Standardized spelling is essential, especially since our children are learning to speak, read and write our Mother Tongue as a second language in school.
“Do you really think that changing the spelling of a word with one or two letters can transform its meaning and change a person’s perspective?” This was a question put to me after my last column. You might recall that I began my Jan. 3rd piece with the statement: “In CHamoru, the saying, "ma tutuhon i sakkan," means the year has begun. It is happening to us. We are the passive recipients of forces that are out of our control. With the change of one letter, the phrase "ta tutuhon i sakkan," takes on a very different meaning. We begin the year. The message behind this oh, so subtle but powerful transformation is that WE have agency. We recognize that what happens is largely shaped by what we choose to do.”
My response is yes, absolutely.
The words we use and the way we spell them create context and influence meaning. For example, let’s look at nuanced differences in spelling conventions between British English and American English. Favour for the Brits, favor for Americans; centre vs. center, labour vs labor.
In his article entitled, "Why do Americans spell color without a U?; Lost in the Pond," Lawrence Brown discusses the two major spelling cannons of English. As the young American nation debated which would be the official language, Noah Webster, of Webster's Dictionary fame, advocated for English. Brown notes that, “Webster, who bore somewhat of a political influence, pushed for not only the introduction of English, but the American standardisation (or should I say standardization?) of it. It was his belief that America needed to be independent not only politically and economically from the British, but artistically - particularly when it came to literature.”
What we learn from this example is that the way words are spelled can convey much more than phonetic sounds when analyzed in their historical context. The word color without a ‘u’ reflects the determination of early Americans to wean themselves from their English colonizers through changes in pronunciation and spelling of words. This led to an American version of the English language, the version which is distinct from British English and is used most frequently in the world today.
As nations have asserted independence from former colonial powers, or engaged in decolonization, they have restored or changed the spelling of names of major cities like Peking to Beijing, Bombay to Mumbai, Agana to Hågatña.
Well, the same line of reasoning holds true for the spelling of the word CHamoru. Look at it through the prism of decolonization. In our nation-building journey as a colonized people, we have opportunities to transform the way we look at things, so that the things we look at change.
Chamorro is a Spanish word. It first appeared in written documents about Guam as early as the Legaspi Expedition in 1565. By the time the missionary, Diego Luis de San Vitores came to Guam in 1668, it was used to refer to the native inhabitants of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. It became a popular ethnic identifier by the early 1800s. The First Peoples of Låguas yan Gani Islands (Marianas) more frequently referred to themselves as “taotao tåno." This self-reference term for our indigenous identity is commonplace even today.
We have also established a spelling convention for our Mother Tongue as we have transitioned from orality to literacy. Standardized spelling is essential, especially since our children are learning to speak, read and write our Mother Tongue as a second language in school.
Chamorro is a borrowed Spanish word, which has been reclaimed and transformed into a CHamoru word.
For those who still question why the spelling of CHamoru has changed, here is the orthographic reason why. There is no letter "c" in the CHamoru alphabet, only "k.""CH" is one letter which represents the “tze” or "che” sound. The first letter of proper nouns are capitalized, hence capital "CH." We do not have the geminate "rr," hence the single "r." The vowel "u" is used in lieu of "o" at the end of a word when the syllable is unstressed and the vowel is preceded by one consonant, hence the "u." These rules are all in the Guam Orthography. Spelling matters!