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Grammar sketch: persons, nouns, postpositions

In light of the various questions asked by learners in the discussions, I thought it would be nice to put together a brief grammar sketch of Navajo, covering most of the material presented in the lessons. Verbs will be taken up in a separate post.

1/ Persons:
In addition to first (1), second (2) and third person (3), Navajo has a third person obviative (3o), a fourth person (4, sometimes called 3a), a "spatial" or impersonal person (3s), and an indefinite person (3i). No distinction of gender is made, and no distinction of number is made in the 3 and 4 persons (*).

  • 3o is used to distinguish a "second" third person when the subject is already a third person in the same sentence.
  • 4 has various uses, like a "another" third person (unlike 3o, its scope is not limited to the same sentence), honorific, indefinite..., but can only refer to people (unlike 3o).
  • 3s is the impersonal "it" refering to things, space, time, like in "it rains", "it is late"...
  • 3i is the indefinite person: someone, something unspecified. It has a fundamental usage in transitive verbs that I wish to be able to cover later.

Pronouns can be standalone (generally subject), or prefixed (generally object of transitive verbs, possessor of nouns, postpositions).

Standalone pronouns / prefixed pronouns:
- 1sg. shí / shi- (I)
- 2sg. ni / ni- (you) (no high tone!)
- 3. bí / bi- (he/she/it/they)
- 3o. - / yi- (he/she/it/they)
- 3s. - / ha-, ho- (impersonal it)
- 3i. - / a- (unspecified)
- 4. hó / ha-, ho- (he/she/they)
- 1pl. nihí / nihi- (we)
- 2pl. nihí / nihi- (you all) , same as we.

(*) optionally, in the plural, pluralizing particle da- can also be used: danihi-, daabi-...

Note that the final -i- drops if in front of another vowel, see examples below.

2/ Nouns:
Nouns are invariable in case, in number (except with certain kinship terms and those nouns of verbal origin) and are unmarked for definiteness.

They can be possessed with the prefixed pronouns:
- 1sg. my mother - shimá
- 2sg. your mother - nimá
- 3. his/her/its/their mother - bimá
- 4. his/her/their mother - hamá
- 3i. a mother, someone's mother - amá
- 1/2pl. our / your mother(s) - nihimá, danihimá
- 3pl. their mother(s) - dabimá

When da- is used, sometimes it pluralizes the possessor, sometimes the possessee, there is no clear rule. Ex: dashizhéʼé "my (fore)fathers", dabighan "their house or their houses". Da- cannot be used if there is no personal prefix: ✘daazhéʼé / ✘daaghan do not occur.

Certain nouns have an initial high vowel, like ádí (older sister), in which case the paradigm is : shádí, nádí, bádí, hádí, ádí, nihádí.

Some nouns, especially kinship terms, can only be possessed, that's why one says amá for "(someone's) mother", ✘má doesn't occur, but naaltsoos / shinaaltsoos (book / my book) does.

3/ Postpositions:
Postpositions mandatorily attach to personal prefixes. There is a big number of them and their meaning barely overlaps the English prepositions. For example, P-aa with "motion" verbs means "to P" (like give, go,...). With "tell" verbs, it means "about P". P-ił with go verbs means who you bring with you, with tell verbs, to whom you speak, etc..

Here are other examples:
- P-ił = with P : shił, nił, bił, hoł, ił, nihił
- P-ee = by P : shee, nee, bee, hwee, ee, nihee

Important: postpositions dont need to follow the noun they relate to, and most commonly are stacked before the verb, in any order. For instance "you tell mary about apple" is not "you Mary bił apple baa tell" but "you Mary apple baa bił tell". ([ni] Mary bilasáana baa bił hólneʼ).

Postpositions are involved in a number of impersonal phrases that are translated by active verbs in English:
- P-ił yáʼátʼééh = it is good to P = P likes it
- P-ee hólǫ́ = there is to P = P has it
- P-ił bééhózin = there is knowledge to P = P knows
- P-ił hózhǫ́ = there is happiness to P = P is happy

Note that in the last 3 phrases above, the ho- part in the verb is that 3s spatial / impersonal third person mentioned earlier, rendered by "there" in English. It is also found in nahałtin "it is raining, there is rain".

