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Chamorro language

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Chamorro language

Fino' Chamorro
Native to The Marianas
Ethnicity Chamorro people
Native speakers
unknown (95,000 cited 1990–2010)[1]
Official status
Official language in
 Northern Mariana Islands
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ch
ISO 639-2 cha
ISO 639-3 cha
Glottolog cham1312[2]

Chamorro (Chamorro: Fino' Chamorro or Chamoru) is a Malayo-Polynesian language (Austronesian), with Spanish influence, spoken by about 47,000 people (about 35,000 people on Guam and about 12,000 in the Northern Mariana Islands).[3]


"Hafa Adai" sign at Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport in Guam

The Chamorro language is currently threatened, with a precipitous drop in language fluency over the past century. It is estimated that 75% of the population of Guam was literate in the Chamorro language around the time the United States captured the island during the Spanish–American War[4] (similar language fluency estimates for other areas of the Mariana Islands during this time period do not exist). A century later, the 2000 U.S. Census showed that fewer than 20% of Chamorros living in Guam speak their native language fluently, and a vast majority of those are over the age of 55.

A number of forces have contributed to the steep, post-WWII decline of Chamorro language fluency. A colonial legacy, beginning with the Spanish colonization of Guam in 1668, imposed power structures privileging the language of the region's colonizers. In Guam, the language suffered additional suppression when the U.S. Government banned Chamorro language completely in schools in 1922, and collected and burned all Chamorro dictionaries (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000: 206; Mühlhäusler 1996: 109; Benton 1981: 122). Similar policies were undertaken by the Japanese Government when they controlled the region during WWII. And post WWII, when Guam was ceded back to the United States, the American administrators of the island continued to impose “no Chamorro” language restrictions in local schools, teaching only English and disciplining students for speaking their indigenous tongue.[5]

Even though these oppressive language policies were progressively lifted, the damage had already been done. Subsequent generations were often raised in households where only the oldest family members were fluent. Lack of exposure made it increasingly difficult to pick up Chamorro as a second language. Within a few generations, English replaced Chamorro as the language of daily life.

There does exist a difference in the rate of Chamorro language fluency between Guam and the other Mariana Islands. On Guam (called Guåhan by Chamorro speakers, from the word guaha, meaning "have", but its English meaning is, "We Have", from the idea that they had everything they needed,[6][7]) the number of native Chamorro speakers has dwindled in the last decade or so, while in the Northern Mariana Islands, young Chamorros still speak the language fluently. Chamorro is still common among Chamorro households in the Northern Marianas, but fluency has greatly decreased among Guamanian Chamorros during the years of American rule in favor of American English, which is commonplace throughout the inhabited Marianas.The Chamorro language is continued to be spoken by direct descendants, such as Ricardo Chamorro, AKA SheepMorro

Language revitalization

Various representatives from Guam have unsuccessfully lobbied the United States to take action to promote and protect the language.

In 2013, "Guam will be instituting Public Law 31-45, which increases the teaching of the Chamorro language and culture in Guam schools," extending instruction to include grades 7–10.[8]


Unlike most of its neighbors, Chamorro is not a Micronesian or Polynesian language. Rather, like Palauan, it constitutes a possibly independent branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language family. Its indigenous origins are thus somewhat obscure.

At the time the Spanish rule over Guam ended, it is thought that Chamorro was a semi-creole language, with a substantial amount of the vocabulary being of Spanish origin and beginning to have a high level of mutual intelligibility with Spanish. It is reported that even in the early 1920s Spanish was still reported to be a living language in Guam for commercial transactions, but the usage of both Spanish and Chamorro was rapidly declining as a result of the English pressure.

Chamorro also reflects Spanish influence, due to three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Many Chamorro nouns, adjectives, prepositions, numerals, and verbs are of Spanish origin but it has not influenced Chamorro grammar at all. Borrowed words from Spanish or any other languages must adhere to the Chamorro grammar and be inflicted upon if necessary. Under a historical point of view, it may be considered a mixed language, even if it remains independent and unique.[9] In linguist Donald M. Topping's textbook Chamorro Reference Grammar, he states:

The most notable influence on Chamorro language and culture came from the Spanish. ... There was wholesale borrowing of Spanish words and phrases into Chamorro, and there was even some borrowing from the Spanish sound system. But this borrowing was linguistically superficial. The bones of the Chamorro language remained intact. ... In virtually all cases of borrowing, Spanish words were forced to conform to the Chamorro sound system. ... While Spanish may have left a lasting mark on Chamorro vocabulary, as it did on many Philippine and South American languages, it had virtually no effect on Chamorro grammar. ... Japanese influence on Chamorro was much greater than that of German, but much less than Spanish. Once again, the linguistic influence was restricted exclusively to vocabulary items, many of which refer to manufactured objects...[10]


Chamorro has 24 phonemes: 18 of them are consonants and 6 of them are vowels.


