My column last week focused on the need to rethink the ways we talk about the Chamorro language and what we consider to really be Chamorro or not really be Chamorro. The idea that certain words that Chamorros use aren’t really “Chamorro” because they come via Spanish may make sense in casual conversation, but is at odds with how languages work. Languages adapt and change, sometimes for tragic reasons like colonization or imperialism, but they also change in less traumatic circumstances. It’s a natural feature of languages for them to change.
The presence of Spanish in the Chamorro language is not something we should spend too much time lamenting. One reason why I advocate this is because of the way Spanish terms that have been adapted into Chamorro create new layers and possibilities for expression in Chamorro. For instance, there are ways in which you can express yourself in Chamorro that use a great deal of Spanish terms, but there also are ways where you can use more of the Austronesian roots of Chamorro.
Spanish entering Chamorro did not impact language as much as people think. A great deal of vocabulary was adapted, primarily for things that did not exist prior to colonization. Some grammatical forms were adopted, but not enough to argue convincingly that Chamorro doesn’t exist or isn’t a real language anymore.
Languages are far more complex than we often give them credit for. It is why they can adapt and change, even when confronted with radical societal shifts and forms of oppression. In some cases, the new Spanish terms replaced older ways of describing or expressing something. But in others they didn’t and the older Austronesian-based terms still persist beside their Romance-language derived counterparts.
In other words, the Spanish influence doesn’t replace the Chamorro, but adds layers of meaning, or in another way, options for articulation.
The diversity in a language is one means by which we achieve poetic voices or creativity. It isn’t the only way, but what we find with the Spanish in Chamorro as that using more Spanish-derived terminology or more Austronesian-based terminology, you can evoke different social registers, different forms of emotional or metaphorical depth.
Today, this is most clear in terms of what linguistics call the “fan- … -an” circumfix. At the time of colonization Chamorros used a variety of linguistic forms to identify locations, seasons of the year or moments in time, chief amongst them was using this circumfix. Despite the linguistic overtones, its use is simple. You take a root word, usually a verb or noun that is key in understanding a location or a period of time, and then you place “fan-” at the front or “-an/-yan” afterward, depending on whether it ends with a vowel or not.
We see this used in Chamorro terms for rainy season such as fanuchan’an, whose root word is uchan, or rain. Or for cutting board, famikåyan root word pika, meaning to cut up, or fangamutiyan, whose root word is kamuti and is the term for a sweet potato field.
At a certain point, Chamorros stopped using this form to create Chamorro names for new things and simply borrowed the way that their colonizers whether they were Spanish or American described it.
For example, to refer to the court one can say kotte, which is the common usage today in Chamorro, but you can also say fanhusgåyan, whose root word is husga or to judge. The interesting thing about this feature is that it allows for modifying borrowed words as well, as husga is borrowed from Spanish. The same goes for the term for playground, fanhugånduyan whose root word is hugåndo, also borrowed from Spanish.
Thinking about deepening our use of Chamorro today, here are some other options. For school, you can say eskuela. Some have started to use this linguistic feature to say faneyak’an instead (root word eyak, meaning to learn.). Other options include fanlepbloyan for a library, fanhassuyan for a reminder or a moment for brainstorming/reflection, fangguihan’an for an aquarium or a fishery, or fanareklåyan for a repair shop.
The possibilities are endless. As a warning, these terms may not be commonly used or immediately understood by fluent speakers. But by using them you keep alive this feature of the Chamorro language, that can help ensure its vitality even in times of significant change.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an author, artist, activist and assistant professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam.