The Navajo language is a cornerstone of Navajo culture. Known to its speakers as Diné, Navajo is an Athabaskan language spoken by 150,000 people. Although Navajo is the most-spoken Native American language in the U.S., it is rarely spoken outside of the Navajo reservation.
An unwritten language without a traditional alphabet or symbols, Navajo’s extreme complexity of syntax makes it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. Navajo is a tonal language, with four separate tones of voice for pronouncing vowels: low, high, rising and falling. Two words with different meanings may have the same pronunciation, using different tones. Some Navajo words are nasalized, with sound coming through the nose instead of the mouth.
In the early 1900s, missionaries began publishing religious texts using their own invented Navajo alphabet. The directors of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Education commissioned the creation of a standardized alphabet in the 1930s, and the first modern Navajo dictionary followed soon after.
The Navajo language illustrates the Navajo worldview and its relationships. For instance, the phrase “I am hungry” in Navajo would instead be said as “Hunger is hurting me.” Non-Navajos often find it difficult to understand the Navajo language because of how objects relate to one another in culturally specific ways.
Language and Politics
For many younger Native Americans, retaining knowledge of their native language is crucial in maintaining a connection with culture and identity. But the Navajo language has been used as a tool of political oppression as well. Federally funded Native American boarding schools were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Christian missionaries and by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Separated from their families, Native American children were sent to these schools, often involuntarily, to be “assimilated” into white American culture. They were given new names, forced to convert to Christianity, forbidden to speak their native languages and were to converse solely in English. The forced suppression of traditional languages was part of a larger suppression of Native peoples and their cultures and teachings. As Marilyn Help Hood, Miss Navajo Nation 1977–78, explained in MISS NAVAJO, “Linguists say that a language can be lost within 20 years. If a language is lost, a culture will be lost.”Navajo was also the language of secure communications used by the Marines during World War II. Because of the language’s complexity, Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary who grew up on the reservation and spoke the language fluently, felt it would be a good idea to use Navajo to create an undecipherable code. Johnston, a World War I veteran, presented his idea to the Marines and staged tests under simulated combat conditions demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. The code talkers were deployed in the Pacific theater, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios.
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Audio courtesy Tom and Leita Kaus
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