Navajo language

Navajo language
Diné bizaad
Spoken in USA
Region Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado
Native speakers 171,000[1]  (2007)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-1 nv
ISO 639-2 nav
ISO 639-3 nav
Navaho USC2000 PHS.svg
Navajo language area of the United States

Navajo or Navaho (native name: Diné bizaad) is an Athabaskan language (of Na-Dené stock) spoken in the southwestern United States. It is geographically and linguistically one of the Southern Athabaskan languages (the majority of Athabaskan languages are spoken in northwest Canada and Alaska).

Navajo has more speakers than any other Native American language north of the U.S.-Mexico border, with 170,717 self-reported speakers in 2007,[1] and this number has increased with time.


Language status

Examples of written Navajo on public signs. Clockwise from top left: Student Services Building, Diné College; cougar exhibit, Navajo Nation Zoo; shopping center near Navajo, New Mexico; notice of reserved parking, Window Rock

The American Community Survey of 2007 reported 170,717 speakers of Navajo, making it the only Native American language to warrant a separate line in the statistical tables. The majority of speakers live on the Navajo Nation. Of these, 2.9% were monolingual with no knowledge of English. The four metro- and micropolitan areas with the largest number of speakers were Farmington (16.5%), Gallup (12%), Flagstaff (10.3%), and Albuquerque (5.4%).[1]

A number of bilingual immersion schools operate within Navajo-speaking regions to preserve and promote usage of the language.[2]

Orthography and pronunciation


The following table lists the consonants of Navajo in the standard orthography, followed by their pronunciation in IPA notation in brackets:

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral plain labialized
Plosives plain b [p] d [t] g [k] ʼ [ʔ]
aspirated t [tx] k [kx] kw [kxʷ]
ejective [tʼ] [kʼ]
Affricates plain dz [ts] dl [tˡ] j [tʃ]
aspirated ts [tsʰ] [tɬʰ] ch [tʃʰ]
ejective tsʼ [tsʼ] tłʼ [tɬʼ] chʼ [tʃʼ]
Continuant voiceless s [s] ł [ɬ] sh [ʃ] h [x] hw [xʷ] h [h]
voiced z [z] l [l] zh [ʒ] gh [ɣ] ghw [ɣʷ]
Nasals m [m] n [n]
Approximants y [j] (w [w])

In Navajo orthography, the letter h represents two different sounds: it is pronounced [x] when stem initial and [h] when prefixal or stem/word final. However, when [x] is preceded by s it is always written as x and never as h so that it will not be confused with sh (e.g. násxéés "I'm turning around", but never náshéés). The consonant gh [ɣ] is written as y before front vowels i and e (where it is palatalized [ʝ]), as w before o (where it is labialized [ɣʷ]), and as gh before a. The glottal stop ʼ is not written at the beginning of words.

For /ɣ/ gh, both the palatalization and labialization is represented in the orthography where it is written as y for the palatalized variant and w for the labialized variant. The orthography does not indicate the variants for the other consonants.


Navajo has four basic vowel qualities: a, e, i and o. Each of these may occur either short or long, and either non-nasalized (oral) or nasalized:

  • short, as in a and e
  • long, as in aa and ee
  • nasalized, as in ą and ę
  • nasalized long, as in ąą and ęę


Navajo has two tones, low and high. Syllables are low tone by default. With long vowels, these tones combine for four possibilities:

  • high, as in áá and éé,
  • low, as in aa and ee,
  • rising, as in and or
  • falling, as in áa and ée.

Various combinations of these features are possible, as in ą́ą́ (long, nasalized, high tone).


Typologically, Navajo is an agglutinating, polysynthetic head-marking language, but many of its affixes combine into contractions more like fusional languages. The canonical word order of Navajo is SOV. Athabaskan words are modified primarily by prefixes, which is unusual for an SOV language (suffixes are expected).

Navajo is a "verb-heavy" language — it has a great preponderance of verbs but relatively few nouns. In addition to verbs and nouns, Navajo has other elements such as pronouns, clitics of various functions, demonstratives, numerals, postpositions, adverbs, and conjunctions, among others. Harry Hoijer grouped all of the above into a word-class which he called particles (i.e., Navajo would then have verbs, nouns, and particles). There is nothing that corresponds to what are called adjectives in English: verbs provide the adjectival functionality.


The key element in Navajo is the verb. Verbs are composed of an abstract stem to which inflectional and/or derivational prefixes are added. Every verb must have at least one prefix. The prefixes are affixed to the verb in a specified order.

The Navajo verb can be sectioned into different components. The verb stem is composed of an abstract root and an often fused suffix. The stem together with a "classifier" prefix (and sometimes other thematic prefixes) make up the verb theme. The thematic prefixes are prefixes that are non-productive, have limited derivational function, and no longer have a clearly defined meaning. Examples of thematic prefixes, include the archaic yá- prefix, which only occurs on the verb stem -tééh/-tiʼ meaning "to talk" as in yáłtiʼ "he's talking". The theme is then combined with derivational prefixes which in turn make up the verb base. Finally, inflectional prefixes (which Young & Morgan call "paradigmatic prefixes") are affixed to the base — producing a complete Navajo verb.

