Monday, May 09, 2011

Selfish Jokes on a Burning Plane

One of the stupidest things I hear far too often on Guam is that the Chamorro language, its essence is a certain way and so changing that essence, not following it means not authentically using or preserving the language. The most common context in which I hear this is that the Chamorro language is primarily a spoken language and so therefore issues such as writing and orthography are either of secondary importance or of no importance than the actual speaking of the language. Or some people will say that so many of the problems with people not speaking the language today or it not being as healthy as we would want, are because we are transgressing and not being faithful to that essence, but trying to (by giving it standard spelling system, for instance) make it do what it isn’t supposed to do.

About three years ago, I recall getting some particularly taitiningo’ na comments on this blog from the owner of the Chamorro Language and Culture blog. I don’t know who makes that blog, her name, her story or anything else. At one time I had links to her blog on this blog because although many of her posts showed that they didn’t really know very much about what she was talking about (her claims about Chamorro language, history and culture were often full of more ego than fact), her blog posts showed that she had a commitment to the Chamorro language and to helping others learn parts of it or hopefully get a better understanding of it. Regardless of the tone of many of the things she wrote, her blog could be very helpful to people and I recognized that.

Out of nowhere one day she left a very pointless and irritating comment on my blog, which she later removed. I responded to it and she left a longer, less irritating, but still not very educated or informed comment, and unfortunately I got caught up with other things and didn’t respond until months later.

The maker of that blog was the epitome of what I call a Chamorro Language Loser. Part of my use of this term is naturally to say that that person is a “loser” meaning, they suck. But the other dimension is to draw attention to how, despite what they may claim about what their intentions are, what great service to the Chamorro people they might feel they are doing by speaking or spreading the language, their attitude and approach quickly unravels most positive effects, thereby making them actually contribute more to the decline of the language. Language losers come in many forms and most don’t have websites or any other permanent presence, some come in the forms of people who at an everyday level make those they interact with less likely to use the language or want to learn it. Most language losers have massive egos, and this tends to come out in how they teach the language or talk to others about it. Regardless of how limited or narrow their knowledge might be, the fact that they can speak the language inflates their ego to the point where they feel that everyone should speak like them or that no matter what they say or how they say it, they are doing a grand service to the Chamorro people.

One of the stupidest arguments that the maker of the Chamorro Language blog made was that issues of spelling weren’t important or necessary because the language was originally a spoken language and people who take that sort of thing seriously are simply making things up or being pretentious. Obviously in her comments she was lashing out at me, for being pretentious, and part of her tirade was also guided by the fact that she was from Saipan and that gave her some linguistic superiority over poor old me, who is from Guam. She associated much of her attacks with people on Guam giving up their language, people on Guam blaming others for things that are really their fault and for people on Guam being pretentious about things such as spelling. Part of her attack was my use and the use of people on Guam of the letter “å” which wasn’t used in older Chamorro language documents.

When I read her comments it was difficult to respond because so much was wrong, incorrect or just plain stupid about what she was arguing. She had probably seen some old Church books with Chamorro written in them, complained to some relatives from Saipan about pretentious Guam Chamorros and had then decided that whatever she thought was God’s truth.

It was clear that she hadn’t read very much written in Chamorro from ages ago, because if she did she would have found a number of things. First, church texts are the main documents where you can find old writings in Chamorro, and these texts were written primarily by Spanish speakers and Spanish people, not Chamorros. Second, when you look at old writings in Chamorro, even though almost all are inspired from the Spanish orthography, they still vary in spelling, since Chamorros were simply making things up based on familiar and assumed sounds. So, the complaint against me and others who are making things up by using the letter “å” was really quite stupid, since all Chamorros and Spaniards who were writing for centuries were simply making things up as well, since there was no established way of writing Chamorro. That’s why Chamorros can take the step to create their own orthography to suit their needs and if it is different than the way the Spanish spelled it, so what? Why can’t we have an orthography which matches the way we speak the language or the way we might want it to be?

The argument becomes even more stupid when people complain that the letter “å” is pretentious because it serves no purpose. It is just something that Chamorros such as myself created out of nothing, and must not serve a purpose since Chamorros before didn’t use it. As I’ve written about before, this argument is so stupid that it almost defies my ability to understand how someone could be so clueless. The argument that in the past people didn’t use this letter has no relevance to whether or not it has any significance. Some Chamorro texts make use of the letter “ñ” but I did not hear this person or anyone else complain that it was pretentious of those old Chamorros to use that term when they just could have used “n” and it would have been fine.