Chamorro has 6 vowels. They are:


Below is a chart of Chamorro consonants, which are all unaspirated.

Table of consonant phonemes of Chamorro
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p b t d k ɡ ɡʷ ʔ
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Fricative f s h
Affricate t̪͡s̪ d̪͡z̪
Tap ɾ~ɻ
Approximant l


Chamorro Alphabet
' Aa Åå Bb CHch Dd Ee Ff Gg Gu Hh Ii Kk Ll Mm Nn Ññ NGng Oo Pp Rr Ss Tt Uu Yy
/ʔ/ (glottal stop) /æ/ /ɑ/ /b/ /ts/ and /tʃ/ /d/ /e/ /f/ /g/ /ɡʷ/ /h/ /i/ /k/ /l/ /m/ /n/ / ɲ/ /ŋ/ /o/ /p/ /ɾ/ ~ /ɻ / /s/ /t/ /u/ /dz/, /z/ and /dʒ/

Additionally, some letter combinations in Chamoru sometimes represent single phonemes. For instance, "ci+[vowel]" and "ti+[vowel]" are both pronounced [ʃ], as in "hustisia" (justice) and the surname Concepcion.

The letter y is usually though not always pronounced more like dz (an approximation of the regional Spanish pronunciation of y as [dʒ]); it is also sometimes used to represent the same sound as the letter i by Guamanian speakers. The phonemes represented by n and ñ as well as a and å are not always distinguished in print. Thus the Guamanian place name spelled Yona is pronounced "Dzonia"/[dzoɲa], not *[jona] as might be expected. Ch is usually pronounced like ts rather than like English ch. Chamorro r is usually a flap [ɾ], like Spanish r between vowels, and a retroflex approximant [ɻ ], like English r, at the beginning of words.

Chamorro has geminate consonants which are written double (GG, DD, KK, MM, NGNG, PP, SS, TT), native diphthongs AI and AO, plus OI, OE, IA, IU, IE in loanwords; penultimate stress, except where marked otherwise if marked at all in writing, usually with an acute accent, as in asút "blue" or dángkulo "big". Unstressed vowels are limited to /ə i u/, though they are often spelled A E O. Syllables may be consonant-vowel-consonant, as in che’lu "sibling", diskatga "unload", mamahlao "shy", or oppop "lie face down", gatus (old word for 100), Hagåtña (Capital of Guam); B, D, and G are not distinguished from P, T, and K in that position.

Chamorro grammar

Chamorro is a VSO or verb–subject–object language in which the default order would be that verbs go first then the subject then object but although being the default word order, it is not constrained to it as the word order can be very flexible and change to SVO (subject-verb-object), like English, if necessary in order to convey different types of relative clauses depending on context and stressing different parts of what someone is trying to say or convey.

Chamorro is also an agglutinative language, grammatically allowing root words to be modified by a number of affixes. For example, masanganenñaihon "talked awhile (with/to)", passive marking prefix ma-, root verb sangan, referential suffix i "to" (forced morphophonemically to change to e) with excrescent consonant n, and suffix ñaihon "a short amount of time". Thus Masanganenñaihon gue' "He/she was told (something) for a while".

Chamorro has many Spanish loanwords and other words have Spanish etymological roots (e.g. tenda "shop/store" from Spanish tienda), which may lead some to mistakenly conclude that the language is a Spanish Creole: Chamorro very much uses its loan words in a Micronesian way (e.g.: bumobola "playing ball" from bola "ball, play ball" with verbalizing infix -um- and reduplication of first syllable of root).

Chamorro is predicate-initial, head-marking language. It has a rich agreement system both in the nominal and in the verbal domains. The following table gives the possessor-noun agreement suffixes:[11]

Person/Number Suffix
1 sg -hu / -ku
2 sg -mu
3 sg -ña
1 incl du/pl -ta
1 excl du/pl -(n)mami
2 du/pl -(n)miyu
3 du/pl -(n)ñiha

Chamorro is also known for its wh-agreement in the verb: these agreement morphemes agree with features (roughly, the Grammatical case feature) of the question phrase, and replace the regular subject–verb agreement:[12]

(1) Ha-fa'gasi si Juan i kareta.
3sSA[13]-wash PND[14] Juan the car

'Juan washed the car.'

(2) Hayi fuma'gasi i kareta?
who? WH[nom].[15] wash the car

'Who washed the car?'

Chamorro basic phrases


Current common Chamorro uses only number words of Spanish origin: unu, dos, tres, etc. Old Chamorro used different number words based on categories: "Basic numbers" (for date, time, etc.), "living things", "inanimate things", and "long objects".