Verb template

The prefixes that occur on a Navajo verb are added in specified more or less rigid order according to prefix type. This type of morphology is called a position class template (or slot-and-filler template). Below is a table of a recent proposal of the Navajo verb template (Young & Morgan 1987). Edward Sapir and Harry Hoijer were the first to propose an analysis of this type. A given verb will not have a prefix for every position. In fact, most Navajo verbs are not as complex as the template would seem to suggest: the maximum number of prefixes is around eight.

The Navajo verb is composed of a verb stem and a set of prefixes. The prefixes can be divided into a conjunct prefix set and disjunct prefix set. The disjunct prefixes occur on the outer left edge of the verb. The conjunct prefixes occur after the disjunct prefixes, closer to the verb stem. Two types of prefixes can be distinguished by their different phonological behavior.

disjunct prefixes conjunct prefixes stem

The prefix complex may be subdivided into 11 positions, with some of the positions having even further subdivisions:

disjunct prefixes conjunct prefixes stem
0 1a 1b 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
iterative plural direct object deictic adverbial-
subject classifier stem

Although prefixes are generally found in a specific position, some prefixes change order by the process of metathesis. For example, prefix ʼa- (3i object pronoun) usually occurs before di-, as in

adisbąąs "I'm starting to drive some kind of wheeled vehicle along" [ < ʼa- + di- + sh- + ł + -bąąs].

However, when ʼa- occurs with the prefixes di- and ni-, the ʼa- metathesizes with di-, leading to an order of di- + ʼa- + ni-, as in

diʼnisbąąs "I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck" [ < di-ʼa-ni-sh-ł-bąąs < ʼa- + di- + ni- + sh- + ł + -bąąs]

instead of the expected adinisbąąs (ʼa-di-ni-sh-ł-bąąs) (note also that ʼa- is reduced to ʼ-).

Although the verb template model of analysis has been traditionally used to describe the Navajo verb, other analyses have been proposed by Athabascanists.

Pronominal inflection

Navajo verbs have pronominal (i.e. pronoun) prefixes that mark both subjects and objects. The prefixes can vary in certain modes, particularly the perfective mode (See Mode and Aspect section below for a discussion of modes). The prefixes are inflected according to person and number. The basic subject prefixes (and their abbreviations as used by Young & Morgan) are listed in the table below:

Number Subject Prefixes Object Prefixes
Singular Dual-Plural Singular Dual-Plural
First (1) -sh- -Vd- shi- nihi-
Second (2) ni- -oh- ni-
Third (3) -Ø- bi-
Third (3o) yi-
Fourth (3a) ji- ha- ~ ho-
Indefinite (3i) ʼa- ʼa-
Space (3s) ha- ~ ho- ha- ~ ho-
Reflexive (ʼá)-di-
Reciprocal ʼahi-

The subject prefixes occur in two different positions. The first and second subject prefixes (-sh-, -Vd-, ni-, -oh-) occur in position 8 directly before the classifier prefixes. The fourth, indefinite, and "space" subject prefixes (ji-, ʼa-, ha-~ho-) are known as "deictic subject pronouns" and occur in position 5. The third person subject is marked by the absence of a prefix, which is usually indicated with a zero prefix -Ø- in position 8. The object prefixes can occur in position 4 as direct objects, in position 1a as "null postpositions", or in position 0 as the object of postpositions that have been incorporated into the verb complex.

The fourth person subject prefix ji- is a kind of obviative third person. It refers primarily to persons or personified animals (unlike the regular third person). It has a number of uses including:

  • referring to the main character in narratives
  • distinguishing between two third person referents
  • referring politely or impersonally to certain socially-distant individuals (e.g. when speaking to opposite-sex siblings and relatives through marriage, giving admonitions, speaking of the dead)[3]

When used as an impersonal, it may be translated into English as "one" as in béésh bee njinéego hálaʼ da jiigish "one can cut one's hand playing with knives". The "space" prefix can be translated as "area, place, space, impersonal it" as in halgai "the area/place is white" and nahałtin "it is raining". The prefix has two forms: ha- and ho- with ho- having derived forms such as hw- and hwi-.

An example paradigm for "to freeze" (imperfective mode) showing the subject prefixes:

Singular Dual-Plural
First yishtin "I freeze" yiitin "we (2+) freeze"
Second nitin "you freeze" wohtin "you (2+) freeze"
Third yitin "she/he/it/they freeze"
Fourth (3a) jitin "she/he/they freeze"
Indefinite (3i) atin "someone/something freezes"

Classifiers (transitivity prefixes)

The "classifiers" are prefixes of position 9 (the closest to the verb stem) that affect the transitivity of the verb, in that they are valence and voice markers. Calling them "classifiers" is a misnomer, however, as they do not classify anything and are not related to the classificatory verb stems (which actually do classify nouns, see classificatory verbs below). There are four classifiers: -Ø-, -ł-, -d-, -l-. The -Ø- classifier is the absence of a prefix, which is usually indicated by a null morpheme.

