The Navajos, or Diné, as a people, and their language, have long been subjected to much study; in fact, there is more published research on this Native American tribe than any other in the United States. The Diné language belongs to the southern branch of the Apachean or Athabaskan language family. Athabaskan, Eyak, and (probably) Tlingit make up the Na-Dene family. The Na-Dene languages are widely spread—from interior Alaska to western Canada, the Northwest Coast, and the American Southwest.
Southern Athabaskan includes Jicarilla, Western Apache, Mescalero, Kiowa-Apache, and Lipan, as well as Diné. Kiowa-Apache and Lipan are close to extinction; Jicarilla has an endangered status; and even among the Diné, the most numerous of the Athabaskan tribes, only 17 percent of youngsters are speakers of the language at the time they enter school.
The traditional homeland of the Diné is a broad area bounded by the four Sacred Mountains: to the east, Sierra Blanca Peak; to the west, San Francisco Peaks; to the south, Mount Taylor; and to the north, Hesperus Peak, in the La Plata Range. The center of Diné homeland is El Capitán Peak. Most of the Diné homeland lies in northern Arizona, but it also extends into southern Utah and northwestern New Mexico.
While it is impossible to convey all aspects of Navajo in a brief description, the relationship between nouns and third-person pronouns offers a good illustration of an important element of the language. This discussion will also illuminate certain features that have often been the subject of controversy for linguists, anthropologists, and—sometimes—native speakers themselves.
The grammatical structure of Diné is vastly different from that of English. The most important of these differences lies in sentence structure: Diné sentences are built from verb stems; the resulting verb structures then function as complete sentences. The verb stems are based on about five hundred verb roots. For each root there is an underlying conceptual meaning of the verb, as well as numerous extensions of meanings, some metaphorical. For instance, the root kaad, with the underlying meaning of "flatness" or "expansiveness," can have extended meanings such as the following. (Sound changes in the root are irrelevant.)
"It [rug, bush, blanket] is spread out flat."
"I am herding sheep."
"I am clapping."
"I am playing it [cards/gambling]."
"I am sewing it."
You can also see from the English meanings given here that the subject and object pronouns are incorporated into the verb.
Prefixation is widespread in Diné—unlike English, where suffixes are more common. There are as many as ten prefix position slots preceding the verb stem. Of course, not all will appear simultaneously.
Diné nouns, except for some kinship terms, have the same form for singular and plural: for example, tl'ízí can mean either "goat" or "goats"; the distinction is made in the verb. Also, there are no definite articles, only indefinite ones (such as a and an in English). If a noun appears without an indefinite article, the interpretation is that the noun is definite.
Another grammatical difference between English and Diné is that Diné has no gender distinctions in its third-person pronouns. Thus sikaad, "It is spread out flat," can also have the interpretation of someone (a male or female) flopping down or, jokingly, of someone taking up more space than necessary.
Diné makes a distinction in its pronoun system with respect to the animacy rank of the discourse participants. The belief underlying this view is that every living thing has a given volition. Volitionality distinguishes animate things from inanimate things, and within animate things, it separates humans from animals, and larger animals from smaller animals. The ranking would appear as: supernatural beings > humans > large animals > smaller animals > things. This distinction in volition divides nouns into classes whereby a being with a lower level of volition cannot act upon a being with a higher volition level. Even though Diné people know that horses can kick people, they would describe the event as a case where the person was foolish enough to let himself be kicked by a horse. In fact, this interpretation is marked by the choice of pronouns. Native speakers can decipher sentences that contradict grammatical rules of volition ranking and pronoun choice, but these utterances clash with their worldview.
Consider the two Diné sentences that follow.
man horse kicked
obj. subj. verb
The horse kicked the man.
hastiin yi-ztal (?)
horse man kicked
subj. obj. verb
(The horse kicked the man.)
There is a change in pronoun choice (in the form of the verb prefix, which in both cases indicates that the object is hastiin) and also a change in the order of the nouns. Although both examples describe the same event, the first would be preferred over the second. The second is not an utterable sentence; it just would be considered inappropriate, because something that is lower in volition rank is preceding a higher-ranked being.
Diné employs a very interesting strategy for circumventing unequal ranking. It uses the human third-person pronouns (in the form of verb prefixes), called the fourth-person pronouns, when a human is acted upon or when a human acts upon a lower thing. The fourth person allows lower-ranked nouns to be mentioned first for discourse prominence. Thus a native speaker who wanted to focus on the horse would use, instead of the second example, the following form
'The horse kicked him.'
If two third-person participants are of the same rank, either ordering of subject and object is permissible. The deciding factor in such cases is the topic of discussion. This is illustrated in the following examples.
hastiin ashkii bi-ztal
man boy kicked
obj. subj. verb
The boy kicked the man.
ashkii hastiin yi-ztal
boy man kicked
subj. obj. verb
The boy kicked the man.
The interplay between nouns and pronouns has been a topic of linguistic research for decades by non-speakers of Diné. In the last twenty years native speakers have initiated research on their own language that has brought about the volitionality insight. The cultural explanation of a linguistic aspect of a language provides a glimpse into the world of the speakers and how they see that world.
Trudy Griffin-Pierce, Earth Is My Mother, Sky Is My Father (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992); Gary Wither-spoon, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977); Robert Young and William Morgan, The Navajo Language: A Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980).