Navajo language part of large family
Arizona Republic
Jan. 14, 2008

Today's question:

Is it true the Navajo language is unrelated to any other Native American language?

No. Where did you get that idea?

Navajo is part of the Athabaskan family of languages, although modern linguists sometimes call them Na-Dene languages.

Specifically, Navajo is part of a subset of Athabaskan called Apachean languages. The other two tongues in that subset are called Eastern and Western Apache.

Athabaskan languages probably arose in northwestern Canada and southern Alaska. Various members of the family were spoken along the Pacific Coast and in some Plains tribes.

The idea that Athabaskan is a northern thing is in keeping with theories that the ancestors of the Navajos in the Southwest migrated south from Canada or Alaska over a long period of time and arrived in what is now Arizona and New Mexico around 1300.

However, Navajo beliefs tell us that the people emerged into the world in the Southwest.

The Navajo language is considered to be one of the most difficult to learn, unless, of course, you grow up hearing it.

The sentence structures, grammar, verbs - just about everything - make the language extremely hard for a non-Navajo to master.

That's why the Japanese never could figure out the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II.

While the Navajos speak an Athabaskan language, the language of their neighbors, the Hopis, is part of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages.

Uto-Aztecan languages probably arose in the Southwest or northern Mexico, and are one of the largest groups of tongues in the Americas. They are spoken from Oregon and Idaho deep into Mexico. Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, also was an Uto-Aztecan language.

The Hopis have been in the Four Corners area for at least 1,000 years. They seem to be the descendants of the people the Navajos called Anasazi, meaning "ancient enemies."

The Hopis prefer the word Hisatsinom, which means "ancient ones."

Do you have a question about Arizona history? Reach Thompson at or 602-444-8612.