The -ł- classifier is a causative-transitivizing prefix of active verbs. It often can transitivize an intransitive -Ø- verb: yibéézh "it's boiling" (yi-Ø-béézh), yiłbéézh "he's boiling it (yi-ł-béézh); naʼniyęęsh "somethings flows about in a meandering fashion" (naʼni-Ø-yęęsh), naʼniłhęęsh "he's making it flow about in a meandering fashion" (naʼni-ł-yęęsh).

The -d- classifier occurs in most passive, mediopassive, reflexive, and reciprocal verbs that are derived from verbs with a -Ø- classifier: yizéés "he's singing it" (yi-Ø-zéés), yidéés "it's being singed" (yi-d-zéés).

The -l- occurs in most passive, mediopassive, reflexive, and reciprocal verbs that are derived from verbs with a -ł- classifier: néíłtsááh "he's drying it" (ná-yi-ł-tsááh), náltsááh it's being dried" (ná-l-tsááh).

Some verbs can occur with all four classifier prefixes:

  • siʼą́ "roundish object lies in position" (-Ø-ʼą́)
  • haatʼą́ "roundish object was taken up & out (i.e. extracted)" (-d-ʼą́)
  • séłʼą́ "I keep a roundish object in position" (-ł-ʼą́)
  • néshʼą́ "I have my head in position" (-l-ʼą́)

In other verbs, the classifiers do not mark transitivity and are considered thematic prefixes that simply are required to occur with certain verb stems.

Mode and aspect

Navajo has a large number of aspectual, modal, and tense distinctions that are indicated by verb stem alternations (involving vowel and tonal ablaut and suffixation) often in combination with a range of prefixes. These are divided into seven "modes" and approximately twelve aspects and ten subaspects. (Although the term mode is traditionally used, most of the distinctions provided by the modes are in fact aspectual.) Each Navajo verb generally can occur in a number of mode and aspect category combinations.


Navajo has the following verb modes:

  • Imperfective
  • Perfective
  • Progressive
  • Future
  • Usitative
  • Iterative
  • Optative

The modes above have five distinct verb stem forms. For example, the verb meaning "to play, tease" has the following five stem forms for the seven modes:

Mode Stem Form
Imperfective -né
Perfective -neʼ
Progressive/Future -neeł
Usitative/Iterative -neeh
Optative -né

The progressive and future modes share the same stem form as do the usitative and iterative modes. The optative mode usually has the same verb stem as the imperfective mode, although for some verbs the stem forms differ (in the example "to play, tease" above, the imperfective and the optative stems are the same).

The imperfective indicates an event/action that has begun but remains incomplete. Although this mode does not refer to tense, it is usually translated into English as a present tense form: yishááh "I'm (in the act of) going/coming", yishą́ "I'm (in the act of) eating (something)". With the additional of adverbials, the imperfective can be used for events/actions in the past, present, or future. The mode is used in the second person for immediate imperatives. The imperfective mode has a distinct imperfective stem form and four different mode-aspect prefix paradigms: (1) with a ni- terminative prefix in position 7 as in nishááh "I'm in the act of arriving", (2) with a si- stative prefix in position 7 as in shishʼaah "I'm in the act of placing a SRO" in dah shishʼaah "I'm in the act of placing a SRO up" (dah "up"), (3) with no prefix in position 7, usually identified as a Ø- prefix, as in yishcha "I'm crying", (4) with either a yi- transitional or yi- semelfactive prefix in position 6 (and no prefix in position 7).

The perfective indicates an event/action that has been completed and usually corresponds to English past tense: yíyáʼ "I went/came/arrived", yíyą́ą́ʼ "I ate (something)". However, since the perfective mode is not a tense, it can be used to refer non-past actions, such as the future (where it may be translated as English "will have" + VERB). The perfective mode has a distinct perfective stem form and four different prefix paradigms: (1) with a yí- perfective prefix with a high tone in position 7 as in yíchʼid "I scratched it", (2) with a ní- terminative prefix with a high tone in position 7 as in níyá "I arrived", (3) with a sí- stative prefix with high tone in position 7 as in sélį́į́ʼ "I roasted it", (4) with a yi- transitional prefix in position 6 (and Ø- in position 7) as in yiizįʼ "I stood up".

The progressive indicates an incomplete event/action that is ongoing without reference to the beginning or end of the event/action. This mode may be translated into English as BE + VERB-ing + "along": yishááł "I'm going/walking along", yishtééł "I'm carrying it along". The future mode is primarily a future tense — indicating a prospective event/action: deeshááł "I'll go/come", deeshį́į́ł "I'll eat (something)". The progressive mode has a yi- progressive prefix (in position 7), the future has a di- inceptive prefix (in position 6) and the yi- progressive prefix.

The usitative indicates a repetitive event/action that takes place customarily: yishááh "I usually go", yishdlį́į́h "I always drink (something)". The iterative is a frequentative indicating a recurrent event/action that takes place repeatedly and customarily: chʼínáshdááh "repeatedly go out" as in ahbínígo tłʼóóʼgóó chʼínáshdááh "I always (repeatedly) go outdoors in the morning" (ahbínígo "in the morning", tłʼóóʼgóó "outdoors"), náshdlį́į́h "drink (something) repeatedly" as in nínádiishʼnahgo gohwééh náshdlį́į́h "I drink coffee when I get up" (nínádiishʼnahgo "when I get up", gohwééh "coffee"). The iterative is distinguished from the usitative by a ná- repetitive prefix (in position 2) and also sometimes by a -d- or -ł- classifier prefix (in position 9).

