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.