This is the 4th post in a series of weekly guest posts by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read his introduction about these posts HERE.

I have been trying to figure out the characteristics of the Navajo language whenever I get a chance to learn a piece of it. Two broad questions have motivated me to explore the Navajo language: first, since Navajo ancestors theoretically originated from Asia, what evidence, if any, can we find in their languages to prove their relationship?  Second, because language and culture are interrelated, what can we infer about the status quo of Navajo culture from the current language use of the Navajo? From the sources I read and my conversation with Navajo speakers, I know that Navajo is a complicated language. From my personal view, its rich consonants and vowels make it a beautiful language.

I have found some evidence showing that Navajo has some similarities with the Ural-Altaic language group, which includes Mongolian, Turkish and Japanese. One similarity is that the SOV (Subject Object Verb) sentence structure of Navajo is consistent with the Ural-Altaic language group. The other similarity is that affixes play an essential role in Navajo, as in the Ural-Altaic languages. When I talked to a Navajo language teacher about these similarities, she mentioned that once a Japanese person she knew found that Navajo shared some similarities with Japanese. I myself know some Turkic languages, and I also found the same similarities between Navajo and Turkic languages. So, can we therefore suggest that this similarity is a strong indicator that the Navajo people originated from Asia?

The Navajo language is taught at school. However, from my observation, I found that knowledge of the language is very basic even for seventh graders. The teacher told me that few of the students are fluent. Many different times when I asked the elementary students about some Navajo words, they indicated they didn’t know. Once I asked an eighth grader about a basic Navajo expression. Instead of answering directly as I expected, she asked her friends that were nearby, “who is fluent in Navajo?” Statistics also indicate the status quo of Navajo language use: Batchelder’s study (2000) shows that according to the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (1999), there are 148,530 speakers of Navajo in a Nation of 250,000 to 275,000 people (Haskan 2007). Because language and culture are interrelated, bilingualism is necessary for Navajo students. Without the language, the culture likely will not continue.

Reference: Haskan, Melanie Lee. 2007. How the No Child Left Behind Act Impacted Bilingual Education in a Rural School with Navajo Students. Ph.D Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University.
Photo Credit: photos taken by Jianping Yang