What to expect from Navajo

While the Navajo and Hawaiian courses may be underdeveloped at this point, I am still excited for what the future holds and hope the course grows into a full-fledged course. In the meantime, here are some features of Navajo that aspiring learners have to look forward to!

1) An absurdly complicated system of verbs - Navajo has 7 modes, 12 aspects and 10 subaspects. Modes display attitude toward what is happening (e.g. the indicative - states what is happening "The sky is blue", subjunctive "It is said the sky is blue", among others), aspects denote how an action/state extends over time (e.g. the English habitual 'he is going' as opposed to 'he goes') and subaspects are other aspects which can occur alongside a primary aspect.

Here are some interesting moods/aspects/subaspects which feature in Navajo:

  • Conative - an action was attempted

  • Semelfactive - the act occurred once in a repeated series of acts

  • Semeliterative - the act was a single repetition of an event/action

  • Reversative - the act results in directional change

  • Optative - corresponds to the English phrase "May you have a long life!" or the phrase "if only"

All of these moods/aspects are marked with suffixes and ablaut (sound changes within the stem), all of which can stack to be very precise about an action and one's attitude towards it.

2) Advanced Geometric Lexicon - shapes which would require whole phrases to describe in English have single words attached to them in Navajo. Here are some examples:

  • adziisgai = a group of parallel lines running off into the distance

  • ahééhesgai = more than two lines forming concentric circles

  • álhch'inidzigai = two lines coming together at a point

These terms can be used to describe the peculiar environment of north-east Arizona in which the Navajo reside. For instance the 'Elephant's Feet' (a natural site near Tonalea, AZ) in Navajo are called 'Tsé Áhé'ii'áhá' which translates to 'Two rocks standing vertically parallel'.

3) Inalienable possession - Navajo has nouns which cannot stand alone and only make sense when attached to another noun in a possessive relationship. For example '-be' means milk, but it is merely a root which does not make sense by itself. Attach 'bi-', which means 'her' to the front and you have yourself the actual noun for milk 'bibe'.

Nonetheless Navajo is quite flexible and allows you to get by this using the 'unspecified' possessor category marked with 'a-' (e.g. 'abe' also means milk, not necessarily belonging to a female). If you wanted to say 'her milk' but not the milk that the individual in question produces herself, you would have to attach the female possessive pronoun on top of 'abe'.

One noun subject to inalienable possession is introduced at the start of the Navajo course 'shimá' which means 'my mother'. To express the concept of 'mothers' in general, one would not use 'má' which is merely a root, but 'amá'.

4) Nasals, long vowels and tone - all of these affect the way vowels are pronounced and can be found the world over, but it is uncommon for all three to be found in one language.

5) Polysynthesism - Navajo is rarely classified as a fully polysynthetic language like Inuktitut, but it is the closest to a polysynthetic so far on Duolingo. A polysynthetic language refers to one which is rich in morphemes, affixes which stack together and stick onto a stem, each affix affecting each other's pronunciations in various complicated relationships. Be warned, these languages are mind-numbingly complicated for those learning them as foreign languages. Here is an example of what I am talking about:

  • hééł = pack --> shiyéél = my pack

Note how when the first-person possessive pronoun 'shi' is added, the initial and final consonants of the noun changed.

English has this too. 'Social' and 'Society' share the same stem, but because of the adjectival and nominal suffixes added, both the vowel and final consonant of the stem change. The difference between English and Navajo is that in Navajo, you can attach far more affixes to encode far more information (as was partly demonstrated with the various moods and aspects mentioned above, which would require adverbs or paraphrasis (saying things in a round-about way) to express properly in English).

6) Animacy - Navajo bakes animacy into its grammar (as opposed to, say, French which bakes in gender instead). Navajo sentences are generally SOV (Subject Object Verb), however the order of the subject and object can change in a rather peculiar way. Observe the following sentences:

  • Tsídii at'ééd yishtąsh = The bird pecked the girl.