The reason that you use letters such as “ñ” and “å” in addition to letters such as “n” and “a” is because they are meant to signify different sounds! It is so mind-numbingly simple, it really makes my head hurt when I think of how I actually have to explain this to people. It doesn’t matter if Chamorros or the Spanish in the past didn’t do it, it absolutely serves a purpose today. You could use a different symbol if you wanted to, but you can’t attack the value of the symbol itself.

For instance, I will now write two different Chamorro words below, both of which are pronounced differently and mean different things. I will write them twice, the first time in a world without the “pretentious” letters, the second time in a world with them.

Baba / Baba.

Can you tell the difference between them? One means “bad, evil” the other means “to open.” The first “a” is supposed to be pronounced differently in each word, but without the differentiation between “a” and “å” you cannot tell when these words are isolated which is which. In the older writings in Chamorro, you had to tell which was being used based on the words around it, so you could usually tell which is was by what meaning it seemed to hold based on other more easily distinguishable words in its sentence.

Here are the words again now with the pretentious letter included!

Båba / Baba.

Now you know that one is pronounced with a “ah” sound whereas the other is pronounced with the “ae” sound.

One of the ways in which you can identify the primacy of the ego in Language Losers is in examples like this. One of the key reasons why it is important to have a spelling system which can distinguish between sounds, is not only to get rid of as much miscommunication and misunderstanding in the language between those who already speak it, but to make the language more accessible to those who are trying to learn it. So many people who are speaking or promoting the language or claim to be trying to protect it, think of how to save it through their ego first and thus come up with recommendations, strategies and ideas based on what they as someone who already speaks the language would want or be comfortable with. In reality, as I have said many times, any effort to bring back to a healthy state the Chamorro language, must be rooted in strategies not aimed at appeasing existing language speakers, but enticing and assisting those who do not speak it or are trying to.

For those who are learning the language, the issue of “a” and “å” is something which makes your life miserable. Even though there is an orthography out there for Chamorro, which was developed 30 years ago by representatives from both Guam and the CNMI (and it uses the “å” letter), few people use it and so whenever you read something in Chamorro you can never be certain as to whether or not the person is using “a” for both “ae” and “ah” sounds, or just for “ae.”

But this issue of Chamorro being a spoken language goes even further than tiny issues such as these. So many people who do speak the language already reject the need or the value of writing down the language or having a set system of spelling words. The only argument which can support these claims is a massively stupid one, which is all based on the idea that the essence of the Chamorro language is to be spoken and not written down, and that we lose some of its essence, its authenticity if we do take seriously how it is written down. This argument doesn’t make sense in any abstract or practical sense. It does not make sense to cling to a particular form of the language, since all languages that have survived for thousands of years have to make the same transmission. They either have to become written down in order to survive, or find some niche in life to ensure that they are kept alive and spoken. This is especially so when the vitality of the language is minimal or fading. The Chamorro language in both the CNMI and Guam is not healthy. The people from the CNMI like to pretend that it is healthy, but when I attended the last Chamorro conference in Saipan in 2008, I was surprised not only by how much the language had declined there amongst the youth, but how finally there were people who were willing to admit to it.

The language fluency of people from the CNMI had been one of the ways they had tried to claim superiority over Guam, which after World War II had always been superior in terms of development and Americanization. And for decades the CNMI was absolutely superior in this regard with people on Guam actively giving up the language or lazily letting it slip through the fingers of their children. But now the CNMI seems to be following Guam’s example in terms of letting the language die. Part of the problem that the CNMI faces, and which Guam already was disrupted by is the influx of English language media and policies which come as a result of Americanization and development. Not only is English spoken everywhere in the Marianas Islands, but it can be read everywhere, and it, not Chamorro becomes the language which ties life together. It ties together different peoples, it ties together trade, it even ties together government and life. For crying it out loud, it even ties together social networking sites. The easiest way to bring back the language is to solidify it as a written language; as something you can use in text messages, in emails, in your status updates, just in general something which isn’t only limited to the first three sentences of a conversation, but something you can use at any moment in any context and still feel like your language is strong enough to hold its own. Although it wasn’t always like this, in today’s world standardizing and nurturing Chamorro as a written language is a key element of making sure it survives.

