A Look at the Navajo Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at Navajo in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.


Navajo has long, short and nasal vowels, a tone system and a grammar totally unlike anything in Indo-European. A stem of only four letters or so can take enough affixes to fill a whole line of text.

Navajo is a polysynthetic language. In polysynthetic languages, very long words can denote an entire sentence, and it’s quite hard to take the word apart into its parts and figure out exactly what they mean and how they go together. The long words are created because polysynthetic languages have an amazing amount of morphological richness. They put many morpheme together to create a word out of what might be a sentence in a non-polysynthetic language.

Some Navajo dictionaries have thousands of entries of verbs only, with no nouns. Many adjectives have no direct translation into Navajo. Instead, verbs are used as adjectives. A verb has no particular form like in English – to walk. Instead, it assumes various forms depending on whether or not the action is completed, incomplete, in progress, repeated, habitual, one time only, instantaneous, or simply desired. These are called aspects. Navajo must have one of the most complex aspect systems of any language:

The Primary aspects:

Momentaneous – punctually (takes place at one point in time)
Continuative – an indefinite span of time & movement with a specified direction
Durative – over an indefinite span of time, non-locomotive uninterrupted continuum
Repetitive – a continuum of repeated acts or connected series of acts
Conclusive – like durative but in perfective terminates with static sequel
Semelfactive – a single act in a repetitive series of acts
Distributive – a distributive manipulation of objects or performance of actions
Diversative – a movement distributed among things (similar to distributive)
Reversative – results in directional change
Conative – an attempted action
Transitional – a shift from one state to another
Cursive – progression in a line through time/space (only progressive mode)

The subaspects:

Completive – an event/action simply takes place (similar to the aorist tense)
Terminative – a stopping of an action
Stative – sequentially durative and static
Inceptive – beginning of an action
Terminal – an inherently terminal action
Prolongative – an arrested beginning or ending of an action
Seriative – an interconnected series of successive separate & distinct acts
Inchoative – a focus on the beginning of a non-locomotion action
Reversionary – a return to a previous state/location
Semeliterative – a single repetition of an event/action

The tense system is almost as wild as the aspectual system.

For instance, the verb ndideesh means to pick up or to lift up. But it varies depending on what you are picking up:

ndideeshtiilto pick up a slender stiff object (key, pole)
to pick up a slender flexible object (branch, rope)
to pick up a roundish or bulky object (bottle, rock)
to pick up a compact and heavy object (bundle, pack)
to pick up a non-compact or diffuse object (wool, hay)
to pick up something animate (child, dog)
to pick up a few small objects (a couple of berries, nuts)
to pick up a large number of small objects (a pile of berries, nuts)
to pick up something flexible and flat (blanket, piece of paper)
to pick up something I carry on my back
to pick up anything in a vessel
to pick up mushy matter (mud).

But picking up is only one way of handling the 12 different consistencies. One can also bring, take, hang up, keep, carry around, turn over, etc. objects. There are about 28 different verbs one can use for handling objects. If we multiply these verbs by the consistencies, there are over 300 different verbs used just for handling objects.

In Navajo textbooks, there are conjugation tables for inflecting words, but it’s pretty hard to find a pattern there. One of the most frustrating things about Navajo is that every little morpheme you add to a word seems to change everything else around it, even in both directions.

Navajo is said to have a very difficult system for counting numerals.

There is also a noun classifier system with more than a dozen classifiers that affect inflection. This is quite a few classifiers even for a noun classifier language and is similar to African languages like Zulu. In addition, it has the strange direct/inverse system.

To add insult to injury, Navajo is an ergative language.

Navajo also has an honorifics or politeness system similar to Japanese or Korean.

Navajo also has the odd feature where the word niinaabecause can be analyzed as a verb.

X áhóót’įįd biniinaa…
Because X happened…

Shiniinaa sits’il.
It broke into pieces because of me.

In the latter sentence, the only way we know that 1st singular was involved in because of the person marking on niinaa.

There are 25 different kinds of pronominal prefixes that can be piled onto one another before a verb base.

Navajo has a very strange feature called animacy, where nouns take certain verbs according to their rank in the hierarchy of animation which is a sort of a ranking based on how alive something is. Humans and lightning are at the top, children and large animals are next and abstractions are at the bottom.

All in all, Navajo, even compared to other polysynthetic languages, has some of the most incredibly complicated polysynthetic morphology of any language. On craziest grammar and craziest language lists, Navajo is typically listed.

It is even said that Navajo children have a hard time learning Navajo as compared to children learning other languages, but Navajo kids definitely learn the language. Similarly with Hopi below, even linguists find even the best Navajo grammars difficult or even impossible to understand.

However, Navajo is quite regular, a common feature in Amerindian languages.

Navajo is rated 6, hardest of all.

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