It’s 1941. Sh*t’s pretty much hit the fan at this point: The world is at war, Roosevelt’s wheeling around the White House thinking that Eleanor “is just going through a phase”, and the Japanese are cracking every code we’ve got. With a slew of fluent English speakers, bright minds, and that trusty Japanese diligence, they’re sabotaging our troops left and right. American military leaders are perplexed – how could they come up with a fool-proof method for transmitting important US code?
One of the best parts about speaking a foreign language is being able to essentially have a private conversation in public. Non-speakers of this language may hear you, but your words mean absolutely nothing. One of the greatest episodes of Seinfeld, The Understudy, features Elaine dragging Mr. Kostanza to her Korean nail salon to confirm that the manicurists are talking smack about her – right in front of her. And they are, and more power to them!
Now, this particular linguistic concept had historically been employed prior to World War II – there are accounts of Cajun, Comanche, Choctaw, Basque, and many other lesser-spoken languages being used to thwart the enemy throughout history. And it just so happened that a caucasian civil engineer named Philip Johnston read about this in the paper one day – He knew of the particular plight the US government was having in this arena and thought to himself – Well, why not transmit code in Navajo?
Although Philip Johnston sounds like your average WASP, he was actually not raised in Connecticut. His parents were missionaries, and he was raised on but rather on a Navajo reservation outside Flagstaff, Arizona where he picked up the language as a child. While he was never a complete bilingual, he was fluent enough to maintain relationships with the Navajo, and even served as an interpreter for President Theodore Roosevelt when his father traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead for the expansion of reservation land in 1901 (anb.org).
As it turned out, Johnston was one of few outsiders in the world who could speak the language fluently. After reading about how Comanche, a Plains Indian language, was used by the US to transmit code during WWI, he realized how valuable the Navajo language could be to the Allied cause. Was it nearly impossible to master without early exposure? Check. No alphabet? Check. Johnston presented the idea to the US Marine Corps and was the given the go-ahead.
In 1942 Johnston recruited about 29 Navajo men, or as they call themselves, Diné. Some were even as young as 15! These men would become the original Navajo Code Talkers. They breezed through basic training and began creating the code.
Below are the names of different countries or territories with the Navajo term and the literal translation in English. Some are obvious (With Winter = Alaska), others politically incorrect (Slant Eye = Japan). You can see the full list of code here.
Just like the Navajo language, the Navajo code was never written down (an alphabet and writing system has since been developed). The Code Talkers were called so because they essentially were the code.
A while back, I wrote about the Wompanoag language, an Algonquin language spoken in Massachusetts. I’ve always been fascinated by Native American cultures and languages – the way they envision the world through their words has an intrinsic beauty that seems to be missing in Indo-European languages. Native American languages spoken throughout North, Central, and South America, are known to be extremely difficult for outsiders to learn because of their complex syntaxes and often lack of writing systems.
What makes Navajo so hard? Like many other Athabaskan languages, it has more verbs than nouns, and these verbs are actually more important to the language as they string sentences along. “Very simple verbs in Navajo may translate into many words in English; for instance, the verb si’ means ‘to cause a hafted object to move’ or, more practically, ‘to practice'” (www.navajopeople.org). As I explained with Algonquin, to say something like ‘The waters cascaded down the waterfall’ would be translated with a verb describing a light, transparent liquid substance falling, and the subject would be added on with a prefix or suffix.
“Their view of life, which is that everything they do and that happens to them is related to the world around them, is very apparent in the way they speak. For example, a Navajo would not say, ‘I am hungry,’ but instead would say, ‘Hunger is hurting me.’ It has been said that in Navajo, words paint a picture in your mind.” (The Unbreakable Code). In Navajo, there are different noun classes for if an object is long and stiff, round, or granular. Like Algonquin, nouns take specific order in a word depending on their level of animacy, or whichever noun is most animate/human-like. Navajo is also has four tones, like Mandarin Chinese…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Code Talkers worked under unthinkable conditions (don’t forget they were actually out there fighting the war too!) to save American lives and help defeat the Axis powers. The Germans and Japanese eventually both figured out that the US military was transmitting code in Navajo, and deployed linguists to try to pick up the language. They failed miserably. The US government continued to employ Navajo and Choctaw code talkers in both European and Asian arenas of war throughout the war.
So the Navajo Code Talkers saved the day, were honored as heroes, and graciously thanked for their service, right? No, of course not. Yet again the Native Americans were taken advantage of by the American government – used for what they could provide and given nothing in return. The Code Talker project remained classified (Navajos continued to be used as Code Talkers through the Korean War in the 50s) until 1968, and received little attention. Finally, after 60 years, the surviving Code Talkers were finally given Congressional Medals of Honor in 2001.
Native Americans, like many indigenous societies around the world, are overlooked and often ignored in school curricula and in mainstream society in general. Clothes manufacturers are ready to sell “Navaj-inspired” sweaters and scarves, and few actually even know the first thing about who the Navajo are, and how they differ from the Cherokee, Arapahoe, Sioux, Iroquois, or any of the other Native American tribes (what we nowadays consider Native American “tribes” are just big conglomerates of many ancient individual tries whom we grouped together by force and gave a name). At this point, even though we understand all the evils we have wrought on Native American across our country, we cannot turn back the clock, but we can promote the longevity and revitalization of their vast ancient languages and cultures. And give some well-deserved props to the Navajo Code Talkers.
For more information about the Code Talkers, please visit www.navajocodetalkers.org where I got a lot of information for this post. In 2013, there are between 120,000 and 170,000 Navajo speakers in the US, making it the most spoken indigenous language in the USA. But unfortunately, fewer and fewer children are learning Navajo, and it is officially an endangered language. However, there are a few bilingual Navajo-English schools in Arizona, as well as a Navajo radio station and preservation groups like the Navajo Language Academy. In 1996, it became the first Native American language to have its own Superbowl broadcast, and a Navajo-dubbed Star Wars is in the works.
And to end, here’s a classic Navajo joke for you!