Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary

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Don't miss Danielle Geller's remarkable, moving personal essay in The New Yorker, "Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary." Here's how it starts:

The first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo translator.

’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though to speak but says nothing)”

I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants, though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.


  1. Richard Hershberger said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 4:17 pm

    I lived in Flagstaff for a few years in the 1990s. I took a class in Navajo at the community college. Navajo was the instructor's first language (and his English was excellent). The first day of class he had each of us state why we were taking the class. This was a tough one for me: Given the opportunity, why wouldn't I? But that was hard to explain. About half the class were themselves Navajo of the younger generation. The most common reason for taking the class was "I want to be able to speak with my grandmother." Heartbreaking.

  2. Duncan Blitz said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

    Does anyone understand why the author (Danielle Geller) keeps referring to Tucson off the I-40? Either she means Gallup or Window Rock off the I-40, or she means Tucson, which is not on the I-40. Kind of ruined the piece for me.

  3. tk said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 5:25 pm

    I took Diné Bizaad as my foreign language at the University of New Mexico in 1968. I loaned someone the textbook ("Navajo Made Easier") and never got it back. ;-(
    But I still remember what Tsegahodzani means and where it is (hint: it's about a hour north of I-40 at rush hour).

  4. Veronica said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

    She didn't say Tucson was near I-40. She described being on the reservation, and heading out "on the drive to Tucson along I-40." If you were in northern Arizona, your drive to Tucson would very likely start on I-40, before you switched to I-17 and I-10.
    I graduated from the U of A some 25 years ago, and wish I had studied any of the Native American languages they offered at the time.

  5. S Frankel said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

    Slushy consonants? I find the language very clear – not a lot of sandhi, and the enunciation is so precise that even a beginner such as myself (admittedly with some training in phonetics) doesn't have any trouble in transcribing normal speech. The careful enunciation of even casual speech is remarkable. It might have something to do with the fact that verbs, which incorporate a lot of information including subjects and objects, are composed on the spot according to a complicated, but finite, set of rules. I wonder whether the level of redundancy is lower than in most languages.

  6. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 12:48 am

    @S Frankel: I doubt that "slushy consonants" is meant to imply that the language is unclear or poorly enunciated, any more than "nasal vowels" is; rather, she must consider some group of Navajo consonants to be the "slushy" ones. Since the term "slushy S" refers to a lateral lisp, I imagine that the consonants she has in mind are laterals such as [tɬʰ].

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    The only script I know that has the character ą is Polish, where it represents /ɔ̃/. How does it sound in Navajo?

  8. S Frankel said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 10:04 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur – yes, that makes sense; thanks for the suggestion. I feared that her prose was slushy.

    @Coby Lubliner: Navajo ą is a nasal a with no change in the place of articulation (unlike Polish). Here's an article:

  9. KeithB said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    Another reason to curse the Indian Schools!

    I think it is time to rename the streets in Albuquerque and Phoenix named for them,

  10. Orin Hargraves said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 12:29 pm

    You can treat yourself to Navajo Nation radio (with fantastic chanting, and all too frequent interjections of English) at

  11. KeithB said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

    I listen to "The Singing Wire" on our local public station.

  12. Carl Masthay said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    I own a copy of that 1958 Navajo-English dictionary and used it a couple of days ago because of a PBS program. There are some minor spelling errors in the Navajo in the article. I have saved the New Yorker article.
    Thanks, or ’ahéhee’,

  13. ryan said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 2:21 am

    I'd written a snide retort to Duncan, then realized Veronica had already responded, more civilly than I, to her credit. Just want to add that it's not "the I-40." It's just I-40.

    In 1997 or so I visited friends in Window Rock, and picked up an man who I would guess was in his 60s, hitchhiking, who turned out to be nearly monolingual in Navajo. I could not find the town he was heading to on my map (Kinlichee.) He couldn't explain where it was in any language I understood, so I read serially some towns that were on the map, and he was able to tell me Kinlichee was near Cross Canyon. (Not sure why that was on my map – google suggests it's just a geographical feature a couple miles off the road.) Anyway, when we arrived in Kinlichee, he had me drop him off at the Chapter House. He seemed not to want me to see where he was heading. Somehow I hadn't given my name up to then, so I introduced myself, and he introduced himself as John Wilson. Likely not the name his friends knew him by. While I wasn't completely naïve or smug, there were layers of class and race in that story that were not visible to me when it took place.

    Finally, it's interesting to me that in 1968, 90% of Navajo children entering school knew the language, and now only 30%. Apparently the policy of the Indian Schools was fairly ineffective, at least at Navajo, and language decline really gained steam in the civil rights area. That surprises me.

  14. stedak said,

    November 21, 2017 @ 5:15 am

    The annotated dictionary format is strikingly effective and original; has anyone ever written something like this before? However, 1958 seems way too late for a first dictionary, especially of such a large language. What about missionaries and earlier linguists? Wasn't Sapir already reconstructing the Na-Dene family by 1915? Some rummaging around the web confirmed my guess: there was some unpublished work in the 19th century, and the Franciscan mission at St. Michaels published a dictionary in 1912 (yes, while they were also running a boarding school to separate children from their language, go figure).

    Young and Morgan's first dictionary and grammar was published in 1943 (not 1972), with many further collaborations up to 1992, listed in this bibliography of Navajo linguistics.

    This dictionary has separate entries for fully inflected forms of a verb ("it was opened"; "it is open"; "since it was open"), which if I understand correctly represents the speaker's view of words of the polysynthetic language.

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