Navajo language

From Academic Kids

Navajo (Din)
Spoken in: USA
Region: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado
Total speakers: 149,000
Ranking: Not among the top 100
Genetic classification: Na-Den
   Southern Athabaskan
Official status
Official language of:
Regulated by:
Language codes
ISO 639-1nv
ISO 639-2nav
See also: LanguageList of languages

Navajo (Din bizaad) (occasionally spelled Navaho) is a Southern Athabaskan or Apachean language of the Athabaskan language family, belonging to the Na-Den phylum. It is like the other Southern Athabaskan languages in that although the majority of the languages in the Na-Den family are spoken much farther north (Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Canadian Provinces), Navajo is spoken much farther south (in the southwest United States) by the Navajo people (Din).

Navajo claims more speakers than any other Native American language north of the US-Mexico border, with more than 100,000 native speakers, and this number is actually increasing with time. During World War II, a code based on Navajo was used by code talkers to send secure military messages over radio.




There are four vowels in Navajo: a, e, i and o. Each of these may occur as

  • short, as in a and e,
  • long, as in aa and ee,
  • nasalized, as in ą and ęę,

or with one of four tones:

  • high, as in and ,
  • low, as in aa and ee,
  • rising, as in a and e or
  • falling, as in a and e.

Various combinations of these features are possible, as in ą́ą́ (long, nasalized, high tone).


The consonants of Navajo in the standard orthography are listed below (with IPA notation in brackets):

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral plain labial
Stop unaspirated   b     d         g      
aspirated     t         k      
ejective     t'         k'       '  
Affricate unaspirated     dz     dl     j        
aspirated     ts         ch        
ejective     ts'     tł'     ch'        
Fricative voiceless     s     ł     sh     h     hw     h  
voiced     z     l     zh     gh     ghw    
Nasal     m     n            
Glide (labio-velar)   w         y        

The lateral l is actually a voiced lateral approximant, while ł is realized as a fricative. This pairing is common among languages because a true voiceless l is harder to perceive. However, some other Athabaskan languages, notably Han, have a pair of voiced and voiceless lateral fricatives.

As in many northwestern American languages, Navajo is extremely poor in labial consonants.


Phonological processes

Consonant harmony.


Typologically, Navajo is an agglutinating, polysynthetic head-marking language, but many of its affixes combine into barely recognizable contractions more like fusional languages. The canonical word order of Navajo is SOV. Athabaskan words are modified primarily by prefixes, which is unusual for an SOV language (suffixes are expected).

Navajo is a "verb-heavy" language — it has a great preponderance of verbs but relatively few nouns. In addition to verbs and nouns, Navajo has other elements such as pronouns, clitics of various functions, demonstratives, numerals, postpositions, adverbs, and conjunctions, among others. Harry Hoijer grouped all of the above into a word-class which he called particles (i.e., Navajo would then have verbs, nouns, and particles). There is nothing that corresponds to what are called adjectives in English — this adjectival function being provided by verbs.


Many concepts that exist as nouns in other languages exist as verbs in Navajo. Noun phrases exist in Navajo outside of syntactic space: that is, they are not necessary for forming a grammatical sentence and exist purely for semantical reasons. Noun phrases are unique in Navajo because they lie in the adjunction domain, rather than in A or A’ positions, and do not receive overt case marking.


The key element in Navajo is the verb and is notoriously complex. Some noun meanings are provided by verbs, as in Hoozdo 'Phoenix, Arizona' (lit., 'the place is hot') and ch''tiin 'doorway' (lit., 'something has a path horizontally out'). Many complex nouns are derived from nominalized verbs as well, as in n'oolkił 'clock' (lit., 'one that is moved slowly in a circle') and chid naa'na' bik' dah naaznilg 'army tank' (lit., 'a car that they sit up on top of that crawls around with a big thing with which an explosion is made').

Verbs are composed of an abstract stem to which inflectional and/or derivational prefixes are added. Every verb must have at least one prefix. The prefixes are affixed to the verb in a specified order.

