Navajo, one of the most beautiful among the Native American languages is experiencing a shift to adjust to the modern world.
Cause for alarm
The language is the most widely spoken among all the languages of Native Americans and is also one of the most difficult to learn. The language, which is also called Diné bizaad, is steadily being mixed with English words, and this is a trend that alarms many Navajo speakers.
Lorraine Manavi noted that the Navajo language is shifting because more people are now using English terms for new technology rather than have them translated into Navajo. Manavi is an assistant profession at the San Juan College located in Farmington, New Mexico and teaches the Navajo language.
Because the language is descriptive, the translation for English terms are longer, according to Manavi who not only teaches the language in college but also helped in the development of the Rosetta Stone software for Navajo. She cited many examples of technical words with descriptive meanings. For example the computer is called “metal that thinks on its own,” and a creating a text message means to “write a letter on the phone.” In Navajo a cellphone is “the one you spin around with” and email is a “story that gets there fast.”
The term is a combination of Navajo and English because for the younger generation, it is easier and faster to use English and Navajo in conversations and sentences. She admits that is it difficult to maintain the translations of new terms and she herself does not even want to know the translations of some of the mundane modern terms.
She does acknowledge the fact that although this trend may sound humorous, it actually presents grave implications to the community that is in constant battle to stem the declining interest in the language. A recent case involved a presidential candidate, Chris Deschene, who was disqualified by the Navajo Supreme court for failure to prove his fluency in the Navajo language.
A living language
Navajo is a language that was traditionally used to tell stories orally. It was their ancestors’ way of drawing pictures verbally. It is a living language according to Northern Arizona University professor emeritus of the Navajo language, Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie.
Although recent events brought the issue of Navajo language fluency in the open, the professor is more concerned about the younger generation being semi-lingual when they grow up, meaning they would not be fluent in either English or Navajo. They might not hear full sentences in either language, leading to them learning the language but not acquiring it. While the current trend is for Navalish, she said that it might not have such a drastic effect. She sees it as an indication that speakers have a higher grasp of both languages, which is defined as code switching.
She said that it is a higher skill because the speaker has to have deeper knowledge of both languages and know when to use a term that fits the sentence grammatically. But she warns that using English terms out of convenience should not be done because the Navajo language continues to evolve and dictionaries of specialized and new terms are regularly produced.