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Alternative Name: Navaho, Diné Bizaad ("the language of the people").

Name Origin: Navajo comes from the Indian language Tewa in which the word "navahú" refers to a large area of cultivated land. Navajos today simply call themselves Diné meaning "the people".

Classification. Na-Dené, Athabaskan, South Athabaskan (Apachean) that includes, besides Navajo, Western Apache, Mescalero, Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan and Plains Apache languages.

Overview. Navajo is the largest and heathiest North American indigenous language. It is spoken by the Navajo people of Arizona and New Mexico. It is closely related to Apache. Evidence suggests that the Southern Athabaskan languages were brought to Southwest USA, around 500 CE, by communities migrating from Canada where most other Athabascan-speaking Indians still live.

    Among the American native languages Navajo is one of the most thoroughly studied. Its sound inventory is quite complex including oral and nasal vowels, short and long, pronounced with different tones, as well as aspirated, labialized, glottalized, and lateralized consonants. Navajo morphology is agglutinating and prefixing. The verb is the central and most complex part of the sentence having the ability to incorporate several prefixes to indicate subject, object, plurality, verbal aspect, type and mode of action, etc.

Distribution. Navajo is spoken in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, where Southern Athabaskan languages conform a linguistic island.

Speakers. Around 170,000. After English and Spanish, Navajo is the most commonly spoken language in the state of Arizona.

Status. Navajo is faring much better than other North American native languages and it is taught in schools controlled by the indigenous community. However, the number of children learning it at home as a first language is declining. Monolinguals represent only 4-5% of all speakers.

Oldest Documents                                                       

  1. 1856.Captain Eaton's Navajo vocabulary, of more than 400 words, was the first substantial effort    to record the Navajo language.

  1. 1857.The Pino vocabulary listed several Navajo words (some undecipherable), collected during the latter half of the 19th century.

  1. 1912.The Franciscans published a "Vocabulary of the Navajo Language", which was a two volume Navajo-English, English-Navajo dictionary.


Vowels (16). Navajo has four basic vowel qualities:

  1. i (high-front)

  2. e (mid-front)

  3. o (mid-back)

  4. a (low-back)


    The vowel o varies between [o] and [u] depending on its environment, i is pronounced as [ɪ] when it is short and as [i:] when it is long. Each vowel may occur either short or long, and oral or nasalized, giving a total of 16 combinations. They can also be pronounced with high or low pitch, i.e. Navajo has two tones. Length, pitch and nasalization are phonemic. No word can begin with a vowel; an initial vowel must be always preceded by a glottal stop, whether it is written or not.

    Navajo has also several diphthongs: ai, oi, ei, ao, aii, aai, oii, ooi, eii (double vowels indicate long ones).                       

Consonants (32). Stops and affricates are voiceless, presenting three contrasts: unaspirated vs. aspirated vs. glottalized. Fricatives are voiceless and voiced. Labialized consonants are rare and occur only in some environments.


Tones: Navajo has two basic tones (low and high), plus two glides (rising and falling). High tone is marked with acute accent and low tone is unmarked. Falling and rising tones occur only with long vowels. The first one is indicated with an acute accent over the first letter of the long vowel sound, while the second is marked with an acute accent over the second letter.

Script and Orthography. The Young and Morgan writing system was adopted in 1969 and 1976 language conferences. It is an alphabet consisting of 35 symbols several of which are digraphs and trigraphs. Equivalences in the International Phonetic Alphabet are shown between brackets.


  1. Long vowels are represented by doubling the vowel.

  2. Vowel nasalization is marked with a cedilla (ą, ę, etc.)

  3. The unaspirated stops [p], [t], and [k] are written b, d, and g respectively; the aspirated stops [th] and [kh] are written t and k.

  4. Unaspirated affricates [ts] and [tʃ] are represented dz and j respectively; aspirated affricates [tsh]  and [tʃh] are written ts and ch respectively.

