Navajo is the most widely spoken of all Native American languages, and it is often called one of the most beautiful.
With its verb-based structure, lyrical descriptions, nasal tones and glottal stops, Navajo – or Diné bizaad – is also one of the most difficult languages to learn. The U.S. military relied on that during World War II when it recruited Navajo speakers into a special Marine Corps program and used the language to develop a tactical code.
These Navajo code talkers helped confound the enemy and turn the tide of the war. When the code was declassified decades later, the wartime effort helped solidify Navajo as something of a national treasure.
Yet the language is becoming increasingly clouded with English words, a trend some Native speakers find alarming.
“Our language is shifting,” said Lorraine Manavi, assistant professor of Navajo language at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. “With new technology out there, people are using English words instead of the Navajo translation.”
The Navajo language is descriptive, so the term for email is tsx????? hane', or “story that gets there fast,” said Manavi, who helped develop the Navajo Rosetta Stone software. Likewise, the term for cell phone means “the one you spin around with;” texting is to “write a letter on the phone;” and a computer is “metal that thinks on its own.”
It can be easier and quicker to just use the English word, Manavi said. The result is conversations or even sentences that are part Navajo and part English, or “Navalish.”
“Because of today’s society with all its new terms, it’s hard to keep up with the translations,” Manavi said. “Even with cars, it’s faster to say it in English. I don’t even want to know how to say ‘seat warmer’ in Navajo.”
Though humorous, the trend may have serious implications for a tribal nation battling decreasing interest in the language and questions of fluency among leaders. The Nation has been embroiled in controversy since last fall when the Navajo Supreme Court disqualified presidential candidate Chris Deschene after he failed to prove he speaks fluent Navajo.
The legal challenge changed the course of the election and shed light on a growing issue, Manavi said. Fluency, which at one time meant immersion in both language and culture, now can depend on the environment. People can be fluent in medical jargon, for example, but not in religious settings. Or they may speak conversational Navajo but get lost in politics, she said.
At the root of the confusion is a language that fluctuates, one that is subjective and often ephemeral. Navajo is a language that differs in usage even within communities, and it’s a language that, traditionally, was used for oral storytelling and not meant to be permanent.
In short, said Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie, professor emeritus of Navajo language at Northern Arizona University, Navajo is a living language.
“Navajo is a language that describes anything new,” she said. “If there’s a single word in Navajo, one word for an item, then you know it was part of the world our ancestors lived in. Since then, they’ve had to describe everything. The Navajo language draws pictures for us.”
While lawmakers and attorneys on the Navajo Nation continue to quarrel over a definition of fluency, Parsons-Yazzie said the bigger concern might be children growing up semi-lingual, or fluent in neither Navajo nor English.
“Educators are worried that children won’t hear full sentences in English or Navajo,” she said. “When that happens, children learn a language, but they don’t acquire it. They don’t pick it up automatically from hearing it every day.”
But Navalish may not be as ominous a trend as it seems, Parsons-Yazzie said. The phenomenon of interchanging words in different languages is actually indicative of a higher grasp of both tongues.
Called code-switching, the act of weaving languages together orally has occurred among Navajo since they were introduced to English, Parsons-Yazzie said. Her own father, a Baptist minister, spoke in combinations of words from English, Spanish, Navajo and Hopi.
“For the speaker, it’s a higher level skill, meaning that you have to know both languages quite well in order to do that,” she said. “You have to know grammatically where it fits, and if both parties know what the term is that was switched, the message is not interrupted at all.”
Although Parsons-Yazzie believes Navalish is a natural occurrence, she warns against substituting English terms simply out of convenience. Dictionaries of specialized terms are produced regularly, she said, and the Navajo language is evolving as the world does.
“Our language never really adopts words,” she said. “It never lent itself to that, but to descriptive terms. It is our responsibility to find the translations because the Navajo language is our elder and we have to take care of it any way we can.”