About Navajo

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The content of this page was contributed by Dr. Douglas Whalen.


Navajo, also known as Diné and Navaho, belongs to the Apachean Language Group of the Athapaskan language family. About 170,000 Navajos speak their language in the Southwest (in the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) of the United States, with about 7,616 monolinguals (according to the 1990 census). Although of Navajo has the largest number of speakers of all indigenous languages in North America north of Mexico, and the number increases each year, the number of nonspeakers within the Navajo Nation is increasing at a proportionally greater rate. With the most prominent characteristic of endangered languages being a significant decrease in first language acquisition, Navajo may be considered endangered as its use is declining among the Navajo youth, with 30% first-language speakers among first graders in 1998 versus 90% in 1968.

The Navajo language became rather famous during World War II with the renowned code talkers. During the postwar years there was a Navajo literacy campaign and a number of children's books were published in that period. As Navajo is not necessarily the dominant language of a Navajo school-age child, the educational response to this situation has taken the form of a Navajo language immersion program. Students in the Navajo immersion program are not taking Navajo as a "foreign language" so much as they are endeavoring to meet state standards through Navajo. Navajo has been and remains an elective at the high school level. A number of universities in the area accept Navajo as meeting their foreign language requirements (Hale, 2001).

"The Navajo language is spoken over a very wide geographic area, and dialect variation does exist, although it is not very well documented to date. The most salient example that is often cited is 'yas' versus 'zas' (snow). Alternations have been documented between syllable initial consonants t/k/x, x/h, s/ts, and gh/w/y. In additon there is some variation in the use of s/sh in first-person possessive prefix that is not always because of sibilant assimilation but rather appears to be from dialect difference. Saville-Troike (1974) also discusses some lexical variation" (Field, 2001).

Navajo Nation map

Navajo family tree


Navajo is a polysynthetic agglutinating language with SOV word order. Word order is flexible, however, to allow arguments to be arranged according to the animacy hierarchy. Nouns are marked for possession only, while up to nine markings may be prefixed to the verb.

More on Navajo grammar


Navajo stems have either CV or CVC structure, and the language incorporates phonemic tone. Navajo has a voicing distinction in stops and fricatives and uses five phonemic ejectives. There is both a length and a nasal/oral distinction in Navajo vowels.

More on Navajo phonology


Today, there are approximately 240,000 Navajos in the Southwest of the United States. The Athabaskans first traveled to this area 1,000 years ago, leaving a large contingent in Canada and Alaska. In 1863, the American government forced them to leave their traditional homeland and resettle in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. They were permitted to return to their homeland four years later.

More on Navajo history

Navajo references

Follow the path of the Navajo Data

  1. Get started: Summary of the Navajo conversion
  2. Digitize audio: Audio pages (Classroom)
  3. Digitize video: Video page (Classroom)
  4. Convert characters to Unicode: Conversion page (Classroom)
  5. Align text: Interlinearized glossed text pages (classroom)
  6. Annotate video: Annotation page (Classroom)
  7. Store text: XML page (Classroom)
  8. Present video: Stylesheets page (Classroom)

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