  5. The fricatives [ʃ], [ʒ], [ɣ] are written sh, zh and gh respectively.

  6. The letter x is used instead of h if the previous letter is s or h to avoid confusion with sh and to avoid having two consecutive h.

  7. The glottal stop is marked with '. In words starting with a glottal stop + vowel, the sign for the stop is usually omitted.


Verbal and noun stems are monosyllabic. Grammatical and additional lexical information is provided by prefixes which occupy determined positions before the stem. The verb is the most important part of the sentence. There are comparatively few simple nouns; other nouns derive from verbs (deverbal nouns).

  1. Nominal. Navajo nouns are divided into two categories: animate and inanimate. Animate nouns are speakers (humans) or callers (plants and animals). Inanimate nouns are corporeal or spiritual. Nouns are not inflected for gender or case and most of them are not marked for number.

  1. gender: there is no grammatical gender. Masculinity is associated with the static and femininity with the active e.g., 'thought' is imagined as a male figure and 'speech' as a feminine one.

  1. number: singular, dual, plural. They are rarely marked on nouns. Kinship nouns take a specific plural ending in -ke.

  1. possession: is indicated by placing the possessor before the possessed to which is attached a possessive pronominal prefix:

  1. hastiin       bi-łí̜í̜'

  2. the man   his-horse

  3. The man's horse

  1. adjectives: the 3rd person form of impersonal verbs is used as qualifier ('to be thick', 'to be black'), there are also some adjectival suffixes like -tsoh (‘big)’ that are attached to nouns like diné (man): dinétsoh = big man. 

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative.

  1. Personal pronouns may be independent or prefixes. The independent pronouns are emphatic and may be omitted as the subject is indicated by specific markers in the verb complex. They distinguish four persons and three numbers.

  1. The so-called 4th person pronoun is used only for human beings and serves several purposes. It may indicate deference or status or be a polite form to address someone without naming him/her. When there are two persons in a story, one can be named with the 3rd person pronoun and the other with the 4th one.

  1. Pronominal prefixes of nouns and postpositions are similar to independent pronouns in form, but have a different function: prefixed to nouns they serve as possessive pronouns, but prefixed to postpositions they express datives and accusatives.

  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish three degrees: díí (‘this, these’), 'eii (‘that, those’), 'éí (‘that remote’).

  1. The interrogative pronouns are: háí/háísh(ą') (‘who?/which?’), ha'át'ííshą' (‘what?’), háá/háadi (‘where?’), haa/haash(ą') (‘how?’). For yes-no questions the marker -ísh may be used; alternatively the particle da’ may be placed at the beginning of the question.

  1. Verbal. Navajo verbs constitute complete propositions, corresponding roughly to whole sentences in English. Freestanding nominals are optional. The verb is formed by a stem preceded by prefixes which include inflectional prefixes (marking subject, object and distributive plural), lexical prefixes, and a classifier. All stems are monosyllabic and begin with a consonant. Voice and aspect are more important than tense. Verb prefixes occupy the following positions before the stem:

  1. verb complex

Slot      Marker

0          dependent pronouns: indicating the possessor of a noun or the object of a postposition.

  1. I.adverbial: a wide variety of postpositional, directional and adverbial elements may be included in this slot.

  1. II.iterative: expresses repetition of an action.

  1. III.plural marker da used to pluralize subjects, objects or events.

  1. object.

  1. V.subject 3th-4th: definite third person subjects are not marked but the fourth person is  obligatory (marked by ji/zh). Two other markers may be found in this slot: an indefinite third person (marked by a) equivalent to ‘some’, ‘someone’, and the "spatial third person" (marked by ha/ho) used as a locative subject marker.

  1. VI.thematic: contributes to the lexical meaning of the stem. This slot might be empty or filled by one or two prefixes.

  1. VII.mode/aspect: the prefixes ni, si, yi or the absence of any prefix in this slot (Ø) define four conjugation classes. Each prefix has a different meaning depending if the stem is imperfective or perfective (see conjugational classes below).