The optative indicates a positive or negative desire or wish. The mode is used with the addition of adverbial particles that follow the verb, such as laanaa and lágo: nahółtą́ą́ʼ laanaa "I wish it would rain", nahółtą́ą́ʼ lágo "I hope it doesn't rain". With punctual verbs, the optative mode can be used to form a negative imperative: shinóółʼį́į́ʼ (lágo) "don't look at me!". In certain adverbial frames, the optative indicates positive or negative potential.

Aspects and subaspects

The Primary aspects:

  • Momentaneous - punctually (takes place point in time)
  • Continuative - indefinite span of time & movement with specified direction
  • Durative - indefinite span of time, non-locomotive uninterrupted continuum
  • Repetitive - continuum of repeated acts or connected series of acts
  • Conclusive - like durative but in perfective terminates with static sequel
  • Semelfactive - single act in repetitive series of acts
  • Distributive - distributive manipulation of objects or performance of actions
  • Diversative - movement distributed among things (similar to distributive)
  • Reversative - result in directional change
  • Conative - attempted action
  • Transitional - shift from one state to another
  • Cursive - progression in a line through time/space (only progressive mode)

The subaspects:

  • Completive - event/action simply takes place
  • Terminative - stopping of action
  • Stative - sequentially durative and static
  • Inceptive - beginning of action
  • Terminal - inherently terminal action
  • Prolongative - arrested beginning or ending of action
  • Seriative - interconnected series of successive separate & distinct acts
  • Inchoative - focus on beginning of non-locomotion action
  • Reversionary - return to previous state/location
  • Semeliterative - single repetition of event/action

Navajo modes co-occur with various aspects. For example, the verb "rain falls" can occur in the perfective mode with the momentaneous and distributive aspects: -tsąąʼ (perfective momentaneous), -tsįʼ (perfective distributive). As with the modes, different aspects have different stem forms even when in the same mode, as seen with the previous "rain falls" perfective stems. Thus, a given verb will have set of stem forms that can be classified into both a mode and an aspect category. Verb stem paradigms of mode and aspect are given below for two different verbs:

"to curl, shrivel, contract into distorted shape"
Imperfective Perfective Progressive-
Momentaneous -chʼííł -chʼil -chʼił -chʼił -chʼííł
Transitional -chʼííł -chʼiil -chʼił -chʼił -chʼííł
-chʼil -chʼil -chʼił -chʼił -chʼil
Semelfactive -chʼił -chʼił -chʼił -chʼił -chʼił
Repetitive -chʼił
Conative -chʼiił -chʼil -chʼił -chʼił -chʼiił
"to smell, have an odor, stink"
Imperfective Perfective Progressive-
-chįįh -chą́ą́ʼ -chįįł -chįįh -chą́ą́ʼ
Continuative -chą́ą́ʼ -chą́ą́ʼ -chį́į́ł -chį́į́h -chą́ą́ʼ
Conclusive -chin -chą́ą́ʼ -chį́į́ł -chįįh -chą́ą́ʼ
Semelfactive -chįh -chįh -chįh -chįh -chįh
Repetitive -chą́ą́ʼ
Conative -chį́į́h
Cursive -chį́į́ł/-chį́į́h

As can be seen above, some aspect and mode combinations do not occur depending mostly upon the semantics of the particular verb. Additionally, some aspects do not occur at all with a particular verb. The patterns of verb stem alternations are very complex although there is a significant amount of homophony. A particularly important investigation into this area of the Navajo verb is Hardy (1979).

Classificatory verbs

Navajo has verb stems that classify a particular object by its shape or other physical characteristics in addition to describing the movement or state of the object. Athabaskan linguistics identifies these as classificatory verb stems and usually identifies them with an acronym label. The eleven primary classificatory "handling" verb stems appear listed below (in the perfective mode):

Classifier+Stem   Label   Explanation Examples
-ʼą́ SRO Solid Roundish Object bottle, ball, boot, box, etc.
-yį́ LPB Load, Pack, Burden backpack, bundle, sack, saddle, etc.
-ł-jool NCM Non-Compact Matter bunch of hair or grass, cloud, fog, etc.
-lá SFO Slender Flexible Object rope, mittens, socks, pile of fried onions, etc.
-tį' SSO Slender Stiff Object arrow, bracelet, skillet, saw, etc.
-ł-tsooz FFO Flat Flexible Object blanket, coat, sack of groceries, etc.
-tłééʼ MM Mushy Matter ice cream, mud, slumped-over drunken person, etc.
-nil PLO1 Plural Objects 1 eggs, balls, animals, coins, etc.
-jaaʼ PLO2 Plural Objects 2 marbles, seeds, sugar, bugs, etc.
-ką́ OC Open Container glass of milk, spoonful of food, handful of flour, etc.
-ł-tį́ ANO Animate Object microbe, person, corpse, doll, etc.

