"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.”
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.
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.
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.
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