The Navajo verb can be sectioned into different components. The verb stem is composed of an abstract root and an often fused suffix. The stem together with a classifier prefix (and sometimes other thematic prefixes) make up the verb theme. The theme is then combined with derivational prefixes which in turn make up the verb base. Finally, inflectional prefixes (which Young & Morgan call "paradigmatic prefixes") are affixed to the base—producing a complete Navajo verb.

Verb Template

The prefixes that occur on a Navajo verb are added in specified order according to prefix type. This type of morphology is called a position class template (or slot-and-filler template). Below is a table of a recent proposal of the Navajo verb template (Young & Morgan 1987). (Edward Sapir and Harry Hoijer were the first to propose an analysis of this type.) A given verb will not have a prefix for every fact, most Navajo verbs are not as complex as the template would seem to suggest.

The Navajo verb has 3 main parts:

disjunct prefixes conjunct prefixes stem

These parts may be subdivided into 11 positions, with some of the positions having even further subdivisions:

disjunct prefixes conjunct prefixes stem
0 1a 1b 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
postposition object postposition adverbial-thematic iterative plural direct object deictic adverbial-thematic mode-aspect subject classifier stem

Although prefixes are generally found in a specific position, some prefixes change order by the process of metathesis. For example, prefix 'a- (3i object pronoun) usually occurs before di-, as in

adisbąąs 'I'm starting to drive some kind of wheeled vehicle along' [ < 'a- + di- + sh- + ł + -bąąs].

However, when 'a- occurs with the prefixes di- and ni-, the 'a- metathesizes with di-, leading to an order of di- + 'a- + ni-, as in

di'nisbąąs 'I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck' [ < di-'a-ni-sh-ł-bąąs < 'a- + di- + ni- + sh- + ł + -bąąs]

instead of the expected adinisbąąs ('a-di-ni-sh-ł-bąąs) (note also that 'a- is reduced to '-).


Classificatory Verbs

Navajo has verb stems that classify a particular object by its shape or other physical characteristics in addition to describing the movement or state of the object. These are known in Athabaskan linguistics as classificatory verb stems. These are usually identified by an acronym label. There are eleven primary classificatory "handling" verbs stems, which are listed below (given in the perfective mode):

Classifier+Stem   Label   Explanation Examples
SRO Solid Roundish Object bottle, ball, boot, box, etc.
LPB Load, Pack, Burden backpack, bundle, sack, saddle, etc.
-ł-jool NCM Non-Compact Matter bunch of hair or grass, cloud, fog, etc.
-l SFO Slender Flexible Object rope, mittens, socks, pile of fried onions, etc.
SSO Slender Stiff Object arrow, bracelet, skillet, saw, etc.
-ł-tsooz FFO Flat Flexible Object blanket, coat, sack of groceries, etc.
-tł' MM Mushy Matter ice cream, mud, slumped-over drunken person, etc.
-nil PLO1 Plural Objects 1 eggs, balls, animals, coins, etc.
-jaa' PLO2 Plural Objects 2 marbles, seeds, sugar, bugs, etc.
OC Open Container glass of milk, spoonful of food, handful of flour, etc.
ANO Animate Object microbe, person, corpse, doll, etc.

To compare with English, Navajo has no single verb that corresponds to the English word give. In order to say the equivalent of Give me some hay!, the Navajo verb nłjool (NCM) must be used, while for Give me a cigarette! the verb ntįįh (SSO) must be used. The English verb give is expressed by eleven different verbs in Navajo, depending on the characteristics of the given object.

In addition to defining the physical properties of the object, primary classificatory verb stems also can distinguish between the manner of movement of the object. The stems may then be grouped into three different categories:

  1. handling
  2. propelling
  3. free flight

Handling includes actions such as carrying, lowering, and taking. Propelling includes tossing, dropping, and throwing. Free flight includes falling, and flying through space.

Using an example for the SRO category, Navajo has

  1. -'ą́ to handle (a round object),
  2. -ne' to throw (a round object), and
  3. -l-ts'id (a round object) moves independently.

yi-/bi- Alternation (animacy)

Like most Athabaskan languages, Southern Athabaskan languages show various levels of animacy in its grammar, with certain nouns taking specific verb forms according to their rank in this animacy hierarchy. For instance, Navajo nouns can be ranked by animacy on a continuum from most animate (a human being) to least animate (an abstraction) (Young & Morgan 1987: 65–66):

Human → Infant/Big Animal → Medium-sized Animal → Small Animal → Natural Force → Abstraction

Generally, the most animate noun in a sentence must occur first while the noun with lesser animacy occurs second. If both nouns are equal in animacy, then either noun may occur in the first position.

