Friday, August 3, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Navajo Language

The Navajo language is extremely complex and the pronunciation difficult. A few traders and missionaries had even tried to learn it prior to 1942, but they only learned enough to conduct their business. They never attempted to use Navajo in daily conversations. Indeed, there were only about 28 non-Navajos who understood the language extensively.

An attempt had been made to write the language, but it remained essentially oral. It remained pure since the Navajos did not adopt foreign words as other languages often do. For instance, when the radio and telephone made an appearance on the reservation, they created new Navajo words for them. "Radio" became nil-chi-hal-ne-ih and "telephone" was besh-hal-ne-ih. The words are not pronounced as written since each syllable requires sounds that would need accent marks and phonetic symbols. Even with knowledge of phonetic symbols the unpracticed tongue would find it difficult.

Anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn wrote that the talk of those who learned Navajo as adults always had a flabby quality to the Navajo ear.

Next: The Choctaw Precursors

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