The other day, I entered the Guam Museum and was greeted by friendly faces all welcoming me as they always do. What a pleasure to walk into a place that I frequent for meetings, training and just to enjoy the exhibits and to be enveloped by such heartfelt warmth.
One young docent greeted me with the question, “Doc, what is the most inquisitive letter in the alphabet?”
“Y,” I quickly retorted.
Silly? No! Profoundly significant for learners of all ages? Yes!
"Why?" is probably the most often asked question in the world.
It certainly is a child’s favorite as he or she eagerly discovers and tries to make sense of people, places, feelings and things seen and heard. I witness adults telling children who ask why, “because I said so.” As if that would satisfy their curiosity or the urge to know and understand something better, especially when it relates to something a child wants. It seems, the older we get, we lose the desire to find out the clear-cut answer to why a pattern persists, or the rationale for a policy or practice. We succumb to the easier “it’s just the way it is” default response. No wonder faulty assumptions about why things are the way they are abound, and people are quick to pass judgement without substantial information.
Well, I think that traveling that slippery slope of superficial understanding, especially when it comes to why questions about CHamoru language, culture and history is a dangerous trend. Honestly, when people ask “Why?” it’s because they probably are not clear about something and genuinely want to know.
I have been confronted recently with many “why” questions related to the purpose of speaking CHamoru, the validity of spelling words a certain way, the usefulness of teaching CHamoru, the practicality of it all in the face of hegemonic modernizing forces, technology and globalization. “Why bother?” I am asked in various and sundry ways. “Just because!” doesn’t cut it anymore, not that it was ever a real answer in the first place.
The truth is, for CHamoru people who care deeply about preserving our language, culture and traditions, such questions are often internalized as microaggressions or insults that hurt or inspire anger.
Sometimes, it feels like no matter how we try to explain why, the questioners have made up their minds and it appears futile to even bother giving it a try. Defenses go up, understanding goes down. Perceptions are hardened. Stereotypes are fed. Nothing gets accomplished in the exchange. I feel like that sometimes – actually, many times. But we can’t give up.
Participating in nation-building requires immense amounts of patience. So let me take a crack at answering the most frequently asked questions about CHamoru.
Why do we have to spell CHamoru this new way, it has never been spelled with a capital CH before? From CHamoru speakers, the question is often stated as a stance: "I don’t like it, I’m not going to start doing it this way.” It would be easy for me to say, “Hey, don’t be cross with me. I had nothing to do with it.” Where would that line of reasoning get me. The fact is, it’s the law. It was codified when the CHamoru Heritage Commission Act of 2016 was signed into law on Jan. 9, 2017 and became Chapter 88 of the Guam Code Annotated. This makes CHamoru, the official spelling of the word. Sometimes we don’t like the way laws are worded or the rationale for some laws. Notwithstanding, it is our civil duty to be law-abiding. At first, I was not comfortable with the CH thing. Then, Sammy reminded me that “this is not about you, Lo.” I needed to go beyond the “just because,” to find an answer that would help my head and gut shake hands. Then, I remembered what I learned early in the woman’s movement. When we seek to rid ourselves of sexism – or, in this case, to decolonize – we can reclaim our identity through language. That means we can take back what we were called and reconstruct it to fit our rules. Hence, "mankind" became "humankind." "He" became "he/she" and "all men" became "all people." From this philosophical perspective, I have come to embrace CHamoru as a symbol of this new journey into language recovery and decolonization.
Orthographically speaking, CHamoru is also the correct spelling of the word. The CHamoru language, also known as Fino’ Haya, does not have the letter “c” in its alphabet. Sounds associated with the letter “c” in English are represented in CHamoru with the letters “k,” “s” and in the case of the “ch” or “tze” sound, that letter in CHamoru is written as “CH,” which represents the one sound. It constitutes one letter in the CHamoru alphabet, not two. Therefore, when representing that sound at the beginning of a proper noun, the capitalized letter CH is used.
Why now? Our language is transitioning from having been an oral language to one that is being taught through reading, writing, listening and speaking. As we move from speaking CHamoru as a first language to developing CHamoru literacy and proficiency as a second language taught at school, we need to recognize that standardized spelling and grammar are paramount. We have an orthography. It was created in 1983 to standardize grammar and spelling. We should follow it so that we can be consistent as we teach CHamoru to a new generation of speakers.
I know that some of my dearest colleagues don’t see it this way. We must agree to disagree. In the final analysis, our language will die unless we successfully teach it to our children. Whether we are accustomed to it or not, whether we like it or not, we must remember that this is not about who can argue the most convincingly. We are talking about what will serve children best as they learn the language. Just because we who are speakers didn’t learn it that way doesn’t mean that we can’t upgrade our skills and get with the program. Our children and grandchildren need us to strengthen their capacity to speak by learning the rules of the language. Isn’t that a most compelling reason for getting out of our comfort zones? Let us lead by example and become living testimonies for why we must embrace changes that seek to promote, preserve and grow the language we have inherited from our ancestors.
This is some legacy – 4,000 or more years in the making – which we, who are the current generation of first language CHamoru speakers, have the power to pass on to future generations. Let us not go down in history as the generation who broke the chain of our inheritance.