When I went to Saipan I didn’t expect to encounter either of its two indigenous languages: Chamorro and Saipanese Carolinian. And indeed I saw next to nothing written in either language. Nothing in Chamorro but the greeting “Hafa Adai” (on every license plate), and nothing in Carolinian except a plaque (pictured here) in the American Memorial Park that marked the site of the old Carolinian village at Garapan.
But then I found KCNM-FM 101.1 on my rent-a-car radio and stayed tuned to it whenever I was driving. It played a wonderful assortment of contemporary Micronesian music, from Palauan enka to Chuukese country to Gilbertese gospel, which can all be sampled on Jane Resture‘s Micronesian Music Radio on Live365.com.
The music was interrupted periodically by NPR news in English and occasional announcements or classified ads in Chamorro, with prices quoted in English and telephone numbers in Chamorro. The Chamorro number system is now based on Spanish: unu, dos, tres, kuatro, sinko, sais, siette, ocho, nuebi, dies. (According to Wikipedia, the basic set of old Chamorro numbers was hacha, hugua, tulu, fatfat, lima, gunum, fiti, gualu, sigua, manot/fulu—far more Philippine-looking.)
Chamorros and Carolinians on Saipan are fighting an uphill battle to preserve their ancestral languages (and many have already surrendered). The resident population of the Northern Marianas is about 35% Filipino, 20% Chamorro, 10% Chinese, 10% Korean, 5% “Anglo”, with smaller numbers of Japanese, Palauans, and other Micronesians. Most of the retail clerks and wait help I encountered spoke Filipino and Filipino-accented English to each other. Most of the tourists I encountered spoke Japanese, Korean, or Chinese. The signage around Chalan Kanoa, which used to be the main Micronesian barrio when the U.S. Navy controlled most of the island, is now overwhelmingly Chinese and Korean, with some Japanese—and English, of course, one of the official languages of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.
The most ubiquitous signs in Saipan say Poker. Many such signs are lit up round the clock. Almost every little country store has a Poker sign over one door, often next to one above the store entrance that says Food Stamps Accepted.
On 18 March 2005, the Saipan Tribune published three essays from a “contest held by the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs’ Chamorro/Carolinian Policy Commission to promote indigenous languages in the Commonwealth.” Let’s examine a few sentences of each.
Meta e welepakk sibwe kkepasal Refaluwasch rel?
Mwaliyasch Refalawasch nge eghi prisisu sibwe ghuleey bwe iyel yaasch IDENTITY me kkosch me eew malawasch ghisch aramasal Seipel. Sibwe abwaari me amalawa mwaliyasch leel olighat, fatattaral iimw, gangisch nge mwetelo mmwal nge sibwe kki yaali schagh.
When I took linguistic field methods back in grad school, our class worked with a speaker of Saipan Carolinian, which was not well described at the time, although a lot was known about closely related Trukese (now Chuukese). I’ve studied quite a few Austronesian languages, but you really need to be familiar with the Micronesian subgroup of Austronesian before this starts to look very familiar. Nevertheless, here are a few items that strike me.
Ethnonym: The Saipan Carolinian name for themselves is Refaluwasch. The name Carolinian is derived from the Caroline Islands, where the ancestors of today’s Saipan Carolinians came from, probably starting around the 1700s, after the Northern Marianas had been almost entirely depopulated.
Unusual sounds: I believe the Germanic looking sch indicates a retroflex affricate that sounds a bit like Yapese ch or Kosraean sr. The double consonants in word-initial position are a bit unusual and take some getting used to for English speakers who ignore the medial double nn in Japanese konnichi-wa.
Dialects: The Trukic languages form one long dialect chain, where speakers on neighboring islands can understand each other fine, but speakers from farther apart have increasing difficulty. There is no contrast between l and n in most of the dialects. Where this speaker writes aramasal Seipel ‘people of Saipan’, a speaker of a different dialect might write aramasan Seipen. Similarly, the town of Tanapag, settled by a different group of Carolinians, also goes by the name of Tallabwog.
Hafa Na Prisisu Na Ta Praktika I Fino’ Chamorro?
Kumu uniku yu’ na pagton [sic] palao’an gi familia yan todu I dos saina-hu Chamorro, gi anai pa’go mafañagu yu’, hu hungok I sunidon Chamorro despues enao mo’na I fina’na’guen nana-hu yan tata-hu. Este I lengguahen Chamorro impottante na ta tungo’ sa’ I mismo lengguahi-ta dumiklaklara hafa nasion-ta na rasan taotao….
Pot uttimo, prefekto yu’ na patgon Chamorro ya ti bai hu sedi na bai hu maleffa osino bai hu na’ fo’na I otro lengguahi ki I mismo lengguahi-hu Chamorro.
A Spanish reader’s reaction to written Chamorro must be very similar to a Chinese reader’s reaction to written Japanese. The huge number of familiar borrowings let you know the subject matter, but the foreign grammatical framework remains opaque. You know what they’re talking about, but not what they’re saying.
Ethnonym: Many Chamorros prefer to call themselves Chamoru, perhaps especially Guamanian Chamorros, whose orthographic standards (at least at Unibetsidåt Guahan) seem to differ somewhat from those in Saipan.
Unusual sounds: Chamorro ch is pronounced like [ts] (and some capitalize both members of the digraph: CHamoru, like Dutch IJssel); while y is pronounced like [dz]. The apostrophe marks a glottal stop. Spanish syllable-final -r regularly becomes -t and syllable-final -l assimilates to the following consonant.
Grammar: One of my term papers in grad school was an analysis of the historical morphology of Chamorro and Palauan, both of which look more Philippine-like as you go farther back. And both are verb-initial to a significant degree. (So is Yapese, but it’s not very closely related to any other Austronesian language.) But Palauan morphology is far more opaque: with Philippine -in- showing up as -l- and -um- showing up as -o- in some environments. Chamorro is more straightforward. The Spanish loanword diklara, for instance, is both infixed and reduplicated in d-um-iklaklara. Compare Tagalog bili ‘buy’ and one of its inflected forms, b-um-ibili.