Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

Fresh from a trip to the Northern Mariana Island (NMI) of Saipan, linguistics professor Sandra Chung is already hard at work in her office. Her quiet demeanor underscores the importance of her work updating and adding to the existing Chamorro-English dictionary, originally compiled by Donald M. Topping.

Chamorro is spoken in Guam and the NMIs, located east of the Philippines. According to the CIA’s 2000 census, the Chamorro population in Guam and the NMI is 72,127. 

Starting in September of last year, Chung, who is not Chamorro herself, teamed up with a group of Chamorro educators and community members to begin working on an extensive update of the Chamorro-English dictionary. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the project will continue for at least the next three years. The overall goal of the project is to better document a language in threat of endangerment. 

Chung, who has studied Chamorro since 1977 and has been at UC Santa Cruz since 1986, cites a survey conducted four years ago, which reported that only 15 percent of children under the age of five in the NMI speak Chamorro at home. 

Although Chung is hesitant to say the language is in immediate jeopardy, she said that “endangerment is a continuum,” meaning that it starts subtly and progresses through the generations.

“The Chamorro language has come under enormous pressure in the last 20 to 30 years because of the overwhelming presence and pressure of English in the educational system,” linguistics department chair Jim McCloskey said in an e-mail.

Chung said that because English is used in school, younger Chamorro might have a harder time maintaining use of the language. 

“The bilingual education classes have been replaced by culture classes,” Chung said. “Those are good, but they don’t exactly preserve the language.”

 With the help of representatives from the islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota, that is precisely what Chung is doing. 


To achieve their goals, the group Chung leads with Elizabeth D. Rechebei from Economic Development Research, LLC and Rita H. Inos, commissioner of education for the Commonwealth of the NMI public school system, adds to the original dictionary’s 336 pages with words previously overlooked. 

According to the NMI Council for the Humanities’ Web site, which offers updates for the Chamorro community after each meeting Inos and Rechebei conduct, there are six primary teams of native speakers contributing to the dictionary. Additional teams are organized by themes culturally relevant to the Chamorro community like fishing, agriculture and religion. 

Chung wanted to stress the importance of teamwork in the project.

“It’s the community that’s doing the revision,” she said. “[There’s] a group negotiation of every word’s meaning.”

Chamorro people are encouraged to participate by proposing entries, Inos said. 

“Everyone on [the island of Rota] is pretty versed on what is going on with the dictionary through the television airing on our public channel,” she added.

Inos said that updating the dictionary has resulted in tremendous excitement among both islanders and speakers.

In addition to the many new entries in the dictionary, the words’ parts of speech will now be listed. Examples for many of the words will also be provided in a culturally relevant way. This, and the accompanying video documentation Rechebei will provide, has larger implications both for the Chamorro people and their language. 

Chung anticipates the benefit that a new, more comprehensive Chamorro-English dictionary will have for Chamorro speakers in the Mariana Islands, saying that she hopes it will encourage them to think more analytically and critically about their language.

To McCloskey, a revitalized dictionary “represent[s] one thread in a much larger transnational project to document, preserve, and revitalize small local languages and the cultures that live and breathe through those languages.”

As Inos put it, “Chamorro is not just a language — it is a way of life, [and that] way of life is threatened when the language is threatened.”