This phenomenon was first noted by Ken Hale (1973).

Text Example

Here is the first paragraph of a very short story in Young & Morgan (1987: 205a–205b).

Din bizaad:

Ashiik t' diigis li' tłikan ła' diilnł d nihaa nahidoonih nigo yee jin. ko t' ał'ąą ch'il na'atł'o'ii k'iidiil d yinaalnishgo t' łah ch'il na'atł'o'ii jin. d tłikan yiilaago t' bhg t' ał'ąą tł'zkg yii' haidłbįįd jin. "Hadida d tłikan yg doo ła' aha'diidził da," nigo jin'. d baa nahidoonih biniiy kintahg dah yidiiłjid jin'....

Free English translation:

Some crazy boys decided to make some wine to sell, so they each planted grapevines and, working hard on them, they raised them to maturity. Then, having made wine, they each filled a goatskin with it. They agreed that at no time would they give each other a drink of it, and they then set out for town lugging the goatskins on their backs....

Interlinear text:

Ashiik t' diigis li' tłikan ła' diilnł
boys foolish certain wine some we'll make
d nihaa nahidoonih nigo yee ' jin.
and from us it will be bought they saying with it they planned it is said
ko t' ał'ąą ch'il na'atł'o'ii k'iidiil
so then separately grapevines they planted them
d ' yinaalnishgo t' łah ch'il na'atł'o'ii ' jin.
and diligently they working on them they both grapevines they raised them it is said
d tłikan yiilaago
and then wine they having made it
t' bhg t' ał'ąą tł'zkg yii' haidłbįįd jin.
each their own separately goatskins in them they filled it it is said.
"Hadida d tłikan yg doo ła' aha'diidził da," nigo
"any time this wine particular not some/any we'll give each other not," they saying
' jin'.
they agreed it is said.
d baa nahidoonih biniiy kintahg dah yidiiłjid jin'.
and then from then it will be bought its purpose to town off they started back-packing it it is said

External links




  • Blair, Robert W.; Simmons, Leon; & Witherspoon, Gary. (1969). Navaho Basic Course. BYU Printing Services.
  • Goossen, Irvy W. (1967). Navajo made easier: A course in conversational Navajo. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press.
  • Goossen, Irvy W. (1995). Din bizaad: Speak, read, write Navajo. Flagstaff, AZ: Salina Bookshelf. ISBN 0-9644-1891-6
  • Goossen, Irvy W. (1997). Din bizaad: Sprechen, Lesen und Schreiben Sie Navajo. Loder, P. B. (transl.). Flagstaff, AZ: Salina Bookshelf.
  • Haile, Berard. (1941–1948). Learning Navaho, (Vols. 1–4). St. Michaels, AZ: St. Michael's Mission.
  • Platero, Paul R. (1986). Din bizaad bee naadzo: A conversational Navajo text for secondary schools, colleges and adults. Farmington, NM: Navajo Preparatory School.
  • Platero, Paul R.; Legah, Lorene; & Platero, Linda S. (1985). Din bizaad bee na'adzo: A Navajo language literacy and grammar text. Farmington, NM: Navajo Language Institute.
  • Tapahonso, Luci, & Schick, Eleanor. (1995). Navajo ABC: A Din alphabet book. New York: Macmillan Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0-6898-0316-8
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1985). Din Bizaad Bhoo'aah for secondary schools, colleges, and adults. Farmington, NM: Navajo Language Institute.
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1986). Din Bizaad Bhoo'aah I: A conversational Navajo text for secondary schools, colleges and adults. Farmington, NM: Navajo Language Institute.
  • Wilson, Alan. (1969). Breakthrough Navajo: An introductory course. Gallup, NM: The University of New Mexico, Gallup Branch.
  • Wilson, Alan. (1970). Laughter, the Navajo way. Gallup, NM: The University of New Mexico at Gallup.
  • Wilson, Alan. (1978). Speak Navajo: An intermediate text in communication. Gallup, NM: University of New Mexico, Gallup Branch.
  • Wilson, Garth A. (1995). Conversational Navajo workbook: An introductory course for non-native speakers. Blanding, UT: Conversational Navajo Publications. ISBN 0-9387-1754-5.