To compare with English, Navajo has no single verb that corresponds to the English word give. In order to say the equivalent of Give me some hay!, the Navajo verb níłjool (NCM) must be used, while for Give me a cigarette! the verb nítįįh (SSO) must be used. The English verb give is expressed by eleven different verbs in Navajo, depending on the characteristics of the given object.

In addition to defining the physical properties of the object, primary classificatory verb stems also can distinguish between the manner of movement of the object. The stems may then be grouped into three different categories:

  1. handling
  2. propelling
  3. free flight

Handling includes actions such as carrying, lowering, and taking. Propelling includes tossing, dropping, and throwing. Free flight includes falling, and flying through space.

Using an example for the SRO category, Navajo has

  1. -ʼą́ "to handle (a round object)",
  2. -neʼ "to throw (a round object)", and
  3. -l-tsʼid "(a round object) moves independently".

yi-/bi- Alternation (Animacy)

Like most Athabaskan languages, Southern Athabaskan languages show various levels of animacy in its grammar, with certain nouns taking specific verb forms according to their rank in this animacy hierarchy. For instance, Navajo nouns can be ranked by animacy on a continuum from most animate (a human or lightning) to least animate (an abstraction) (Young & Morgan 1987: 65-66):

humans/lightning → infants/big animals → med-size animals → small animals → insects → natural forces → inanimate objects/plants → abstractions

Generally, the most animate noun in a sentence must occur first while the noun with lesser animacy occurs second. If both nouns are equal in animacy, then either noun can occur in the first position. So, both example sentences (1) and (2) are correct. The yi- prefix on the verb indicates that the 1st noun is the subject and bi- indicates that the 2nd noun is the subject.

    (1)   Ashkii at'ééd yiníł'į́.
  boy girl yi-look
  'The boy is looking at the girl.'
    (2)   At'ééd ashkii biníł'į́.
  girl boy bi-look
  'The girl is being looked at by the boy.'

But example sentence (3) sounds wrong to most Navajo speakers because the less animate noun occurs before the more animate noun:

    (3)   * Tsídii at'ééd yishtąsh.
    bird girl yi-pecked
    'The bird pecked the girl.'

In order to express this idea, the more animate noun must occur first, as in sentence (4):

    (4)   At'ééd tsídii bishtąsh.
  girl bird bi-pecked
  'The girl was pecked by the bird.'

Note that although sentence (4) is translated into English with a passive verb, in Navajo it is not passive. Passive verbs are formed by certain classifier prefixes (i.e., transitivity prefixes) that occur directly before the verb stem in position 9. The yi-/bi- prefixes do not mark sentences as active or passive, but as direct or inverse.


Many concepts expressed using nouns in other languages appear as verbs in Navajo. The majority of true nouns are not inflected for number, and there is no case marking. Noun phrases are often not needed to form grammatical sentences due to the informational content of the verb.

There are two main types of nouns in Navajo:

  1. simple nouns and
  2. nouns derived from verbs (called deverbal nouns)

The simple nouns can be distinguished by their ability to be inflected with a possessive prefix, as in

Noun stem Gloss Possessed Noun stem Gloss Morpheme
béésh "knife" bibéézh "her knife" bi- (3rd person) + béézh "knife"
hééł "pack" shiyéél "my pack" shi- (1st person singular) + yéél "pack"

Deverbal nouns are verbs (or verb phrases) that have been nominalized with a nominalizing enclitic or converted into a noun through zero derivation (that is, verbs that are used syntactically as nouns without an added nominalizer). An example of a nominalized verb is náʼoolkiłí "clock", which is derived from the verb náʼoolkił "it is moved slowly in a circle" and the enclitic nominalizer . Another example is the deverbal noun hataałii "singer" (from verb hataał "he sings" + nominalizing enclitic =ii). Converted deverbal nouns include chʼéʼétiin "exit, doorway" and Hoozdo "Phoenix, Arizona" — when used as verbs chʼéʼétiin may be translated into English as "something has a path horizontally out" and hoozdo as "place/space is hot". Deverbal nouns can potentially be long and complex, such as

chidí naaʼnaʼí beeʼeldǫǫhtsoh bikááʼ dah naaznilígíí   "army tank"

which is composed of

  1. the nominalized noun chidí naaʼnaʼí "caterpillar tractor" (which itself is composed of noun chidí "car", verb naaʼnaʼ "it crawls about", and nominalizer )
  2. the noun beeʼeldǫǫhtsoh "cannon" (which, in turn, is composed of verb beeʼeldǫǫh "explosion/boom is made with it" and adjectival enclitic =tsoh "big")
  3. the postposition bikááʼ "on it"
  4. the verb dah naaznil "they sit up"
  5. the nominalizer =ígíí


Possession in Navajo is expressed with personal pronoun prefixes:

Singular Dual Plural
First shi- nihi- danihi-
Second ni- nihi- danihi-
Third bi-
Fourth (3o) yi-
Fourth (3a) ha-, hw-
Indefinite (3i) a-

Most of the time these prefixes take a low tone, but in some nouns and postpositions the final syllable of the prefix will take a high tone, such as shíla’ "my hand," nihíla’ "our/your hand."

The prefixes are also used when the possessor noun in a possessive phrase is a noun, as in Jáan bimá lit. "John his-mother," i.e., "John's mother."

