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Navajo Lesson 1

Hey everyone, it seems as though the Navajo course isn't going to expand or introduce grammar notes anytime soon, so I'm taking it upon myself to help you learners by providing my own lessons in the forum. I don't have a schedule in mind so don't expect posts to be daily or weekly or even regular, however do check the forum regularly for updates. Quick disclaimer: I am not a native/fluent Navajo speaker. I am an amateur linguist who started to take a great interest in the language shortly before the Duolingo course came out. Nonetheless, I will try my best to be as accurate as possible, and use only examples which I know for certain are correct.

My sources, in case you want to check them out yourselves, are The Navajo Verb - Leonard M. Faltz, Diné Bizaad: Speak, Read, Write Navajo - Irvy W. Goossen, as well as Wikipedia, Tatoeba and Glosbe.com's online Navajo dictionary.

In this first lesson, I want to introduce Navajo verbal morphology by looking at the Imperfect Mode. Navajo has (as far as I can tell) the most complicated verbal system of any language, however, like all languages, the number of rules and exceptions to said rules is finite and therefore learnable.

The Imperfective (I) mode is Navajo's most common mode. It refers an ongoing event/action, and is (for the most part) the equivalent of the English present tense.

Let's look at a fully conjugated, but very basic Navajo verb:

  • naniné = You are playing

This can be deconstructed into three parts. The -né is the Imperfective stem of the verb "to play". The stem is always monosyllabic, and is always the final syllable, as Navajo is a heavily prefixing language (unlike English which is mostly suffixing).

The 'na' is what's called a lexical prefix. We don't have to worry about what that means for now, all you need to know is that it is an essential part of the verb "to play", and that the lexical prefix always comes before the subject prefix. 'Na' is an especially common lexical prefixes which will show up again in many of our verb bases.

The 'sh' is the first person singular subject prefix. Here is a chart of the subject prefixes in the imperfective mode (different modes use different sets of prefixes):

1Sg: sh

1DPl*: iid

2Sg: ni

2DPl: oh

3*: ø

  • DPl stands for 'duoplural', these subject prefixes by themselves refer only to the dual (2), but they are used to construct plurals with the aid of another prefix which we will get to in the lesson.

  • The third person has no singular-dual distinction. 'ø' is not a letter, it refers to 'nothing' (i.e. the subject prefix slot is empty in the 3rd person)

It is worth at this point laying out the structure of the verb, as a stem can take many prefixes, which follow each other in a fixed order:

  • Outer Prefix(es) + Distr. Plural + Object Prefix + Inner Prefix(es) + Subject Prefix + Classifier + Stem

'Outer' and 'inner' are the two available slots for lexical prefixes, 'na' is an outer prefix (not that it makes a difference here). The 'classifier' can be ignored for now, as 'to play' does not take one. It is also worth mentioning at this point that the Outer Prefix(es) and Distributive Plural together are known as the 'Disjunct prefix', and the Object and Inner Prefixes are known together as the 'Conjunct prefix'.

Now let's write down the forms of the Imperfective 'to play':

  • naashné = I am playing

  • neii'né = We (2) are playing

  • naniné = You are playing

  • naohné = You (2) are playing

  • naané = He/she/it/they(2) is/are playing <-- (to make things easier, in the future I'll just write he/she ..., however bear in mind that the 3rd person can refer to all these possibilities)

Now you may have noticed some curiosities. Namely, in the 1Sg and 3 person, the 'na' prefix got lengthened to 'naa', whilst two things happened with the 1DPl, the 'na' changed to 'ne' and the 'd' was replaced with a glottal stop. What's going on?

Well, what makes Navajo extra tricky is that it is a mixture of agglutinative and fusional. This means that it stacks lots of prefixes together, but instead of co-existing nicely the way they do in languages like Finnish or Swahili, these prefixes affect each other in various ways. Fortunately these phonological changes are rule governed, so we are now going to write down our first set of rules. A rule will always apply unless another rule blocks it from doing so:

  • Rule Disj-1: when a disjunct prefix is followed by a consonant and the next syllable is the stem, then if the disj. prefix ends in an 'a', this gets lengthened to 'aa'.

