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  • Chamorro Historical Phonology1
  • Robert Blust

After a brief look at the synchronic phonology of this language of the Mariana Islands, the details of its development from Proto-Austronesian are set forth. Questions of subgrouping within Austronesian and the original settlement of these islands are also considered.

1. Background.

Only two of the more than 450 Austronesian (AN) languages spoken in the Pacific region do not belong to the Oceanic subgroup. One of these is Palauan, the other Chamorro. The history of these languages differs markedly from that of other AN languages in Micronesia, and from one another. Each appears to have arisen through separate migrations out of insular Southeast Asia some 3,500-4,000 years ago.

Although the historical phonology of Chamorro has been mentioned in passing by various writers (Conant 1908, 1910; Dempwolff 1920; Dyen 1962; Dahl 1976:46ff.; Reid, to appear) and was treated at some length by Costenoble (1940) on the basis of reconstructed forms as they were then formulated, no fully adequate account has yet appeared. In fact, some features of Chamorro historical phonology, such as glide addition and fortition, have been persistently misunderstood. No one has looked at the ordering of historical changes in Chamorro, or sorted out the substantial loan vocabulary. In short, a thorough treatment of the phonological history of this language is long overdue.

In addition to shedding light on the nature of changes that produced some rather odd-looking results, a careful analysis of the historical phonology should have an important bearing on claims about the linguistic position of Chamorro.

2. Synchronic Phonology.

The major published source of data on the phonology and lexicon of Chamorro is Topping (1973), and Topping, Ogo, and Dungca (1975). Before considering the historical phonology of Chamorro, it will be worthwhile to briefly examine some major features of the synchronic phonology.

Topping (1973:27) lists 19 consonant phonemes for Chamorro: p, t, k, '; b, d, g; ch, y, f, s, h, m, n, ñ, ng, l, r, and w. To these we can add the labiovelar gw, which is treated as a sequence gu before a vowel, but which patterns like a single consonant.2 A single possible velarized labial appears in pwengi 'night', a word that appears to have been borrowed from an Oceanic source language. Most orthographic symbols have their expected phonetic values, the most notable exception being y, which represents [dz], the voiced counterpart of ch ([ts]). In addition, t and d are said to be typically alveolar, but are pronounced as postdental for some speakers.

The phonemes b, d, k, and r have no known historical source, and are found only in known or presumed loanwords. The great majority of loanwords derive from Spanish, but a smaller number are from English or various central Philippine languages, although in some cases it is difficult to pinpoint a source. Examples of traceable loanwords include:3

b: babui 'pig' (probably Tagalog báboy), bahu 'bass voice' (Spanish bajo 'low');

d: dakdak 'knock, rap, strike with a quick, sharp blow' (Cebuano dakdak 'fall down with a bang', or a similar form in other Philippine languages), debet 'haggard, debilitated' (Spanish débil 'weak, feeble');

k: kabán 'burlap sack (100 pound)' (Tagalog kabán 'chest, trunk'), kanta 'sing' (Spanish cantar 'to sing');

r: arak 'distilled liquor made from fermented coconut sap' (Malay arak 'distilled alcoholic liquor' (ultimately from Arabic), rumót 'rumor' (Spanish rumor 'rumor, report').

Chamorro contains many loanwords of unknown provenance. Most of these probably derive from languages in the central Philippines, although some may originate from other parts of the Philippines, or Indonesia. Examples include bachet 'blind', besbes 'sizzle, as frying fat', dulok 'bore, stab, puncture, perforate', dumang 'tooth decay', kacha' 'husk a coconut; tool for husking', kilok 'revolve, roll in a circle, spin', birak 'ghost, demon, disembodied soul', chara 'type of plant that grows near the sea', sirek 'coitus, sexual intercourse'.

Initial consonant clusters occur only in Spanish loans, but native words allow a variety of medial clusters, including geminate stops and nasals, as in pappa 'strip bark off a tree, skin an animal', or mommo' 'short-eared owl'. Topping (1973:36) states that voiced stops (b, d, g), affricates...


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