Navajo marks inalienable possession for certain nouns — relatives, body parts, homes and dens. These nouns can only appear with a possessive prefix, as in shimá "my mother." If one wishes to speak of mothers in general, the 3rd person indefinite prefix ʼa- "someone's" is used, amá.


Navajo uses a number of postpositions where Indo-European languages tend to favor prepositions; thus, all spatial and most other relations such as under, on, or above are expressed by using the possessive prefix in combination with a postposition. All postpositions are inalienable, meaning that a prefix or fusion with a true noun is mandatory.

Examples include biyaa (under it), bikááʼ (on it), and bitah (among it). These can be combined with all prefixes to construct forms such as shiyaa (under me). Occasionally, postpositions are fused with true nouns to form a single word, such as Dinétah.


Navajo uses a decimal (base-10) numeral system. There are unique words for the cardinal numbers 1-10. The numerals 11-19 are formed by adding an additive "plus 10" suffix -tsʼáadah to the base numerals 1-9. The numerals 20-100 are formed by adding a multiplicative "times 10" suffix -diin to the base numerals 2-10.

base numeral +10 (-tsʼáadah) x10 (-diin)
1 tʼááłáʼí łaʼtsʼáadah (11)
2 naaki naakitsʼáadah (12) naadiin (20)
3 tááʼ tááʼtsʼáadah (13) tádiin (30)
4 dį́į́ʼ dį́į́ʼtsʼáadah (14) dízdiin (40)
5 ashdlaʼ ashdlaʼáadah (15) ashdladiin (50)
6 hastą́ą́ hastą́ʼáadah (16) hastą́diin (60)
7 tsostsʼid tsostsʼidtsʼáadah (17) tsostsʼidiin (70)
8 tseebíí tseebíítsʼáadah (18) tseebídiin (80)
9 náhástʼéí náhástʼéítsʼáadah (19) náhástʼédiin (90)
10 neeznáá neeznádiin (100)

In the compound numerals, the combining forms of the base numerals have irregular vowel and consonants changes. The numeral "1" has three forms:

  • łáaʼii (used in counting "one", "two", "three", etc.)
  • -ła’- (a shortened combining form)
  • tʼááłáʼí (used in larger numbers and with a distributive plural prefix)

The combining form ła’- is used in the compound łaʼ-tsʼáadah "11". The numeral tááʼ loses the final ʼ consonant while the final vowel in hastą́ą́ is shortened when the -tsʼáadah "+10" suffix is added. The suffix loses its initial tsʼ becoming -áadah when added to ashdlaʼ "5". Several changes occur when the -diin suffix is added involving a loss of the final consonant or a reduction in vowel length:

  • naaki > naa-
  • tááʼ > tá-
  • dį́į́ʼ > díz-
  • ashdlaʼ > ashdla-
  • hastą́ą́ > hastą́-
  • tsostsʼid > tsostsʼi-
  • tseebíí > tseebí-
  • náhástʼéí > náhástʼé-
  • neeznáá > neezná-

For the cardinal numerals higher than 20 between the multiples of 10 (i.e., 21-29, 31-39, 41-49, etc.), there are two types of formations. The numerals 21-29 and 41-49 are formed by suffixing the ones digit to the tens digit, as in naadįįnaaki "22" (< naadiin "20" + naaki "2") and dízdįįłaʼ "41" (< dízdiin "40" + -łaʼ "1"). Here the -diin suffix appears in the combining form -dįį-. The combining form -łá "1" is used as well:

20 40
naadiin (20) dízdiin (40)
21-29 41-49
naadįįłaʼ (21) dízdįįłaʼ (41)
naadįįnaaki (22) dízdįįnaaki (42)
naadįįtááʼ (23) dízdįįtááʼ (43)
naadįįdį́į́ʼ (24) dízdįįdį́į́ʼ (44)
naadįįʼashdlaʼ (25) dízdįįʼashdlaʼ (45)
naadįįhastą́ą́ (26) dízdįįhastą́ą́ (46)
naadįįtsostsʼid (27) dízdįįtsostsʼid (47)
naadįįtseebíí (28) dízdįįtseebíí (48)
naadįįnáhástʼéí (29) dízdįįnáhástʼéí (49)

The other numerals are formed by placing dóó baʼąą "and in addition to it" between the tens digit and the ones digit, as in tádiin dóó baʼąą tʼááłáʼí "thirty-one" and ashdladiin dóó baʼąą tʼááʼ "fifty-three". The numerals 41-49 may also be formed in this manner: "forty-two dízdiin dóó baʼąą naaki or dízdįįnaaki.

The cardinal numerals 100-900 are formed by adding the multiplicative enclitic =di to the base numerals 1-9 and adding the word for "hundred" neeznádiin, as in tʼááłáhádí neeznádiin "one hundred", naakidi neeznádiin "two hundred", táadi neeznádiin "three hundred".

base numeral x100 (=di + neeznádiin)
1 tʼááłáʼí tʼááłáhádí neeznádiin (100)
2 naaki naakidi neeznádiin (200)
3 tááʼ táadi neeznádiin (300)
4 dį́į́ʼ dį́įʼdi neeznádiin (400)
5 ashdlaʼ ashdladi neeznádiin (500)
6 hastą́ą́h hastą́ądi neeznádiin (600)
7 tsostsʼid tsostsʼidi neeznádiin (700)
8 tseebíí tseebíidi neeznádiin (800)
9 náhástʼéí náhástʼéidi neeznádiin (900)

The base numerals with a high tone in the last syllable change to a falling tone before =di.

