Profile of an Endangered Language: Navajo

Lionbridge onDemand is proud to be bringing you a brand-new blog series designed to profile some of the world's thousands of endangered languages. Yes, that's right - some languages are, in fact, in danger of going extinct. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sets forth the criteria for and categorizes languages that may be endangered or extinct.

This week's profile is on one of America's great historical languages: Navajo.

After reading, check out some resources on Navajo and see what you can do to help preserve its amazing legacy!

what is navajo?

        Navajo Nation, where Navajo is spoken

        Navajo Nation, where Navajo is spoken

Navajo is a Native American language mainly spoken in the Navajo Nation, located primarily in the four corner states - Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. It is a Southern Athabaskan language of the Na-Dene family.   As of the most recent census, there are about 170,000 Navajo speakers left, leaving the language vulnerable by UNESCO standards.

Experts believe that Navajo was carried from Canada to the American Southwest as early as 1500 CE.

The Navajo language started experiencing a decline in use due to European colonization. The Spanish started settling in Navajo territory in the early nineteenth century, at which time Spanish became a common language in the area. When the US annexed this territory in 1848, English-speaking settlers moved in and brought their language and culture with them. Navajo continued to experience dilution until 1968, when then-President Eisenhower signed the Bilingual Education Act. This act provided education funds for non-English speaking US students, which allowed the Navajo people to build a bilingual education program. This has helped to revive the language within the tribe.

The Navajo language is strongly and indelibly associated with WWII Navajo code talkers. In fact, we published a blog post about it a couple of months ago.

We'll give you a little refresher on how Navajo code talkers operated. 

               Navajo code talkers during WWII

               Navajo code talkers during WWII

During WWII, twenty-nine Navajos joined the US Marine Corps and started creating a code based on the Navajo 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, battleships, and other general necessary vocabulary. 

It is widely believed that without these Navajo code talkers, the US may not have been as successful in WWII.

fun facts about navajo

Here are some informational tidbits that you may not have known about the Navajo language!

  • Although the name "Navajo" is well known, actual Navajo people call their language "Dine Bizaad." The Navajo refer to themselves as "Dine," which means "the People." The Navajo name was given to the tribe by Spanish settlers.
  • Navajo is closely related to the Apache group of languages, but is quite different than many other Native American languages.
  • The basic structure of Navajo is subject-object-verb (SOV), whereas English is subject-verb-object (SVO).
  • The first Navajo-compatible typewriter was created in the 1940's.
  • Navajo code talkers were used by the US military from WWII through the early part of the Vietnam War. The Navajo code is the only spoken military code that has never been deciphered. Talk about impressive! 
                                            Navajo learning chart

                                            Navajo learning chart

navajo resources

Here are a few websites that can provide more education about the history and preservation of Navajo! 

Keeping the Navajo Language Relevant

Navajo Language Renaissance

Students air their thoughts on language preservation

the bottom line

There's no doubt that the Navajo language holds a special and unique place in American linguistic history. Without Navajo code talkers, it's likely that WWII could have had a completely trajectory.

You may still encounter a situation where a Navajo translation is needed. If the need arises, call on your good friends at Lionbridge. Our vast network of over 25,000 linguists allows us to source translators for hundreds of languages, including Navajo. To learn more about our services and our onDemand portal, visit our website.

See you again for our next endangered language profile!


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