Language of the Month: Navajo

As we continue language of the month, it can be important to remember that language is a vital component of not only our everyday communication, but also for intelligence and defense. As today, June 14th is Flag Day, let’s take a moment to learn about Navajo, a language that in many ways contributed, even if it was not the only factor to the Allied Forces winning World War 2.

Navajo is a language indigenous to the Southwestern United States, particularly along the Mexican-American border. It is currently spoken and understood by around 120,000 speakers, and there have been several attempts to keep the language alive. Many initiatives, such as the Bilingual Education Act signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, have helped revive the language from nearly extinct to its current status today, and Navajo is one of the most commonly taught indigenous languages in the United States.

What makes Navajo unique is the large number of phonemes and the small amount of loanwords from other languages, making it one of the better examples of a language in isolation for study by linguists. Navajo has 37 unique phonemes, many which are uncommon in today’s spoken languages, and all of the stops and affricates can be done in three separate ways, sometimes heavily affecting the meaning of the word.

What is most notable about the language, and the reason that it is recognized as the most popular “code talker” language used during World War 2, is that the language did not have a written form until the 1930s. Because of the scarcity of written information on the language, these “code talkers” were able to use a simple cipher, where each word represented an English letter.  Even though other Native American languages were used for code talking, Navajo is still regarded as the most famous example as it completely baffled anyone who was able to listen in on radio conversations. Despite the many, many inaccuracies (which have been well-documented on several websites), the movie Windtalkers starring Nicolas Cage and Mark Ruffalo helped bring the Navajo language back to the forefront of conversation in 2004.

As you can see, sometimes the most challenging part of a language, in this case, pronunciation and lack of written vocabulary, not only can be of high value to etymologists and linguists, but also of value outside of the language’s culture. It is these unique qualities that remind us why all languages need to be preserved and memorialized, and why the Year of Indigenous Languages will be vital as we meet the halfway point.

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