October 27, 2018



This is great stuff but where are you getting it from? I've been looking around for one comprehensive resource for Navajo grammar but its hard to find. The Wikipedia page "Navajo Grammar" is a good start but its doesn't have everything, I was able to find some books with free PDFs online but they are huge and cumbersome to navigate. Other learning resources are far more scarce for Navajo than for other small languages I've been studying like Hawaiian and Inuktitut.


Well, those "huge and cumbersome" books, I just bought them all and read them all :). I have like 2 dozens of thick books on Navajo and related athabascan languages, not counting numerous pdf I've gleaned on the Internet (theses, article, out-of-prints,...).


Any ones you'd recommend? I am might be prepared to invest in a paper copy on Athabaskan more generally (not just Navajo)


Depends what is your focus. Most generic books regarding athabascan languages focus on phonology and historical phonology (emergence of tones, reconstruction of proto-athabaskan, relationship to Eyak and Tlingit, etc...). Those with a more grammatical approach are more a series a articles on particular grammatical point in particular languages, but nothing pan-athabaskan. There are numerous papers by Leer and Krauss that are very interesting, whose notes and printouts are can be found online on the University of Fairbanks (Alaska) website. There is especially a book on variation of stems in Ahtna which I didn't have the time to read but might be very beneficial to understand some weird irregularities in Navajo (verbal stems are HORRIBLY irregular, and Leer tries to find the original regular system out of which the irregular system emerged). I also have grammar of individual languages, besides Navajo: Time and Aspect in Koyukon, Grammar of Slave (the thickest grammar on earth for a basically dead language, Navajo enjoys nothing close to the quality of this work, in spite of Young's dedicated 50 years on Navajo), Ahtna,...

Let me know if there's something specific you're after! ;)


Grammar is my main focus, not too bothered about phonology. I don't know if you're familiar with the Routledge Language Family Series but I'm basically going for that sort of thing (they don't have anything for Na-Dené)


Yes, I'm familiar with this series... But I know no book that would present similar data for Athabaskan languages, sorry!


Shame, how about just a comprehensive, accessible grammar of Navajo?


(for some reason I can't reply to your last post)

There aren't that many grammars out there. For a language that's still pretty alive, it's a bummer, while other much smaller languages like Sarcee / Slave /.. enjoyed better coverage. Well maybe precisely because they were about to die...

The world of the Navajo grammars is dominated by the works of Young and Morgan. They wrote a sketch in the 50s, that they updated 2 or 3 times, then they came out with their first dictionary (1000+ pages) in the 80s with a much improved grammar (250+ pages with many Conjugation tables), but the grammar can't be bought separately, and the book is a helluva of a brick. Then Young wrote is overview of the Navajo verb in 2000. And that's pretty much it.

Now, these works are still a worthwhile read but they left out a lot of things (plus they are super difficult to read, bad layout, no clear organization, typewriter font, etc..) . Young was a morphologist and spent his entire life just describing how verb fragments must be pieced together. No syntax, no theory of the verb (especially there is no mention of verb theme categories which is a unique of Athabaskan languages, first discovered in ahtna and slave, but never applied to navajo. He speaks a lot about aspect durative/continuative/semelfactive but without that unifying theory, this is just useless),...

There is (was) a project by a navajo language instance to write a real grammar, but the project has been stale for years.

Personally, I read the Bible, write-ups by the LDS Church etc to help me build my "inner" grammar.


I forgot Faltz's The Navajo Verb, which is a beginner introduction to the Young and Morgan behemoth conjugation tables and explanations. It answers the same "how to conjugate" question but in a more fun and modern way, but still not the "why".


https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/29613892 For a much simpler explanation go to this post. That's if you've even read this far lol

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