  1. VIII.subject 1st-2nd: first and second person subject markers often fuse with those of  class VII. Each modal form has a different subject prefix.

  1. IX.classifier: associated with transitivity, causativity and passive sense.

  1. X.Stem: is monosyllabic and provides the basic lexical meaning which may be completed by prefixes in slot VI. Each verb has several stems expressing a different modality, namely: imperfective, perfective, future, iterative (repeated action) and optative (wish for an action to occur). Two other modes are the progressive (ongoing action) which takes the same stem as the future, and the usitative (habitual action) that takes the same stem as the iterative.

  1. Not all slots must be filled, and different morphemes may fuse with each other.

  1. These prefixes can be divided into two sets:

  2. a)the Conjunct: includes the prefixed elements in positions IV to IX.

  3. b)the Disjunct: includes the prefixes from 0 to III; these are generally less tightly bound within the prefix complex than those of the Conjunct.

  1. conjugational classes

  2. Navajo has elaborate aspect and modal systems while tense plays a minor role (in fact, the future is the only one). Navajo verbs are divided into four conjugational classes in the imperfective and four in the perfective. The imperfective is formed with the imperfective stem and the perfective with the perfective stem. Both stem types combine with the prefixes of slot VII: ni- , si- or yi-. This slot can also be empty (Ø).

  1. When prefix ni- is present in the imperfective conjugation the subject has finished a punctual action (it only occurs with the momentaneous aspect [see below]. When ni- is present in the perfective conjugation it indicates that a goal has been reached.

  1. If si- is present in the imperfective conjugation the action is going to reach a static state upon completion. Si- in the perfective conjugation indicates that the action has already ended in a static state.

  1. Yi- in the imperfective conjugation marks a transitional action. When yi- is in a perfective conjugation it indicates that an action has been completed but without further connotations.

  1. In imperfective conjugations with no prefix the action is ongoing. In perfective conjugations a zero prefix indicates a change in state or condition.

  1. additional aspect/modal forms

  1. The following aspects are marked by a distinct stem shape and/or specific prefixes: momentaneous indicates a punctual action; continuative denotes an action involving motion with no specific time of beginning or ending or direction; durative denotes an action with no specific time of beginning or ending not involving motion; and repetitive denotes a repeated action or series of actions connected. Some verbs can focus on certain physical properties of the objects such as roundness, slenderness, etc.


The most frequent word order in the sentence is Subject-Object-Verb but Object-Subject-Verb also occurs. The verb must agree in person with its subject. Topic and focus play an important role. When the agent of the verb is the topic it is marked by yi-; when the patient is the topic, bi- is used. Negation is expressed by the circumfix (combination of prefix and suffix) dooda.

Basic Vocabulary

one: t’ááłá'í/łáá'ii (the first form is used in sentences, the second one for counting)

two: naaki

three: táá'

four: dí̜í̜'

five: ashdla'

six: hastą́ą́

seven: tsosts'id

eight: tseebíí

nine: náhást'éí

ten: neeznáá

hundred: neeznádiin

father: azhé'é

mother: amá

son (man's): aye'

son (woman's): ayáázh

daughter (man's): atsi'

daughter (woman's): ach'é'é

older brother: ánaaí

younger brother: atsilí

older sister: ádí

younger sister: adeezhí

head: atsiits'iin

face: anii’

eye: anáá'

ear: ajaa'

leg: ajáád

foot: akee'

heart: ajéídíshjool

tongue: atsoo

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Introduction to Navajo Language Studies'. A. V. Fountain. In Coyote Papers: Working Papers in Linguistics, Volume 16, 9-34. University of Arizona (2008).

  2. -The Navajo Language: A Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary. W. M. Morgan. University of New Mexico Press (1987).

  3. -The Navajo Verb. A Grammar for Students and Scholars. L. M. Faltz. University of New Mexico Press (1998).

  4. -The Navajo Verb System. An Overview. R. W. Young. University of New Mexico Press (2000).

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