Linguistics & other reference

  • Akmajian, Adrian; & Anderson, Steven. (1970). On the use of the fourth person in Navajo, or Navajo made harder. International Journal of American Linguistics, 36 (1), 1–8.
  • Creamer, Mary Helen. (1974). Ranking in Navajo nouns. Navajo Language Review, 1, 29–38.
  • Faltz, Leonard M. (1998). The Navajo verb: A grammar for students and scholars. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1901-7 (hb), ISBN 0-8263-1902-5 (pbk)
  • Frishberg, Nancy. (1972). Navajo object markers and the great chain of being. In J. Kimball (Ed.), Syntax and semantics (Vol. 1, p. 259–266). New York: Seminar Press.
  • Grimes, Barbara F. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnologue: Languages of the world, (14th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-5567-1106-9. (Online edition:, accessed on Nov. 19th, 2004).
  • Hale, Kenneth L. (1973). A note on subject-object inversion in Navajo. In B. B. Kachru, R. B. Lees, Y. Malkiel, A. Pietrangeli, & S. Saporta (Eds.), Issues in linguistics: Papers in honor of Henry and Rene Kahane (p. 300–309). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1945). Navaho phonology. University of New Mexico publications in anthropology, (No. 1).
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1945). Classificatory verb stems in the Apachean languages. International Journal of American Linguistics, 11 (1), 13–23.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1945). The Apachean verb, part I: Verb structure and pronominal prefixes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 11 (4), 193–203.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1946). The Apachean verb, part II: The prefixes for mode and tense. International Journal of American Linguistics, 12 (1), 1–13.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1946). The Apachean verb, part III: The classifiers. International Journal of American Linguistics, 12 (2), 51–59.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1948). The Apachean verb, part IV: Major form classes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 14 (4), 247–259.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1949). The Apachean verb, part V: The theme and prefix complex. International Journal of American Linguistics, 15 (1), 12–22.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1970). A Navajo lexicon. University of California Publications in Linguistics (No. 78). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Kari, James. (1975). The disjunct boundary in the Navajo and Tanaina verb prefix complexes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 41, 330–345.
  • Kari, James. (1976). Navajo verb prefix phonology. Garland Publishing Co.
  • McDonough, Joyce. (2003). The Navajo sound system. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 1-4020-1351-5 (hb); ISBN 1-4020-1352-3 (pbk)
  • Reichard, Gladys A. (1951). Navaho grammar. Publications of the American Ethnological Society (Vol. 21). New York: J. J. Augustin.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1932). Two Navaho puns. Language, 8 (3) , 217-220.
  • Sapir, Edward, & Hoijer, Harry. (1942). Navaho texts. William Dwight Whitney series, Linguistic Society of America.
  • Sapir, Edward, & Hoijer, Harry. (1967). Phonology and morphology of the Navaho language. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Speas, Margaret. (1990). Phrase structure in natural language. Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 0-7923-0755-0
  • Wall, C. Leon, & Morgan, William. (1994). Navajo-English dictionary. New York: Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0-7818-0247-4. (Originally published [1958] by U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Branch of Education, Bureau of Indian Affairs).
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1971). Navajo categories of objects at rest. American Anthropologist, 73, 110-127.
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1977). Language and art in the Navajo universe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-4720-8966-8; ISBN 0-4720-8965-X
  • Young, Robert W. (2000). The Navajo verb system: An overview. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-2172-0 (hb); ISBN 0-8263-2176-3 (pbk)
  • Young, Robert W., & Morgan, William, Sr. (1987). The Navajo language: A grammar and colloquial dictionary (rev. ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1014-1
  • Young, Robert W.; Morgan, William; & Midgette, Sally. (1992). Analytical lexicon of Navajo. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1356-6; ISBN 0-8253-1356-6nv:Din bizaad



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