Even though the subject (tsídii) and object (at'ééd) are supposedly in the correct order, the sentence itself is grammatically incorrect. This is because it is odd for the less animate actor in this sentence (the bird - tsídii) to come first. A corrected version of the sentence above would look like this:

  • At'ééd tsídii bishtąsh = The girl was pecked by the bird

The 'yi' prefix is swapped for 'bi' to form the passive. Therefore the sentence is still SOV, but the nouns have been reordered so that the allegedly more animate noun comes first. Here is what the Navajo animacy hierarchy looks like (from most to least animate):

humans/lightning > infants/big animals > midsize animals > small animals > insects > natural forces > inanimate objects/plants > abstractions

7) Nouns vs. Verbs - because Navajo is so verb-savvy, its nouns can be classified as either regular nouns, or 'deverbal' nouns, nouns formed from verbs. We obviously have this in English too, but it is far more common in Navajo.

  • ná'oolkiłí = clock, this is based off the verb 'ná'oolkił', which means 'it is moved slowly in a circle'

  • 'Hoozdo' is the Navajo name of Phoenix, Arizona's capital and largest city, however it too is derived from a Navajo verb meaning 'place is hot'

8) Classificatory Verbs - verbs in Navajo inflect based on the class of the noun being referred to. For instance 'ní-' is a root which roughly corresponds to the English 'to give' but it makes no sense by itself. To say 'Give me some hay' would have to use the verb 'níłjool' which is the root with the suffix corresponding to 'non-compact matter' added on. Some of these noun classes are rather interesting, such as 'open containers' which includes glasses and handfuls, as well as 'mushy matter' which amusingly includes 'slumped-over drunk people'.

As well as specifying the object's physical properties, Navajo verbs also have 3 ways to distinguish the manner of the movement of the object:

  • '-ʼą́' - Handling - includes carrying, lowering and taking
  • '-neʼ' - Propelling - includes tossing, dropping and throwing
  • '-l-tsʼid' - Free Flight - includes falling and independent movement

NOTE: because Navajo seems to introduce complexity wherever it can, these suffixes can change depending on the noun class used. The suffixes cited above are for Class 1 which is Round Objects. They may well look different for other classes.

9) Fourth person - Navajo marks its subjects and objects with prefixes according to person. It has the familiar 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, but also a 4th person, marked with 'ji-' for the subject and 'ha/ho-' for the object which can be used to refer to distant or non-salient things such as characters in a narrative or as a polite referent to socially-distant individuals. It can also be used to distinguish between multiple 3rd person actors.

Navajo also has an indefinite 3rd person on top of that to refer to when an indefinite actor is doing sth./having something done to it.

That's about every concept which I was able to wrap my head around. Of course there are many others which I imagine would require a PhD in Athabaskan Linguistics to understand and I came across many features in my research which would be dishonest to put up here pretending that I understand them.

Good luck! (you will need it after all)

October 6, 2018


There's a reason this language was the code that couldn't be cracked, pretty much saving the world.

October 6, 2018

Very, very interesting and intriguing! Thanks for sharing all this information, AtomClark. :-)

October 6, 2018

No problem!

October 6, 2018

Well, I can help, since, it isn't hard for me to conceptualize any of this.

October 12, 2018

Gosh. This is amazing!

October 6, 2018

Thank you, this language is so exciting ! Any language gives immense insight to the psyche of the people who created it and use it. How very intriguing that there exists all these nuances that you have enumerated here !

October 8, 2018

Thank you for this info! The complexity might explain why the "tips" haven't appeared yet. Looking forward to learning more!

October 8, 2018

Thank you so much for the info. It is extremely helpful and interesting. It encourages me to continue with dl's lessons, learning from repetition, as a small child would (though much more slowly, of course! ) and I won't worry too much about grammar until much later. I'm giving you 5 lingots.

October 8, 2018

Wow, thanks a lot!

October 9, 2018

I see that you already know a lot! ;)

October 29, 2018

I've done my research but this is barely a fraction of the grammar!

October 29, 2018
Learn Navajo in just 5 minutes a day. For free.