For the thousands, the word mííl (from Spanish mil) is used in conjunction with =di: tʼááłáhádí mííl "one thousand", naakidi mííl "two thousand", etc. The word for "million" is formed by adding the stem -tsoh "big" to mííl: mííltsoh "million" as in tʼááłáhádí mííltsoh "one million", naakidi mííltsoh "two million", etc.

Text example

Here is the first paragraph of a very short story in Young & Morgan (1987: 205a–205b).

Diné bizaad:

Ashiiké tʼóó diigis léiʼ tółikaní łaʼ ádiilnííł dóó nihaa nahidoonih níigo yee hodeezʼą́ jiní. Áko tʼáá ałʼąą chʼil naʼatłʼoʼii kʼiidiilá dóó hááhgóóshį́į́ yinaalnishgo tʼáá áłah chʼil naʼatłʼoʼii néineestʼą́ jiní. Áádóó tółikaní áyiilaago tʼáá bíhígíí tʼáá ałʼąą tłʼízíkágí yiiʼ haidééłbįįd jiní. "Háadida díí tółikaní yígíí doo łaʼ ahaʼdiidził da," níigo ahaʼdeetʼą́ jiníʼ. Áádóó baa nahidoonih biniiyé kintahgóó dah yidiiłjid jiníʼ....

Free English translation:

Some crazy boys decided to make some wine to sell, so they each planted grapevines and, working hard on them, they raised them to maturity. Then, having made wine, they each filled a goatskin with it. They agreed that at no time would they give each other a drink of it, and they then set out for town lugging the goatskins on their backs....

Interlinear text:

Ashiiké tʼóó diigis léiʼ tółikaní łaʼ ádiilnííł
boys foolish certain wine some we'll make
dóó nihaa nahidoonih níigo yee hodeezʼą́ jiní.
and from us it will be bought they saying with it they planned it is said
Áko tʼáá ałʼąą chʼil naʼatłʼoʼii kʼiidiilá
so then separately grapevines they planted them
dóó hááhgóóshį́į́ yinaalnishgo tʼáá áłah chʼil naʼatłʼoʼii néineestʼą́ jiní.
and diligently they working on them they both grapevines they raised them it is said
Áádóó tółikaní áyiilaago
and then wine they having made it
tʼáá bíhígíí tʼáá ałʼąą tłʼízíkágí yiiʼ haidééłbįįd jiní.
each their own separately goatskins in them they filled it it is said.
"Háadida díí tółikaní yígíí doo łaʼ ahaʼdiidził da," níigo
"any time this wine particular not some/any we'll give each other not," they saying
ahaʼdeetʼą́ jiníʼ.
they agreed it is said.
Áádóó baa nahidoonih biniiyé kintahgóó dah yidiiłjid jiníʼ.
and then from then it will be bought its purpose to town off they started back-packing it it is said

See also


  1. ^ a b c 2007 American Community Survey. Accessed 2010-07-13.
  2. ^ Example, the Diné Language Immersion School in Fort Defiance, Arizona serves approximately 240 students from K-8
  3. ^ The Navajo 4th person may be superficially compared to some of the uses of the tu-vous distinction in French and other European languages.

External links




  • Blair, Robert W.; Simmons, Leon; & Witherspoon, Gary. (1969). Navaho Basic Course. Brigham Young University Printing Services.
  • Goossen, Irvy W. (1967). Navajo made easier: A course in conversational Navajo. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press.
  • Goossen, Irvy W. (1995). Diné bizaad: Speak, read, write Navajo. Flagstaff, AZ: Salina Bookshelf. ISBN 0-9644189-1-6
  • Goossen, Irvy W. (1997). Diné bizaad: Sprechen, Lesen und Schreiben Sie Navajo. Loder, P. B. (transl.). Flagstaff, AZ: Salina Bookshelf.
  • Haile, Berard. (1941–1948). Learning Navaho, (Vols. 1–4). St. Michaels, AZ: St. Michael's Mission.
  • Platero, Paul R. (1986). Diné bizaad bee naadzo: A conversational Navajo text for secondary schools, colleges and adults. Farmington, NM: Navajo Preparatory School.
  • Platero, Paul R.; Legah, Lorene; & Platero, Linda S. (1985). Diné bizaad bee naʼadzo: A Navajo language literacy and grammar text. Farmington, NM: Navajo Language Institute.
  • Tapahonso, Luci, & Schick, Eleanor. (1995). Navajo ABC: A Diné alphabet book. New York: Macmillan Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0-689-80316-8
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1985). Diné Bizaad Bóhooʼaah for secondary schools, colleges, and adults. Farmington, NM: Navajo Language Institute.
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1986). Diné Bizaad Bóhooʼaah I: A conversational Navajo text for secondary schools, colleges and adults. Farmington, NM: Navajo Language Institute.
  • Wilson, Alan. (1969). Breakthrough Navajo: An introductory course. Gallup, NM: The University of New Mexico, Gallup Branch.
  • Wilson, Alan. (1970). Laughter, the Navajo way. Gallup, NM: The University of New Mexico at Gallup.
  • Wilson, Alan. (1978). Speak Navajo: An intermediate text in communication. Gallup, NM: University of New Mexico, Gallup Branch.
  • Wilson, Garth A. (1995). Conversational Navajo workbook: An introductory course for non-native speakers. Blanding, UT: Conversational Navajo Publications. ISBN 0-938717-54-5.
  • Yazzie, Evangeline Parsons, and Margaret Speas (2008). Diné Bizaad Bínáhoo'aah: Rediscovering the Navajo Language. Flagstaff, AZ: Salina Bookshelf, Inc. ISBN 978-1-893354-73-9

