Relic

"Not Just a Relic"
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Wednesday, 14 Mar 2012
The Marianas Variety

ONE of the reasons the Chamorro language is dying is because it isn’t used for that many things. Make no mistake, the Chamorro language is a real language, but over the past century, Chamorros have slowly let it fade and become very narrow in use. As the world around them changed dramatically in the 20th century, and Chamorros saw their own culture changing as well, they did not keep their language up to date. They did not use their language to map out this new world, but simply accepted English words and the English languages as the best means to do so. This acceptance was different than the Chamorro incorporation of Spanish words in prior centuries, since that adaptation didn’t lead to Chamorros throwing away the language. Since World War II, the adoption of English has led to the decline of Chamorro.

What this has amounted to is that while the Chamorro language remains alive, it is actually dead in most places and spaces that Chamorro inhabit. Studies have shown this narrowing of language use, where Chamorro is spoken in primarily social ways, as fragments of conversations at churches or fiestas or the telling of jokes, isn’t truly the way in which most Chamorros communicate. For example, parents once used Chamorro when they were angry, but the rest of the time English. The lack of Chamorro in new technology is particularly apparent. For every person who can type in Chamorro on Facebook, there are hundreds who can’t write more than “hafa adai.”

Although Guam has changed to the point where we no longer condemn people for speaking Chamorro or teaching their kids Chamorro, the hierarchy persists between languages. The ways in which Chamorros switch to English for certain things is not solely about comfort, because they may not be able to fully speak about something in Chamorro. It is also tied to this idea that Chamorro is for certain things, while English is for others. English is for those things that are important in a wider, public sense. It connects you to the world and to other ethnicities, while Chamorro connects you to less, and therefore becomes a more private language.

One way of conceiving this is through spicy food. The spice in the food is the Chamorro language. It tastes nice, but it isn’t what actually feeds you. In the same way, many people use Chamorro in a limited way, to add flavor to conversations, but not for much else. The implicit lesson is that this is what English does; it is the language that actually feeds you. Eating bland food may be boring, but you’ll live. But try eating only spice and see how far you get.

The language is in this state today because its boundaries are no longer being pushed and adapting. Rather than working to make the world around us intelligible through the Chamorro language, we just switch to English in order to make sense. A healthy language is one that we wouldn’t just use to say hello and goodbye or make a joke here or there, but it is one where we can potentially talk about anything and everything in the language. We can discuss politics, we can discuss TV shows, we can discuss Pokemon. The Chamorro language is disappearing because rather than working to keep our language strong and being able to talk about everything Chamorros experience or encounter in their lives, we left that job to English.

I’ve sometimes tried, in my own silly ways, to help expand this narrowness of the Chamorro language, to use it to talk about things that Maga’lahi Mata’pang and Hurao might have never imagined possible. On my blog “No Rest for the Awake,” I’ve made a habit of writing in Chamorro about things most Chamorros consider sacrilegious to twist the Chamorro language around. I’ve written about video games, pop culture, philosophy, presidential politics and even Bollywood movies. One of my more popular ways of doing this was a few years back when I took several manga, or Japanese comic books such as Naruto, and translated them into Chamorro. I then used scans of the comic and erased the original Japanese text and inserted the new Chamorro translation.

Obviously the audience for this was pretty small, since not many people who are inclined to read manga can read Chamorro, but I still felt like it was important symbolically. It was a way of asserting that the Chamorro language has to be able to describe whatever Chamorros do today, not just what they did 500 or 100 years ago, and that a strong, healthy language can adapt to fit their current lifestyle. It doesn’t just become a relic of our past, but is something following us as we move through history.