NAVAJO LANGUAGE. The Navajo language is the most heavily used language of Native North America. The Navajo tribe itself has about 220,000 members, the second largest Native American tribe in the United States. During the 1990s it was estimated that about 145,000 spoke the language, by far the largest number of speakers of any Native North American language—about 45 percent of all speakers of such languages—as well as the highest ratio of speakers among tribal members.
Navajo, with other languages such as Jicarilla, Mescalero-Chiricahua, and Western Apache, form a language complex called Apachean. At the time of the European contact Apachean was spoken over a large area of the southwestern United States, centered in New Mexico and Arizona, and that is still the case. Apachean is part of the large Athapaskan family of languages that is centered in northwestern Canada, the area generally believed to be the Athapaskan homeland. In addition to Apachean, there is another small cluster of extinct or nearly extinct Athapaskan outliers, such as Hupa, on the Pacific Coast of northern California. This linguistic configuration supports the generally accepted view that the Apacheans are relatively recent immigrants into their present homeland, probably about one thousand years ago. However, details such as the route of migration, whether the migration was unitary or came in waves, and its relationship to cultures in the Southwest known from the archeological record are matters of controversy.
During World War II, the U.S. Marines created a unit of so-called Navajo Code Talkers as a way to encrypt messages at the tactical level in the Pacific theater. The so-called code was a jargon that the Navajos in the unit developed amongst themselves orally to describe necessary battlefield information. Its effectiveness was demonstrated by the fact that a Navajo soldier who had been captured by the Japanese before the development of the code was unable to decipher the messages despite being tortured by his captors.
In the late twentieth century, the use of Navajo has been displaced by English, especially in and around urban areas and among younger Navajos. In response to this threat to the survival of the language, tribal agencies have instituted a vigorous program of language maintenance and renewal through bilingual schools and through Diné College, which provides instruction in Navajo language and literacy and training of Native Navajo-speaking teachers for certification in Navajo bilingual education.
Field, Margaret. "Navajo." In Facts About the World's Major Languages, Past and Present. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Galvez Rubino. New York: H. W. Wilson, 2001.