Chamorro origins

david benson dowson at
Mon Feb 15 01:45:09 UTC 1999


I am writing to everyone in the AnLang mailing list
to ask for some help.  I am interested in learning
more about the affinities of Chamorro to other
Austronesian languages.

I suppose you could say that I have an "ax to grind"
here.  I am a proponent of the now unpopular theory
that there were two waves of immigration to the
Marianas—the first coming from the Philippines about
3,500 years ago and a second coming from Indonesia
about 800 to 1000 years ago.  I believe that it was
this second migration that brought the Chamorro
language and the essential elements of Chamorro
culture here.  The indigenous people were conquered
and their descendants became the Manachang, the
lowest of the three social classes in Chamorro
society—a group of such degraded status that I think
it could be properly classed as an out caste group.
(The word Chamorro was never applied to them.  It
referred only to the two higher classes.)

I think that there is ample evidence in the material
culture for this second migration, and I am wondering
if there is any linguistic evidence which could be
brought to bear on the argument.  I know of at least
anecdotal evidence.  It is said that Magellan when he
visited the Marianas had a Moluccan slave aboard his
ship who found he could speak with the Chamorros in
their own language.  Unfortunately, I know it is not
going to be that easy.  I am sure that if the were
presently an Indonesian language which would be
mutually intelligible with pre-Spanish Chamorro, it
would not have escaped the notice of the linguists.
Never-the-less, Chamorro has some peculiarities which
set it apart from the Philippine languages, and I am
wondering if anyone has noticed these in Indonesian

For example, Chamorro has the phoneme "gw" spelled gu
before a vowel.  Topping states that none of the
languages of the Philippines or Micronesia has this
phoneme.  But there are many Chamorro words which
begin with "gw" which have close cognates in the
Philippine languages where it is usually changed to a
glottal stop before the vowel.  Examples are the word
for I which is guihan in Chamorro and either ako or
aku in all the major Philippine languages; or the
word for fire which is guafi in Chamorro and apoy in
Tagalog, api in Kampampangan and apuy in Ilocano; the
word for fish which is guihan in Chamorro, isda in
Tagalog and Cebuano, and ikkan in Ilocano.  Sometimes
it is only the "g" which is dropped and the "w" sound
is retained as in the word for eight, gualo, which
becomes walo; or the word for spouse asagua which
becomes asawa in Tagalog, Cebuano, Kampampangan and

I could be wrong, but I believe that the "gw' phoneme
is an archaic feature in the Chamorro language and
not, as Topping calls it, a "Chamorro invention."
It just makes more sense to me to believe that this
phoneme was dropped by the Philippine languages and
replaced by a glottal stop than to believe that the
Chamorros in a burst of inventiveness began
vocalizing a glottal stop as a phoneme hitherto
unknown in their language.  If I am correct, it makes
a very strong argument for the case that Chamorro is
not derived from any Philippine language but from a
language ancestral to them--because it alone among
them has retained this archaic feature.  Does anyone
out there reading this know of Indonesian languages
which have a "gw" phoneme?  How about a "kw" phoneme?

Another word which has caught my attention is the
word for you (pl.) in Chamorro which is hamyo.
Notice that it contains both an "m" and "y".   All
the languages of the Philippines have a cognate for
this word, and all of them have one or the other of
these letters—but not both.  Thus in Tagalog and
Ilocano we have "kayo" and in Kampampangan "kayu";
but in Bicolano and Cebuano, "kamo".  From this one
word alone, I think one could argue plausibly that
Chamorro cannot derive from any one of the Philippine
languages because it alone among them retains a
feature from a common ancestral language.  Does
anyone know of an Indonesian language which has a
word similar to hamyo for you (plural)?

Finally, I would like to argue against the assumption
that just because it is known that the Marianas were
settled first by people from the Philippines that
Chamorro is a member of the Philippine family of
languages. The very antiquity of this settlement
argues against such an assumption.  I don't know much
about the prehistory of Asia, but two dates that I
have encountered in my reading have stuck in my
memory.  One is that the Austronesian languages
evolved in South China about 6,000 years ago; and the
other is that about 5000 years ago there was a major
migration from this area to the Philippines and
Indonesia.  Now, we know from archeology that the
Marianas were settled at least 3,500 years ago.  (We
have probably not found the earliest settlements.)
We know by their material culture that they were
identical to a people living on Masbate island in the
Central Philippines about this time.  I have no dates
for the Masbate Island culture, but one would presume
that it was on Philippine soil for some time before
the Marianas were discovered and colonized.  In other
words, we can push back the prehistory of the people
who initially settled the Marianas to a time fairly
close to that first wave of migration from South
China.  Even if we assume that these people were a
part of that migration—and not an aboriginal people
not yet assimilated by it—we still have to ask
ourselves, "How likely is it that these people spoke
a language closely related to those presently spoken
in the Philippines?"  I think the answer is, "Not
likely at all."  I think it more likely that they
spoke a language closer to Proto-Austronesian than to
any spoken today.  Perhaps it was even a tonal
language.  To imagine that such an early offshoot of
the Austronesian Language Phylum then migrated to the
Marianas and remained there in relative isolation for
3,000 years at the end of which time it had many
recognizable cognates and many similarities of
grammar with modern Philippine languages is, I think,
absurd on the face of it.  (I believe it is now
generally accepted that the languages spoken in the
Philippines belong to the Indonesian/Malaysian group
and were presumably brought there by much later

If one posits another migration to the Marianas about
1000 a.d. from Indonesia, (or from anyplace where
languages of the Western branch of the Austronesian
system were spoken) then all these difficulties
disappear.  I believe that such a migration did take
place and that the language brought by it to the
Marianas was essentially Chamorro.  I don't believe
that the original inhabitants of the Marianas—because
of their low status in Chamorro society—had much
influence on this language.  One possible exception
might be the elaborate and unique tone-stress pattern
of spoken Chamorro.  If the original inhabitants of
the Marianas, the ancestors of the Manachang, spoke a
tonal language, then it is likely that when they
began to speak Chamorro they did so with a pronounced
"accent". Because theirs was a tonal language, it
would be natural for them to put extra tones on words
and phrases even when these carried no semantic
meaning.  Because it is instinctive for a person to
adapt his accent to those around him, these would
spread through the entire language until they became
systematized into the present patterns.  (Even a
person who is prevented from speaking another
language by racial pride, is not immune to this
unconscious mimicry.  The Protestants of Northern
Ireland who pride themselves on their pure English
ancestry now speak English with a strong Irish
Brogue.)  Anyway……I don't say that this happened, but
it is something fun to think about, aye?

Well, thank you for listening to me.  I know that it
was presumptuous of me to have spent so much time
talking about my own opinions to people who are
undoubtedly better informed on the subject, but I
hope this will not prevent you from sharing any
information you have which might help me.  I am
living on Rota, an island in the Northern Marianas,
and trying to write a term paper without a library or
any facilities for research other than the Internet.
Any help you could give me, would be greatly


David Benson

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