Annotate the first page of the first Navajo-English dictionary



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

‘Ä…Ä…’: “good (anticipation, like when a person approaches you as if to speak but says nothing)”

I could start and end here. My mother was a pureblood Navajo raised on the reserve, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when it was best not to say most words. I am still drawn to nasal vowels and melted consonants, even though I have no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to dress up, to imitate pronunciations and comprehension; it’s another thing to think, dream or live in a language that is not your own.

‘aa’ áhályánii: “bodyguard”

In August 2015, I moved from Boston to Tucson, to join a master’s program in creative writing. I applied to schools surrounding the Navajo reservation because I wanted to be closer to my mother’s family. My project: to follow courses in carpet weaving and Navajo language (Diné Bizaad); visit my family as often as possible. It will open: the door to the path we have lost.

‘Ä…Ä…’ ályaa: “It has been opened.”

A PDF version of the Navajo-English dictionary at the University of Northern Colorado. I wonder which librarian decided to digitize it. Most government documents, after being shipped to federal depositories across the country, languish on shelving units and accumulate decades of dust before being removed and destroyed. I worked in these libraries, I know.

‘ályaa, bich’į’: “It was opened to them; they were invited.

One of the reasons Navajo soldiers were recruited as code speakers during WWII was that there were no published dictionaries of their language at that time and because the grammatical structure of the language was so different from English, German and Japanese. They were invited to: a world beyond the borders of the reserve. My mother always told me that the only way to leave the ground floor was to join the military or get married.

‘Ä…Ä…’ át’é: “It is open.”

One of the first typewriters capable of correctly recording the Navajo language was built for Robert Young, a linguist who also worked with William Morgan and published a more comprehensive dictionary and grammar guide (“The Navaho Language” ), in 1972. Seventies, a Navajo font was released for the IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter, which would serve as the basis for a digital font on early computers.

‘Ä…Ä…’ át’éego: “since it was open”

Navajo fonts are now available for download in several fonts: Times New Roman, Verdana, and Lucida Sans.

‘áádahojoost’įįd: “They resigned, backed down, gave up, surrendered.”

Spring. 1864. The “Long March” begins. The US military forcibly displaces the Navajo from their homeland in Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. Those who do not resist learn to walk, but death follows both paths.

‘aa’ dahoost’įįd, t’óó: “They gave up, surrendered.”

There are many reasons why parents do not teach their children the Navajo language: American monolingual policies, violence experienced in residential schools, and perceived status. Those who speak good English will have a better chance of escaping.

‘aa dahwiinít’ ́iį ‘: “In court (a place where justice is done judicially)”

A relative of mine is due to testify in court in a week; she is not sure she wants to go. I get it anyway. Take her back to Tucson with me.

‘aa deet’ą́: “Transfer (of ownership or ownership)”

My aunt tells me that we have land on the reserve, just off the I-40 freeway. We inherited it from our great-grandmother, Pauline Tom. Only Pauline Tom had a lot of children, and their children had a lot of children, and after her death in 2008 all these children started fighting. It is a common problem, and it is not unique to the Navajo Nation. Federal land allocation policies have resulted in too many heirs for too few acres.

‘Aadi: “there, over there (a distant place)”

On the way to Tucson on I-40, my cousin points to the black tar roofs of our family’s homes and the cemetery – a small square lot – where our great-grandmother is buried. The cemetery can hardly be distinguished from the rest of the landscape, and when I follow his gaze, looking away from the road, I only see the austere white faces of the tombstones and the silvery reflection of a ribbon in the wind.

‘áádįįł: “It is gradually diminishing; disappear. “

In 1968, ten years after the publication of the first dictionary, 90% of reserve children entering school spoke Navajo; in 2009, only thirty percent knew the language (Spolsky, “Language Management for Endangered Languages”, 117).

‘aadiish: “There? There?

September 22, 2015. The second time I pass our subdivision on I-40, I try to find the place that my cousin showed me. I am looking for the tombstones; I’m thinking of stopping and trying to find my grandmother’s grave. My cousin told me that if you don’t do the proper blessing, the spirit will follow you home. (She asked me, “What’s the difference between a spirit and a ghost?”) I don’t know the blessing, but it doesn’t matter; I cannot recognize my family’s cemetery or land.

‘Ä…Ä…h’ dahaz’ą́: “An illness, an illness, an illness”

September 19. I catch a cold from my students. Maybe the flu. I tell my cousin to stay away, but she says she won’t get sick. We spend the whole day curled up on the couch watching “Shameless”. She rests her head on my shoulder, on my hip.

‘á’á hwiinít’į́, “kindness”

‘aa hwiinit’į́: “Trial (in court), indecent assault”

How are these words (kindness / molestation) that sound so similar so different? My aunt tells my cousin that our maternal grandmother assaulted her sons. My mother tells me other stories, similar but not the same. (“Why would they tell us that?”) It’s hard to believe, but it isn’t. There will never be a trial. These are words that it is better not to say, to forget, to erase.

‘aa hwiinít’įįhígíí: “the upcoming court session”

September 16, 2015. My cousin learns that if she does not show up on the hearing date, an arrest warrant will be issued against her. I agree to drive her back to Window Rock on Monday evening, after I finish teaching for the day. It’s a six hour drive, but I’m almost happy to do it. I will be at Window Rock, with my family, on the second anniversary of my mother’s death, not by plan but by circumstances.


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