And it doesn't always take outside forces to make a language change. Many changes are from within.
One example of this is the Chamorro word fåkkai.
For many years in the recent past, the word has been considered impolite. Older people will scold you for saying fåkkai in public conversation.
Ask an older person today what fåkkai means and they will say it means something along the lines of doing physical harm to someone; to demolish, tear apart and physically undo someone.
Yet....the grandparents of people today who consider the word fåkkai impolite in public conversation used the word without any shame or difficulty back in their day....because that older generation knew the original meaning of the word.
Case in point....Påle' Roman Maria de Vera - a Spanish missionary priest considered more expert in the Chamorro language than many Chamorros of his own day (1915-1941). And it was Chamorro people who said that!
Påle' Roman arrived on Guam in 1915 and immediately began learning Chamorro. And what kind of Chamorro was being spoken in 1915?
Well, suffice it to say that Padre Palomo, the first Chamorro priest, born in 1836, was still alive when Påle' Roman arrived in 1915. Padre Palomo's Chamorro would have been the Chamorro spoken in 1800, what he learned from his parents and grandparents. Padre Palomo was undoubtedly someone Påle' Roman spoke Chamorro with till Palomo passed away in 1919.
Påle' Roman published a Chamorro dictionary in 1932, but he certainly started compiling a list of Chamorro vocabulary many years before.
In that dictionary, Påle' Roman defines fåkkai as "to distribute," "to partition."
One example is taken from the old Chamorro custom of dividing the catch after fishing.
"Ma fåkkai-ñaihon i sengsong ni guihan."
"The people of the village were given a portion of the fish caught."
So clearly was this original meaning of fåkkai in the minds of Chamorros that, in the 1920s or 1930s, Påle' Roman used what many now consider an impolite word in one of his nobenas (devotional prayer book).
"Na' gai fakkai yo' nu i gråsia siha."
"Give me a portion of graces." Or, "Make me have a portion of graces."
And then there's this gem :
"Ha fåkkai si San Roke i guinahå-ña gi mamopble."
"San Roke distributed his possessions to the poor."
So, this is the original meaning of the word fåkkai. To distribute, to give people a portion of this or that.
HOW THE MEANING CHANGED
So far, we've been dealing with facts. Now we move into speculation.
If fåkkai originally meant "to distribute portions," then that involves the breaking apart of a whole.
The whole catch was broken down into portions in order to fåkkai the fish to the people in the village.
Perhaps this is where people formed the idea that to fåkkai is to break down, to break into parts or portions - no longer in order to distribute, but rather just to tear apart.
Thus, to fåkkai someone no longer meant to give that person his or her portion of something broken down, but rather to break apart the person him or herself.
Some people also use the word fåkkai when referring to mixing, by hand, different ingredients in cooking. This, too, is a breaking down of individual things in order to create a new thing out of the mix.
THEN COMES ENGLISH
Whether we like it or not, a huge number of Chamorros have allowed the English language, not only to supplant their own language, but also to influence the way they think about their own vocabulary.
What Chamorro will not chuckle when they hear someone say, "That Mexican restaurant is good. I love their chili." Only the younger, or highly Americanized, Chamorro, will not get the reference.
Because the Chamorro word fåkkai sounds so close to an English curse word, I believe fåkkai gained even more negativity among a new generation of Americanized Chamorros; Americanized in the sense that they let English influence the way they think even about Chamorro words that have no relation to English.
This mind set probably came about in the 1950s, and definitely by the 1960s.
THE WORD IS CHANGING EVEN NOW
Fast forward to our own times.
In the 1990s, a young man named Roman dela Cruz decided to market a brand of his own creation. It wasn't just clothing; his brand was closely associated with martial arts on Guam and beyond.
He gave the word fåkkai a new meaning; his own. He had a spiritualized meaning in his own mind when he used the word fåkkai in his marketing.
For Roman, fåkkai represents the spirit or soul of the local people - the life force inside us that propels us to keep living and to overcome all challenges and to thrive.
I know this because I asked Roman about it. But I am putting into my own words what I think Roman means. If you want to, ask Roman yourself what he means.
I can see how he could make this connection. By the 1950s, to fåkkai someone was to tear them apart - a show of power. In Roman's mind, fåkkai is that indomitable spirit that empowers us to handle life's challenges. It was a new meaning. And, to symbolize how new it was (and is), he also gave the word his own unique and stylistic spelling : fökai.
Thus we see how languages change.
From "distribution" to "break apart," with an uncomfortable similarity in sound to an English curse word, to "indomitable spirit."
The thing is, no matter what the dictionary says, the meaning of words depends on what the community says. Even the dictionary will add new meanings to old words because the community has adopted a new meaning to old words like "gay" or "sick." When something is good, some people call it "sick."
And a community does not arrive instantly at an agreement what words mean.
There will still be many Chamorros who will never accept alternate meanings of the word fåkkai; not even the original meaning! For them, fåkkai will always mean only one thing.....to physically damage someone.
And, believe it or not, there are still older Chamorros, here and there, on Guam and in the CNMI, who still know the original meaning of the word.
And will Chamorro speakers ever adopt, in big numbers, Roman's spiritual meaning of the word fåkkai? Time will tell.
One thing is for sure. His use of the word fåkkai on his shirts and other items for sale have put the word right smack in front of our faces, and has caused a negative reaction in some; bewilderment in others; and (unfortunately) apathy in others. For them, fökai is just cool. Or, is it hot?