Although a language can survive today as a primarily oral language, that assumes a healthy population which is fluent in it and which will ensure it remains alive in the context which it best serves. When you look at Guam and Chamorros today that context is simply not there, mampos taigue. We still have thousands of strong Chamorro language speakers, but the language is not being passed on. It remains somewhat vibrant within existing communities, but it doesn’t trickle down, it doesn’t move anywhere else. The amount which is being retained by the youngest of generations is so pathetically small, you almost have to laugh at how tragically gagu of a people Chamorros are. They would rail against Peter Onedera for not speaking “real Chamorro” or complain endlessly about the way something is spelled, and instead of using that time for something gaibali, such as speaking to their children, grandchildren or anyone else, they would rather waste it on pointless ego-based conversations which prove little, solve even less and protect nothing. Bringing the language back could be so easy if everyone who speaks it as of today ensured that at least one of their relatives learned the language. But we don’t see anything of the sort happening. Bula kuentos, lao tåya’ bida.

One of the saddest things about the general resistance to adopting an orthography for the Chamorro language is that it means that even amongst those who speak the language and profess to want to protect and nurture it, there is an acceptance that the game is already over. Ti manmangganna’ hit. We didn’t win or perhaps just another way of saying that we can’t win. They attempt to mask their defeatist attitude with that of a purist or a conservationist. They have very nice sounding, high-minded rhetoric meant to obscure the fact that they don’t really want Chamorro to be revitalized or for it to come back. These people have already selfishly given up. For whatever reason, they might not want their uniqueness in terms of speaking the language to be lost, they might be too lazy to want to expend the energy to make sure it survives, or they may still secretly accept those colonizing ideas that if you only speak one language you’ll be twice as smart as someone who speaks two. One of the things that intrigues me is how much time people waste not teaching the language, getting wrapped up in stupid pointless fights and conversations. It is almost as if they see things are pointless and so simply want to have some fun as all things go to hell. Why fight against it? Why not just enjoy the ride down?

That is the ultimate sin of the language loser. In movie imagery and formula, the language loser is usually the recipient of some horrible death towards the end of the movie because of the way their enjoyment or humor doesn’t fit with the theme of everyone about to die or the world about to come to an end. If you imagine the Chamorro language as a plane which is currently crashing towards the earth, you can see those of us who speak the language, those of us in it, each scurrying about in our own ways trying to save the plane and keep ourselves alive. Some might be sewing together parachutes. Some might be trying to fix machinery or electronics. Some might be trying to get cellphone signals to call relatives. Everyone is trying to do something. Each something might not be very effective, but all are trying to do something to keep the people alive or keep the plane in the air. But within this plane, you’ll have a group of people who won’t be doing anything. They’ll use the anxiety of the others, their preoccupation with trying to save everyone, to actually make themselves and their petty egos feel better. They won’t lift a finger to help, but rather needle the others, make fun of their ideas, tease them. They won’t explicitly try to make them stop working on the plane, but everything about what people do is fair game. They will be so counterproductive, make everyone else miserable for trying to do something, and from that misery, their ego will be filled and even if the whole plane crashes and everyone dies, at least their twisted hearts will enjoy some final moments of selfish superiority.

1 comment:

Tamagosan said...

Wow, Miget, you have bestowed an incredible amount of gracious compassion upon the Language Loser. I'm impressed and doubt that I would be so kind.

As someone who works in a stereotypically snobby language, even I am offended by the notion of superiority of intent of the language speaker. Labels and levels are not the way to make a language thrive, and for a world that's losing languages every single day, there's just no time to squabble about silliness and personal attacks.

Don't get me wrong; I love phonetics and orthographie (I prefer the French spelling, natch) as much as the next language nerd, but I sincerely believe it behooves any lover of any language to be accepting and tolerant of outsiders who may appreciate their language for what it is to them. Chamorro is the latest addition to a long list of languages I love but cannot speak.

(Btw, Firefox thinks that Chamorro isn't a word and has highlighted it for spellchecking, boo!)

I cannot imagine what such an intolerant person would be like teaching a language, so let's not go there. Language grows, rules change and evolution is part of the beautiful process that we get to watch.


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