Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Language Profile: Navajo

This week we're taking look at the Navajo language, a member of the Na-Dené language family. It is primarily spoken by the Navajo, the largest Native American tribe in the United States. Most of its approximately 170,000 speakers live in the southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico.

A beautiful hand-woven Navajo blanket
Navajo is the most widely spoken Native American language in the United States. While it is somewhat threatened by the importance placed on speaking English in the United States, the Navajo Nation has worked hard over the past several decades to ensure that children are provided with education and immersion programs in the Navajo language. At the higher education level, a local tribal community college offers an associate's degree in Navajo, while Arizona State University offers courses in the language.

The Navajo language is also used in media such as radio broadcasting. It was also recently used in film when Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was translated into Navajo in 2013. This was an especially important event because it was the first major film ever to be translated into a Native American language. 

One of the most interesting things about the Navajo language pertains to its use during World War II by code talkers. Starting in World War I, the U.S. government hired Native Americans who spoke little-known languages to transmit messages for them using codes based on their languages as a form of secret communication. While Cherokee and Choctaw code talkers were used during WWI and other indigenous languages such as Comanche, Meskwaki, Basque, and Seminole were also used during WWII, the Navajo remain the group most commonly associated with the term, which we'll be looking at in more depth in the near future.