Veterans and Language: Navajo Code Talkers

Here at Lionbridge, we do our best to bridge the gap between languages and communication.  But could that barrier sometimes be a good thing?  During World War II, a group of Navajo people found that their “untranslatable” language might just help save the world.

By 1942, the Nazi army had overtaken most of Europe, and the USA had just entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The communication between the Allied Forces was constantly being intercepted, and their encrypted codes were easily broken by the enemy.  The USA needed a better way to communicate without being detected so they could help defeat the Axis army and bring an end to the devastating war.

During this time, a civilian by the name of Philip Johnston had a thought while reading a newspaper about Native American soldiers trying to create a code.  Having spent most of his childhood on a reservation, Johnston knew the language of the Navajos and knew his idea could help with war-time communication.  He went to the USMC and, after a few proposals and presentations, they commissioned a pilot project for a small group of Navajo men.

Twenty-nine Navajos joined the Marine Corps and started creating a code based on their native language.  Instead of creating literal translations for words that didn’t exist in their language, they would have the Navajo word translate to an English word that represented the real word.  For example, planes were all birds, and different birds represented different types of planes: “Tas-Chizzie” meant Swallow, which represented a Torpedo Plane and “Atsah” meant Eagle, which represented a Transport plane.

A total of 420 Navajo soldiers were recruited to learn the code, consisting of translations for 211 english words.  Another 200 words were added and each letter of the alphabet had 2 or 3 words, so that the enemy would not be able to detect the repetition when spelling out words.

The 411 word code had terms for officers, countries, months, airplanes, battleship, and general vocabulary.  The code was used for three years in various battles, including Iwo Jima, and the code was never broken.  Many of the Code Talkers are still alive today, and you can listen to their personal stories.

Keeping native languages alive and in use is more important than we can ever know.  Not only is it a way to remember ancestors and cultural history, but we are always uncovering new uses for language.  So come on over to Lionbridge onDemand, where we can help you translate your materials into over 250 languages.