English Modern Chamorro Old Chamorro
Basic Numbers Living Things Inanimate Things Long Objects
one unu/una (time) hacha maisa hachiyai takhachun
two dos hugua hugua hugiyai takhuguan
three tres tulu tato to'giyai taktulun
four kuåttro' fatfat fatfat fatfatai takfatun
five singko' lima lalima limiyai takliman
six sais gunum guagunum gonmiyai ta'gunum
seven sietti fiti fafiti fitgiyai takfitun
eight ocho' gualu guagualu guatgiyai ta'gualun
nine nuebi sigua sasigua sigiyai taksiguan
ten dies manot maonot manutai takmaonton
hundred siento gatus gatus gatus gatus/manapo
  • The number 10 and its multiples up to 90 are: dies(10), benti(20), trenta(30), kuårenta(40), sinkuenta(50), sisenta(60), sitenta(70), ochenta(80), nubenta(90)
  • Similar to Spanish terms: diez(10), veinte(20), treinta(30), cuarenta(40), cincuenta(50), sesenta(60), setenta(70), ochenta(80), noventa(90).


Before the Spanish-based 12-month calendar became predominant, the Chamoru 13-month lunar calendar was commonly used. The first month in the left column below corresponds with January. On the right are the Spanish-based months.

Chamorro Studies

Chamorro language is studied at the University of Guam and in several academic institutions of Guam and the Northern Marianas.

Researches in several countries are also studying different aspects of Chamorro. In 2009, the Chamorro Linguistics International Network (CHIN) was established in Bremen, Germany. CHiN was founded on occasion of the Chamorro Day (27 September 2009) which was part of the programme of the Festival of Languages. The foundation ceremony was attended by people from Germany, Guam, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States of America. [17]

See also

Chamorro language spread in the United States


  1. ^ Chamorro at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Chamorro". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Chung, Sandra. 1998. The design of agreement: Evidence from Chamorro. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
  4. ^ Carano, Paul and Sanchez, Pedro A Complete History of Guam. Tokyo and Rutland,VT: Charles Tuttle Co., 1964.
  5. ^ "Education during the US Naval Era | Guampedia: The Encyclopedia of Guam". Guampedia. Retrieved 2013-04-22. 
  6. ^ Tamondong, Dionesis (16 February 2010). "Camacho: Name change will affirm identity".  
  7. ^ José Antonio Saco. Colección de papeles científicos, históricos, políticos y de otros ramos sobre la isla de Cuba. 1859.
  8. ^ "Guam to Increase Education in Indigenous Language and Culture". Open Equal Free. Education. Development. 29 August 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-06. 
  9. ^ Rafael Rodriguez-Ponga y Salamanca, Del español al chamorro: Lenguas en contacto en el Pacífico. Madrid, Ediciones Gondo, 2009,
  10. ^ Topping, Donald (1973). Chamorro Reference Grammar. University Press of Hawaii. pp. 6 and 7.  
  11. ^ Chung 1998:49
  12. ^ Chung 1998:236 and passim
  13. ^ '3sSA' stands for 3rd singular Subject Agreement.
  14. ^ 'PND' stands for Proper Noun Determiner, a special article used with names in Chamorro.
  15. ^ The '-um-' in 'fumagasi' is an infix, glossed as WH[nom], meaning that it is a WH-agreement morpheme for nominative question phrases.
  16. ^  
  17. ^ The Maga’låhi (president) is Dr. Rafael Rodríguez-Ponga Salamanca (Madrid, Spain); Maga’låhi ni onrao (honorary president): Dr. Robert A. Underwood (President, University of Guam); Teniente maga’låhi (vice-president): Prof. Dr. Thomas Stolz (Universität Bremen).

General references

  • Aguon, K. B. (1995). Chamorro: a complete course of study. Agana, Guam: K.B. Aguon.
  • Chung, Sandra. 1998. The design of agreement: Evidence from Chamorro. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
  • Rodríguez-Ponga, Rafael (2003). El elemento español en la lengua chamorra. Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones, Universidad Complutense (Complutense University of Madrid).
  • Topping, Donald M. (1973). Chamorro reference grammar. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Topping, Donald M., Pedro M. Ogo, and Bernadita C. Dungca (1975). Chamorro-English dictionary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Topping, Donald M. (1980). Spoken Chamorro: with grammatical notes and glossary, rev. ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Hunt, Mike (2008). "Speaking Chamoru Moru Moru". San Roque, Saipan.

External links

  • Chamorro-English Online Dictionary
  • Chamorro-English dictionary, partially available at Google Books.
  • A Chamorro Reference Grammar, partially available at Google Books.
  • Chamorro Wordlist at the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database
  • Chamorro Linguistics International Network (CHIN).
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