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Studying Navajo Verbs

February 20, 2011

I have been reading  The Navajo Verb by Leonard Faltz for the last few weeks. I have not read it everyday but I should. I have to say I am impressed with the book thus far. Faltz makes a great effort to start from “square one”. He keeps from going into too much detail on a particular rule that is to be addressed in later chapters. To understand the complexities of the Navajo verb he builds knowledge on top of knowledge.

I wondered if, while reading, Navajos have a hard time with learning Navajo because we don’t know enough about language in general. I will give a sad personal example. Verbs. I don’t think I internalized the meaning of verbs when I was in grade school and early on in high school. It was not until I started taking Spanish classes in high school that verbs, verb stems and conjugation really sunk in. English does not conjugate verbs like other Latin based languages. It is with my background in Spanish that I am able to understand what Faltz is covering in the beginning chapters of his book.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Knut Holt permalink
    May 1, 2011 9:57 pm

    Is really Navajo that immensely difficult language it is said to be. I doubt it, it least not more difficult than for example Italian that is never said to be so.

    I have read a lot about the structure of Navajo verbs. The interesting thing is that the strange structure of Navajo verbal forms, are very similar to the rigid templatic structure in Italian verbal groups (Clitic pronouns, adverb, auxiliaries plus the main verb).

    It is not easy to learn all finesses of Italian verbal groups, because they are rather complicated, but it is possible.

    But as far as I can see, a Navajo verb is hardly any more complicated than an Italian verbal group.

    If you divide an Italian verbal group with just oner auxiliary into the constituant morphems, and set up a template you must use around 18-20 positions to acount for all thing syou can put into it, there are a lot of interdependencies between the elements and the main verb is typically rather unregular.

    And even more interesting – the template is surprizingly similar to the template of Navajo verbs.

    • May 3, 2011 1:45 am

      Your comment brings an idea to mind: I would be very interested in studying how native speakers of languages, other than English, understand and acquire a proficiency for speaking Navajo. I bet they would acquire Navajo quicker than native English speaker because languages like Italian have these types of verb structures.

      I believe you are right. I don’t think that it is difficult. It is a lot of work to get the verbs properly constructed, but not terribly difficult. In a round about way, I hope to prove that anyone can learn the language like every other language on the planet.

      It’s quite possible that the media surrounding the language (with the WWII code being unbroken) gives the Navajo language a stigma of being too difficult.

  2. Knut Holt permalink
    June 9, 2011 5:42 pm

    Yes, I think a speaker of for example Italian and Spanish could more easily understand the Navajo verb structure if similar structures in their own language is compared to the Navajo verb.

    I can give an example in Italian to show my point.

    If you will say in italian “we sent it to him” . it sounds like this:

    gliel’abiamo mandato.

    It is written as two words, but the whole construction is more like onr complicated werb word of the same type as you find in Navajo.

    If you divide it up, it is like this:

    glie – l – ab – iamo – mand – at – o

    glie = to him

    l = it

    ab – an auxiliary part that defines past tense and perfective aspect

    iamo = we – auxiliery subject element that becomes an inner subject element here

    mand – send

    at – ending dining perfect participle which is the same as a perfective stam

    o – and ending classifying the object in gender and number

    As far as I can see the object elements are at the same plase as those elements in a Navajo verb. You have an auxiliary that does the same work as the “subject prefixes” in Navajo. The main verb is put in a form that work as a perfective stem in this case.

    I guess Spanish is pretty much the same.

    Italian however can also have adverbial prefixed elements that is put into the same places as in a Navajo verb, have some worb bases consisting of prefixed elements plus the stem. and an outer subject element denoting “undefined subject”.

    • Nikita Bichitty permalink
      March 13, 2016 11:54 pm

      Actually when the past perfect verb uses the avere auxiliary (I think that’s what it’s called), the ending doesn’t need to agree in gender and number, that only applies when you are using the essere auxiliary. Like “ho mangiato” the ending doesn’t matter but if you were to use “sono andata” (if the speaker is a girl) then the ending does matter. As a native English speaker and enrolled member of the Navajo tribe who took 3 quarters of Italian immersion classes at UCLA, I can say that Navajo is harder to learn than Italian. This is because Navajo is more similar to Asian languages in that it has the same SOV sentence structure, as opposed to the SVO sentence structure of many Latin-based languages, and it is a tonal language. Lastly, there are way more Italian language learning opportunities in the US than there are Navajo language learning opportunities. I could watch an Italian film, enroll in an Italian class, etc. anytime I want. However, for people wanting to learn Navajo, it is not that easy. There aren’t Navajo classes at every university or local college (some but definitely not a lot). Don’t get me wrong, Italian was a doozy but it’s not as hard as Navajo. This was just my personal experience though and in no way does it reflect the Italian/Navajo language-learning audience as a whole.

      • November 25, 2016 2:06 pm

        I was actually only talking about verb phrase structure.

        I only compared Navajo verb structiure with the structure in Italien verb phrases. An Italian verb phrase is more like apolisynthetic verb word than a many-word phrase, even though the prefixes are often written separately.

        Often you have an auxiliary clinging to the main verb.

        The auxiliary will have one part that will be at the same place in the phrase as the mode-prefixes in Navajo and has the same function, namly indicating aspect and tense. (present, past, perfective, imperfective) .

        For perfective you uses forms of avere and essere, for imperfective/progressive you use stare.

        The other part is the personal and number element that figure at the same place in the phrase as the inner subject prefixes.

        Often however these two parts are fused to one element, but that happens also in the Navajo verbs, as I understand.

        The main verb will in these cases be in a form that functions as a imperfective or perfective stem.

        (NB: These things are called with other terms in Italian grammers)

        In around half of the combination of tenses and aspects you will use endings instead of auxiliaries, though, and in these cases this part is not so Navajo-like.

        Before that structure you can have enclitic pronouns, adverbs and thematic elements much in the same posistion as in a navajo verb.

        Interestingly, Italien also have an outer subject prefix, denouting indefinite animate subject at exactly the same place as in a Navajo verb, “si/se”.

        “si/se” can also be a relfexive object element, but then it comes more to left, also like in a Navajo verb.

        The prefix/enclitic complex is not so complex as in Navajo, but if you decribe it with a template, you will still need around 14 positions,

        But Italian has more difficult object enclitics than Navajo. Navajo has much more problems with the choice of right verb stem form and has much more adverbial and thematic elements.

        The adverbial / thematic elements in Italian are the prticles ci, vi, ne, sometimes the pronoun la is used this way, and often also a reflexive pronoun is used this way.

        Navajo has something called classifier just before the stem. Italian can also have prefixes at that oart rgat may be valence altering like the clasifiers, or denote direction. It has a root and it can have endings giving the same complexity like a Navajo verb, but it is easier to use, though.

        The similarity in structure is hided for learners because similar things get different names, and because Italien verb phrases are mostly not described with templates. This hides the fact that Italian is quite strange compared to other European languiages, and hide the fact that Navajo is not so stranage and diffficult compared to European languages as often told.

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