Linguistics & other reference

  • Akmajian, Adrian; & Anderson, Stephen. (1970). On the use of the fourth person in Navajo, or Navajo made harder. International Journal of American Linguistics, 36 (1), 1–8.
  • Creamer, Mary Helen. (1974). Ranking in Navajo nouns. Navajo Language Review, 1, 29–38.
  • Faltz, Leonard M. (1998). The Navajo verb: A grammar for students and scholars. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1901-7 (hb), ISBN 0-8263-1902-5 (pbk)
  • Frishberg, Nancy. (1972). Navajo object markers and the great chain of being. In J. Kimball (Ed.), Syntax and semantics (Vol. 1, p. 259–266). New York: Seminar Press.
  • Grimes, Barbara F. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnologue: Languages of the world, (14th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-106-9. (Online edition:, accessed on November 19, 2004).
  • Hale, Kenneth L. (1973). A note on subject–object inversion in Navajo. In B. B. Kachru, R. B. Lees, Y. Malkiel, A. Pietrangeli, & S. Saporta (Eds.), Issues in linguistics: Papers in honor of Henry and Renée Kahane (p. 300–309). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1945). Navaho phonology. University of New Mexico publications in anthropology, (No. 1).
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1945). Classificatory verb stems in the Apachean languages. International Journal of American Linguistics, 11 (1), 13–23.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1945). The Apachean verb, part I: Verb structure and pronominal prefixes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 11 (4), 193–203.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1946). The Apachean verb, part II: The prefixes for mode and tense. International Journal of American Linguistics, 12 (1), 1–13.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1946). The Apachean verb, part III: The classifiers. International Journal of American Linguistics, 12 (2), 51–59.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1948). The Apachean verb, part IV: Major form classes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 14 (4), 247–259.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1949). The Apachean verb, part V: The theme and prefix complex. International Journal of American Linguistics, 15 (1), 12–22.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1970). A Navajo lexicon. University of California Publications in Linguistics (No. 78). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Kari, James. (1975). The disjunct boundary in the Navajo and Tanaina verb prefix complexes. International Journal of American Linguistics, 41, 330–345.
  • Kari, James. (1976). Navajo verb prefix phonology. Garland Publishing Co.
  • McDonough, Joyce. (2003). The Navajo sound system. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 1-4020-1351-5 (hb); ISBN 1-4020-1352-3 (pbk)
  • Reichard, Gladys A. (1951). Navaho grammar. Publications of the American Ethnological Society (Vol. 21). New York: J. J. Augustin.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1932). Two Navaho puns. Language, 8 (3) , 217-220.
  • Sapir, Edward, & Hoijer, Harry. (1942). Navaho texts. William Dwight Whitney series, Linguistic Society of America.
  • Sapir, Edward, & Hoijer, Harry. (1967). Phonology and morphology of the Navaho language. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Speas, Margaret. (1990). Phrase structure in natural language. Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 0-7923-0755-0
  • Wall, C. Leon, & Morgan, William. (1994). Navajo-English dictionary. New York: Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0-7818-0247-4. (Originally published [1958] by U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Branch of Education, Bureau of Indian Affairs).
  • Webster, Anthony K. (2004). Coyote Poems: Navajo Poetry, Intertextuality, and Language Choice. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 28, 69-91.
  • Webster, Anthony K. (2006). "ALk'idaa' Ma'ii Jooldlosh, Jini": Poetic Devices in Navajo Oral and Written Poetry. Anthropological Linguistics, 48(3), 233-265.
  • Webster, Anthony K. (2009). Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1971). Navajo categories of objects at rest. American Anthropologist, 73, 110-127.
  • Witherspoon, Gary. (1977). Language and art in the Navajo universe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-08966-8; ISBN 0-472-08965-X
  • Yazzie, Sheldon A. (2005). Navajo for Beginners and Elementary Students. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Press.
  • Young, Robert W. (2000). The Navajo verb system: An overview. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-2172-0 (hb); ISBN 0-8263-2176-3 (pbk)
  • Young, Robert W., & Morgan, William, Sr. (1987). The Navajo language: A grammar and colloquial dictionary (rev. ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1014-1
  • Young, Robert W.; Morgan, William; & Midgette, Sally. (1992). Analytical lexicon of Navajo. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1356-6; ISBN 0825313566

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