Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Benefits of Complexity

December 7th, 2009 · 9 Comments


We recently stumbled across the tale of the Choctaw code talkers, who were briefly employed by the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. Upon learning of their role in the conflict, we immediately wondered why the United States military opted to use Navajos rather than Choctaws during the wider war that followed a quarter-century later. Surely it wasn’t with Ben Yahzee’s future acting career in mind.

As it turns out, Choctaws were used in limited numbers during World War II, but only for tactical assignments. The most important cryptological tasks were given to Navajos because the Marines had the utmost respect for the Axis’ code-breaking abilities, and thus wanted to use the most complex Indian language available:

“Sounds [in Navaho] must be reproduced with pedantic neatness…almost as if a robot were talking,” wrote anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn. ‘The talk of those who have learned Navaho as adults always has a flabby quality to the Navaho ear. They neglect a slight hesitation a fraction of a second before uttering the stem of the word.” A hint of its complexity may be seen in some of its verb forms, on which it insists. The stems of many Navaho verbs differ with the object acted upon. Thus one stem must be used with long objects (pencils, sticks), another with slender flexible objects (snakes, thongs), and still others with granular masses (sugar, salt), things bundled up (hay, bundles of clothing), fabrics (paper, blankets), viscous objects (mud, feces), bulky round objects, container-and-contents, animate objects, and so forth. An entirely different verb form concerns itself with the manner of knowing an event. For example, a Navaho must use one form if he himself is aware of the actual start of rain, another if he believes that rain was falling for some time in his locality before he noticed it, and so on. “Because so much is expressed and implied by the few syllables that make up a single verb form, the Navaho verb is like a tiny imagist poem.” Thus “na’ildil” means, “You are accustomed to eat plural separable objects one at a time.”

If you find yourself undaunted by the above description, you can start teaching yourself Navajo by using one of these handy books. We have a feeling that Coyote Steals Water Monster’s Baby is a tremendous read, not to mention a bargain at only $8.

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Zak

    Driving through the southwest this summer, I came across a great AM radio station called KTNN, “the voice of the Navajo nation.” For at least the hour or so I was able to pick it up, at least a quarter of the programming was traditional chants in what I took to be Navajo (the other 3/4 was mostly commercial country music). A lot of the ads & PSAs were in Navajo as well. You can listen online over at http://www.ktnnonline.com/

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Zak: Many thanks, Zak. I’m giving it a listen right now. They’re currently playing an awful holiday song by the dude from Hootie & the Blowfish, tho. Fingers crossed the Navajo fare kicks in soon–”Candy Cane Christmas” is bringing me down.

  • Jordan

    @Brendan

    I thought only those cursed to work in retail hell would be subjected to that kind of music. Hopefully it’ll move along sooner than later.

    Misuse of Navajo code talkers: http://xkcd.com/257/

    I’ve always wondered about the selective pressures that encourage languages to be more or less complex. Obviously the sheer number of objects that have been encountered by a culture play a big role. But there are definitely more and less complicated ways to describe those things. Clearly there is a place for that complexity or we’d all be speaking Esperanto, but synthetic languages have never sone as well as their creators hoped they would. At the same time, there are far fewer languages today than there were historically, so some of those pressures for complexity must be easing. It’ll definitely be interesting to see what direction linguistics move in over the coming decades.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: My capsule description of the Darius Rucker song really didn’t do justice to its awfulness. Truly, deeply unpleasant.

    I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to the rise of English, which I’ve always thought of as a fairly complicated language (at least compared to its Romance rivals). I wonder if the growing worldwide popularity of English will change it in unexpected ways–maybe we are moving toward a global lingua franca that will incorporate the best aspects of certain languages that are on the wane.

    Of course, mere language has never been enough to express the full range of human thoughts and emotions. So while I certainly hope that language will evolve to feature more complexity (albeit packaged in an easy-to-decipher way), it’s clear to me that the spoken word will always fall short in some respects. Music, imagery, etc.–while these “languages” are certainly not as universal as sometimes advertised, they’re key to filling in so many of the gaps that we’ve yet to address through the likes of plain old English (or even ultra-complex Navajo).

  • Gramsci

    Highly, highly recommend Language Log blog for these issues, including elegant takedowns of erroneous linguistics cliches (e.g. Eskimo snow words).

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1622

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Wait, the Eskimo thing is a myth? Ugh. File under “Beautiful Delusions, Shattered.”

    Thanks for the blog rec.

  • Jordan

    @Brendan

    Check the footnote for my favorite description of the English language: http://schlockmercenary.com/d/20010722.html

    I wonder if the strength of English actually comes from its main weakness: in having formed from the bastardization of German and French, there is a rich history of absorbing material from other languages. Any time we find ourselves needing to describe something foreign, we’re often more than happy to take someone else’s word for it.

    With that said, I’m pretty sure there will always be a place for other languages. I remember during one lecture in my college calculus, my prof was having some difficulty explain a particular concept to us. She ended up going off on a mini-rant about how English was a terrible language for doing math because all of the words were so slippery and had so many double meanings. French and German are apparently much more well-suited for rigorously defining what you mean.

    There was a great episode of Radiolab about pop music that included a piece about the world-wide popularity of country music. I had never thought about it before, but the archtypical sounds of country music seem to be evocative of a place people all over the world are nostalgic for. Really amazing demonstration of underlying similarities across cultures.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Ha, classic–”…a language that began as a bad habit shared by Norman soldiers and Saxon barmaids…” I always forget that English was just a commoners’ vernacular for centuries, and thus considered somewhat vulgar. The elite stuck with their elegant French.

    I once saw a bunch of Boy Scouts square dancing at a bus stop in Eastern Slovakia. It was…unnerving.

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