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Navajo Citations   Navajo Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: 148,500 speakers

Key Dialects: See below.

Geographical Center: northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah, USA

Navajo is spoken by just under 150,000 speakers, and is widely credited as being the strongest of the indigenous languages of the United States.

Navajo is a language of the Apachean subgroup of the Athabaskan branch of the Na-Dené language family, along with Apache. Other Athabaskan languages include Chipewyan, Beaver, Sekani, Carrier, Hupa, Slave, Wailaki, Tagish, and more.

Variations exist in Navajo, but these are not well documented. The most documented variation is yaz vs. zas 'snow'. Variations also occur in alternations between syllable initial C, which can be manifested t/k/x, x/h/gh/w/y. Some variations are also noted in the use of s/sh in the 1st person possessive.

Navajo is written using the Latin alphabet. Navajo adds the use of an apostrophe for the glottal stop, which is the most frequent sound in Navajo. Ejective consonants are also marked with an apostrophe – t’, k’, ts’, and ł is used for the palatal lateral. A cedilla is used to mark nasalization, and an acute accent is used to mark high tone. Long vowels are written as two vowels. Overlong vowels occur when a long vowel is followed by a glottal stop or a [d].

The number of phonemes in Navajo is disputed, but many scholars agree that there are thirty-three consonants, including a large number of affricates and fricatives, and twelve vowel sounds. Length is phonemic in Navajo, and vowels appear either short, long, or overlong. Navajo syllables carry either a high, low, rising, or falling tone. Falling and rising tone can occur on long syllables. A rising tone is marked in the orthography by the acute accent on the second vowel, while falling is marked by the acute accent on the first syllable.

Navajo has no grammatical gender, so bi is used for his, her, and its.

Navajo has a small inventory of basic monosyllabic nouns, such as so’ ‘star’, kó’ ‘fire’, and dził ‘mountain’. Otherwise it is common for verb forms to be used as derived nouns, such as neest’ą ‘it has matured = fruit’, and ólta’ ‘reading is completed = school’.br>
Navajo has a singular, dual, and different categories of plural (such as a distributive plural which marks a group of individual items rather than a true plurality). These categories are typically marked on the verb, rarely on the noun.

Modifying information is usually provided by a third person singular form of the verb, rather than a true adjective, such as ‘to be thick, sharp, green’. Some adjectival suffixes are affixed to nouns, such as -tsoh ‘big’, and -chil(í) ‘small’.

All verbs are divided into two basic categories, static, and dynamic. The static verbs are conjugated in the perfective and continuative.

Negation in Navajo is expressed by means of the circumfix doo…da: dayoosdląąd ‘they believed’ ~ doodayoosdląądda ‘they did not believe’.

Navajo has free word order as concerns subjects, objects, and verbs, but within the verbal complex order is strictly fixed: prefix-pronominal subject-object-classifier-stem.

Like all of the indigenous languages of North America, Navajo suffered a drastic drop in the numbers of speakers due to many factors, including the drop in population after first contact with European settlers due to disease and war, the demand that Navajos assimilate to European culture once on the reservation, and the lack of a viable economic future on the reservation.

In the twentieth century, however, Navajo experienced a renaissance of sorts when the revival of traditional culture and values led to increased interest in the language by the Navajos. Bilingual programs in the schools for the children and courses for adults eventually led to a rise in the numbers of speakers of Navajo. Navajo was the only indigenous language of North America to experience such an upturn, and became a model for other indigenous people to follow with their own tribal languages.

Recent trends have stunted this growth, however, at least in regards to Navajo as a native, first language. Whereas in 1968 90% of first graders used Navajo as their first language, in 1998 the number had fallen to 30%. Economic conditions on the reservation remain a factor in the number of speakers. Also, the Navajo language is seen as an integral part of the Navajo spiritual beliefs. Some Navajos who have become Christianized fear that teaching their children the Navajo language will introduce the children to spiritual influences the parents may not approve of.

About 1000 years ago the Navajo and other Apachean groups, who traveled southwest from Canada, separated. The Navajo arrived in the area where the Navajo currently live and which is know in Navajo as Dinetah around the year 1300.

There are two purported origins for the name Navajo. The first is Spanish Apaches de Nabajo because Navajo and Apache languages are mutually intelligible. The other is Tewa navahuu ‘field and wide valley’.

Spanish records from the 1630s show the Navajo planted maize, hunted, traded with the Pueblos, and were good warriors. In 1863 Kit Carson was supposed to round-up all Navajo and incarcerate them at Ft. Sumner New Mexico. 6000 went and many died of hunger and illness. The Navajo were allowed to return home in 1868.

The Navajo now number over 200,000 and are the second largest tribe in the United States after the Cherokee. The Navajo are the largest Native American speech community in the US, but the number of speakers is shrinking because children speak it less each year. A shift to English as the dominant language is in progress, especially near urban centers. Most reservation schools offer Navajo instruction, and some schools are bilingual with Navajo immersion programs. Dine College offers language and literature instruction. It also gives teacher certification in Navajo bilingual education.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Fernald, Theodore B. and Paul R. Platero. 2000. “Sacred and Secular Issues in Navajo Education” in Thedore B. Fernald and Paul R. Platero ed. The Athabaskan Languages: Perspectives on a Native American Language Family. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Garry, J. and C. Rubino, eds. 2001. Facts About the World's Languages. New York: H.W. Wilson Company.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

House, Deborah. 2002. Language Shift Among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural Continuity. University of Arizona Press.

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