(Rules are labelled according to the prefixes they affect, in this case, the rule affects the disj. prefix which, as stated earlier, refers to the outer prefix(es) and the distributive plural prefix.)

  • Rule Disj-2: when a disjunct prefix is followed by a vowel, the following changes happen: 'a' becomes 'e' when followed by 'i' (unless it is preceded by the consonants 'g', 'gh', 'h', 'k' or 'k'' in which case nothing happens). If the 'á' is high tone, this carries onto the 'é'.

These rules seem quite daunting at first, but they are easily spotted and incorporated.

The final rule affects the subject prefix, and concerns the missing 'd' in "neii'né'":

  • Rule Subj-1: when the 'd' at the end of the 1DPl prefix 'iid' is immediately followed by the first consonant of the stem syllable, it undergoes the 'd-effect'. (This effect will be left until later, for now just remember that 'd + n --> 'n)

Now Navajo also has a 4th person which is quite useful and worth learning to conjugate. The 4th (or 3a) person is used to indicate an unspecified or indefinite subject, and can also be used as a polite referent to someone within earshot. It has a prefix of its own 'j' which occupies the object prefix slot, whilst the regular 3rd person prefix is used in the subject prefix slot. (Note: 'j' is not an object, and if the verb does take an object prefix, the 'j' comes after it) Therefore:

  • na + j + ø + né --> nijiné = one is playing

To explain this odd outcome, we need two more rules. The first of these concerns 'j' directly. Seeing as 'j' occupies the object prefix slot, it is a conjunct prefix, so this is our first conjunct rule:

  • Rule Conj-1: if a conjunct prefix ending in a consonant is directly followed by another consonant, the vowel 'i' is inserted between them

  • Rule Disj-3: the syllable 'na' becomes 'ni' when immediately followed by the 4th person 'j' or the distr. plural prefix

And on that note, let's move on to this distributive plural we've been mentioning. The prefix itself is simply 'da', and it occupies the slot marked Distr. Plural on the chart. It is accompanied by the duoplural subject prefixes. Let's use it to conjugate the verb "to play":

  • nideii'né = We're playing

  • nidaohné = You're playing

  • nidaané = They're playing

  • nidajiné = They're playing (4th person)

The 'ni' can be explained by Rule Disj-3 just above, whilst 'da' becoming 'de' in the 1Pl is the same phenomenon (Rule Disj-2) that affected 'na' in the 1DPl.

With that we can now conjugate verbs in the imperfective... unless they have classifiers, contain a fricative in their stem, take an object, have no lexical prefixes, are conjugated in other aspects, are... yeah... this language is difficult, but I've enjoyed unpacking its grammar and I hope you will too! The next lesson will be on an undisclosed topic at an undisclosed time so, stay tuned!

January 2, 2019




T’ahdoósh contributor application ła hádílééh da? T’ahdoo ła hádílééhgóó éíyaa ła’ hádídíílííł. Niemailísh hólǫ́?

Ahéhee’, Keanu


I don't think I'm really qualified to be contributor as I'm an amateur linguist, not an actual speaker. As you can tell I was able to decode your message with the help of a dictionary but I wouldn't be able to produce a full and grammatical response. That said, my email is atomlhclark@gmail.com, so if you think my grammatical knowledge could come in handy I'd be happy to help!


When do you think Navajo will be complete? I have completed Navajo with my other account that I do not use anymore (LegendofZelda999), and am wondering when Navajo will be complete. Take your time.


Just to be clear I am not a contributor. I'm just as clueless about the inner workings of the course as you are.


Sorry! I was really inexperienced at Duolingo at the time I asked that!

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