Unfolding the Map
A stop in Tuba City, Arizona on the Navajo Nation gives me a chance to recognize my fascination with the complexities of language and how Native American languages helped win the Pacific War in World War II. Thanks, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM)! Click on the map thumbnail at right to see where Tuba City, largest community in the Navajo Nation, is located.
"Tuba City, founded by Mormon missionaries as an agency and named after a Hopi chieftain although now mostly a Navajo town, caught the sandstorm full face....
"....I've read that Navajo, a language related to that of the Indians of Alaska and northwest Canada, has no curse words unless you consider 'coyote' cursing. By comparison with other native tongues, it's remarkably free of English and Spanish; a Navajo mechanic, for example, has more than two hundred purely Navajo terms to describe automobile parts. And it might be Navajo that will greet the first extraterrestrial ears to hear from planet Earth: on board each Voyager spacecraft traveling toward the edge of the solar system and beyond is a gold-plated, long-playing record; following an aria from Mozart's Magic Flute and Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode,' is a Navajo night chant, music the conquistadores heard."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 2
Tuba City, Navajo Nation
It is very interesting how synchronicity sometimes enters into the picture when one is searching for a topic for a blog where he's done 125 or so previous posts already. I was trying to figure out an angle for this post, and then the faculty and staff newsletter at the university where I work had a story on a Navajo professor of linguistics who has been studying the Navajo language. To see the full text of the article, go here. Otherwise, I'll give you a quick synopsis. Before I do, however, I have to say that I love the idea of languages and linguistics. I have never studied them in much depth - I can say a few words in Spanish and German - but I am amazed at the way language can influence a person's view of the world. Sometimes, I feel shackled by knowing only English, and that I could grow so much if I only knew another language fluently. I guess that is for the next life.
According to the article, Navajo is more in use as an everyday language than ever before, despite the inherent difficulties in translation to and from English. In Gallup, New Mexico, right next to the Navajo Nation reservation, a radio station sportscaster does play-by-play of local basketball games in the Navajo language (known as Diné). In Pine Hill, New Mexico, a local radio newscaster translates the national NPR news into Diné in real time.
I'd always heard that the Inuit lnaguages have some insane amount of words to describe snow. LHM writes that Navajo is related to those languages, and therefore it makes sense that a Navajo mechanic would have 200 or more words for auto parts at his or her disposal. I can't even imagine having so many words available to me for one concept. In English, rather than having separate words describe the many facets of one thing, we add qualifiers - adjectives - that gives us the quality of the thing being described. Snow is powdery, or fluffy, or wet, or cold, or any of a number of ways snow can be. The adjectives can be used in other contexts as well, such as fluffy bedding or powdery sugar. In that way, we take some shortcuts to be efficient. We learn adjectives and nouns separately and combine them as we see fit. It seems that in Navajo and languages to which it is related, you learn the adjective and noun together in one word. You would then have a word which means fluffy snow, which is quite distinct from the word that means powdery snow, and so on.
Not only that, but evidently, according to Professor Paul Platero at the University of New Mexico, a linguist and Navajo himself, the verb structure of Navajo is even more complex. We have a subject-verb-object structure in English, as in, for example, "I see the dog." We change the verb a little to indicate tenses, such as "I saw the dog," or "I will see the dog." However, Navajo adds prefixes onto the verb, up to nine in all, in order to indicate tense and other types of qualifiers. One must translate the subject, verb and all the prefixes to get the intent of the speaker and do it fast enough in order to understand and move on.
Not only that, but Professor Platero says that there are regional dialects of Navajo. Northeastern and Eastern reservation Navajo sound more nasally than Navajo from the central reservation region, and western Navajo have a vowel sound unheard in the rest of the reservation. Should you visit Tuba City, you would probably hear that type of dialect from people who are more local, though you would probably hear some of all dialects (and Hopi) since Tuba City is the largest community in the Navajo Nation.
It is that complexity which encouraged the US military to use Navajos in the Pacific Theater in World War II as "code talkers." The language was so complex and so difficult to translate that the Japanese never broke the code. We had broken the Japanese code relatively early in the war, and were able to know where their troop movements and ship movements were going. The US military even used its understanding of the Japanese code to intercept Japanese naval commander-in-chief Yamamoto's (the architect of the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor) and shoot down his plane while he was on a tour of military operations in Southeast Asia.
The US military Navajo code was never broken by the Japanese. Primarily used by the US Marines, it was used to transmit secret tactical information over radio. The Navajo code talkers were extremely accurate, and Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, commended them by saying that the US would have never taken Iwo Jima without them. The Navajo code was also used in the Korean and Vietnam Wars until it was retired. Other Native American languages were also used, such as Choctaw, Comanche, Cherokee and Meskwaki, but the Navajo code became the most famous out of all of them. The US did not acknowledge the Navajo or other Native American code talkers and their achievements until President Reagan's commendation of the Navajo code talkers, and it took up to 2007 for the other tribes that provided code talkers to be recognized for their war efforts.
Should a friendly extraterrestrial life form discover the Voyager spacecraft and hear the gold plated recordings, let's hope that they are sophisticated enough to understand one of the most difficult languages on our planet. Should they be unfriendly, let's hope that they find it too difficult, or we may be calling on the Navajo to help us again. Now why didn't they think of that in the movie Independence Day?
If you want to know more about Tuba City
Next up: Navajo Bridge, Arizona