How Navajos make words
Aug 29, 2007 | 2774 views | 0 0 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print

By Leo Platero

The Navajo language is dynamic, ever changing and adaptable to almost any given situation.

Navajos make words by the sound it makes, its color, its function, and by words borrowed from Spanish.

For example, take the word “car.” When the model T first came onto the Navajo Reservation in the early 1910s, the Navajos had to make a word for this horseless carriage.

The name given to the Model T was the sound it made when rattling down the dirt wagon trails (chid, chid, chid, chid) and it basically said its own name, “Chidi.”

The wagon was called “Tsinaabaas.” Tsin means wood and naabaas is a verb to roll around, hence a wood that rolls around is a wagon.

Navajos were familiar with the Spanish and called them “Naaka,” meaning group of people that moved around, possibly when the Spanish came on horseback exploring the region.

Then the Navajos first saw an African American, probably with the military. The name the Navajos gave them was “Black Mexican,” – Naakai lizhini.

Russian people were called “Biee’lichii’nii,” meaning those who wear red clothing. The name for the French came from how they treated people, “Dootsiid yalt’I,” meaning those people who do not speak nicely.

Some words came from people’s appearance. Japanese and Chinese are called “Naatsoosi,” the people who have slanted eyes.

Airplanes are called “Beesh Naat’I,” meaning iron that flies. Trains have two words depending on where you live on the Navajo Reservation.

Navajos living by the train tracks noticed smoke coming out of the smoke stacks, and named the train “Kona’ilbaasi,” meaning “Fire that drives.” Other Navajos call the train ”Beesh nidilwo’I,” meaning “Iron that rolls or drives.”

Some of the words familiar to most Navajos come from the Famous Navajo Codetakers from World War II. The Navajo word “Beesh Loo,” meaning “Iron Fish,” is a submarine. Military airplanes were named by the size of the aircraft. Bombs were called Bird Eggs.

Other Navajo words came from Spanish. Because Navajos do not have the letter P in their alphabet, they couldn’t say “Peso,” so they improvised and said “Beeso,” meaning coins.

“Gohweeh” or “Ahweeh” closely resembles the Spanish word “Café,” meaning coffee. “Geeso” is cheese in Spanish and in Navajo. “Mondigeeya” is butter in both languages, only the spelling is different. “Mantequilla” is the Spanish spelling.

Knowing the way Navajos make words – the sound it makes, its color, function and words borrowed from Spanish – an attempt to make new words might look and sound like the following.

Tennis vocabulary is not found in the Navajo dictionary. Following my theory, a tennis ball hitting the string of the tennis racket sounds like “Ding.”

So “Ding” is my root word. The tennis racket might be called “Dingkal.” The word, “Kal” is a verb meaning to hit or bat. The rest is easy. Tennis ball is “Dingkal jool”, tennis shorts might be “Dingkal Tl’ee’yazhi.” Tennis T-shirt might be called “Dingkal Ee.”

I hope Navajo linguists Morgan and Young are not turning in their graves.

Now a little Navajo lesson. Say “Hot dish banana.” It sounds real close to, “Ha’atiish banana?” meaning, What are you doing? Try that on one of your Navajo friends.

How about this one. When sitting in a café or resturant on Navajoland, tell the waitress, “I want ‘Go Away’”, meaning “I want coffee.”

What do Navajos call a cell phone? Here are two versions. “Bil nijoobali” is the thing that make you turn or spin, and the other word is “Bijaa’diniih,” meaning it appears that he or she has an earache.

What do you call a yard sale? “Yaa’nahaniihi,” meaning the place where you purchase lice.

Got to run and check on my goats at the Edge of the Cedar Museum, Adios and Hagoonee.
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