PigpenI’ve been telling my 10 year-old son about the Navajo Code Talkers–and he’s loving it! Kids love secret codes–I certainly did, and so does my son. He recently received a Mail Order Mystery as a gift (the pirate one), and it included several messages in a basic pigpen code. He was very excited, and, although he detests writing (very imaginative kid, but will write “good” rather than “fantastic” just on the principle of fewer letters…), he gladly cracked those messages. And then wanted to write additional messages back and forth with me!

So we’ve been talking about the Navajo Code and how it works and why it was so difficult to crack.

According to one Code Talker “Translation” site I found, a message of:

Hello world

Would be translated into Navajo Code Talk as:


Which, apparently, is the Navajo for an English phonetic spelling of my message, or the Navajo agreed-upon words for:


My understanding of the Code, from the Code Talker book by Joseph Bruchac and what I’ve read (listened to) so far from the Code Talker memoir by Chester Nez, is that, whenever possible, code words were used to translate agreed upon (mostly military) words and phrases, and then anything else was spelled using the phonetic alphabet as above. Bruchac says the code word for “dive bomber” was the Navajo for “chicken hawk” (although I’ve also seen it as buzzard), and a “battleship” was a “shark.” There were also code words for various ranks, nations, types of planes, and many other pertinent terms. Bruchac also mentions that, since there was concern that a simple substitution code could be broken based on the frequency of certain letters, the Code Talkers had multiple words for the more common letters–“A” was “Ant” but also “Apple” and, perhaps, “Armadillo” and others, to reduce the frequency with which some words were used. You can see that in the translation above, where “L” is given first as “Lamb,” then “Leg,” and finally “Lion.”

navajo code words

Often, the “translated” messages came out as long strings of seemingly unrelated nouns, making it difficult to even know which parts were phonetic and which were code words. Also, keep in mind that, at the time, most Americans were unfamiliar with foreign languages–to the point where the Code Talkers had to add the word “Arizona” or “New Mexico” at the beginning of their transmission to keep from being shut down by other American radio operators who thought their airwaves had been infiltrated by the Japanese. Which sort of seems counter-intuitive, to announce that you’re going to start sending secret codes!

As a matter of fact, though, the Navajo Code was never cracked and was only replaced during the Vietnam War as computers began to be used more extensively.

Which brings me to the concept of computer translation. I read a great article recently from The Atlantic, about “The Shallowness of Google Translate.” Now, obviously, from the article’s title, you can tell which side of the issue the author came down on! And, as someone with a Master’s degree in translation from Spanish to English, I am, naturally, biased in the same direction. But the Navajo Code was a CODE, not a true language. It made extensive use of the Navajo language–and the relative obscurity of that language–but it was a mixture of code words and phonetic spellings, both of which involve translation between English and Navajo. (Interestingly, the site I used above says the program it uses to translate doesn’t even use the code words–it’s only the phonetic alphabet. And yes, that’s a testament to the complexity of both the Navajo Code and computer assisted translation programs!)

It comes down to this–translation is an art, a sub-genre, if you will, of writing. The translator is trying to get across to the target audience (the reader of the translated work) not just the “gist” or the basic meaning of the words, but the emotions expressed through connotation, context, humor, idiom, images, symbolism, references to other works–there is so much more to a written work than just the basic meaning of the words themselves.

Could the Navajo Code have been broken using computers? Probably. The Code Talkers were not trying to convey humor or poetry. They were mostly concerned with troop movements, reports of ongoing battles, or new tactics being used. And the intent was for the messages to be easily “translated” by the Code Talkers themselves, with no ambiguity. Even so, computers need to be guided–“garbage in, garbage out” as the saying goes. A computer may have amazing capabilities when it comes to finding patterns, but it generally takes a human code breaker to figure out what those patterns mean. (Although with the prevalence of online dictionaries and glossaries these days, that aspect would be simple.)

It would be interesting to see what kind of progress the Japanese made in trying to break the Code–were they able to decipher any of the Navajo words? Did they have a “database” of Navajo words and their English language translations (and the corresponding Japanese translations)? Where did their code breaking process break down? What part were they stuck on?

I found information on Wikipedia about Joe Kieyoomia, who was a Navajo soldier in the US Army (not a Code Talker). He was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and tortured in an attempt to get him to help them break the Navajo Code. So, the Japanese knew that the language being used was Navajo (although it took them awhile to figure out that Kieyoomia was Navajo and not a “traitor” Japanese-American). Kieyoomia would not have had knowledge even of the existence of the Code Talkers, as the program was top secret, and he apparently told the Japanese that it sounded like nonsense to him.

navajo pop growth 1960 on

I couldn’t find Navajo population numbers for during World War II, but this shows growth since 1960.

The Navajo Code relied heavily on the language’s obscurity and its difficulty for non-native speakers. The Navajo, at the time, were one of the most-populous Native American tribes, with a strong sense of duty that allowed military recruiters to be able to find an estimated 3,600 troops for World War II (and roughly 10,000 military factory workers) among the Navajo people, of whom 400-500 were Code Talkers. But their language was only spoken by native speakers, most of whom lived on the Navajo Nation or nearby. Bruchac mentions numerous times that even the bilagáanaa (Navajo word for white people) who thought they were speaking Navajo, were speaking it very poorly–it is a tonal language, which can be extremely difficult for speakers of non-tonal languages, like English, to learn.

So it was indecipherable at the time to just about anyone but a native Navajo speaker. And to a native Navajo speaker unfamiliar with the Code, it would sound like a string of unrelated nouns, not sentences with a structure and meaning. It also, at the time, had no written form. And, of course, as mentioned in both Code Talker books, this isolation of the language had been strongly reinforced through the attempts at boarding schools to wipe out the use of the language among children attending the government schools.

In Chester Nez’s Code Talker memoir, he tells a part of the Navajo creation legend which speaks of the holy nature of the language itself.

“The Navajo language played an important role in the creation of the world. At the dawn of creation, four Navajo words were spoken.”

I knew the words by heart:

Ádinidiín (light), nahasdzáán (earth), tó (water), nitch´l (air)

“As these words were spoken,” Grandma continued, “the sun, the earth, the oceans, and the air that we breathed appeared.” She took a deep breath. “The Navajo words could not be separated from the physical sun, the actual earth, the oceans and air. Speaking our language created the world, and the creation of the world made our language.”

Thankfully our greater American culture has grown more accepting and respectful of differences in language. The Bruchac book ends with a bit of discussion about the ways in which many of the Code Talkers became leaders of their people in their communities and beyond, helping to bring about some of those changes. However, the Navajo language is in decline and is listed as threatened by Ethnologue (a site that researches the world’s languages and their use). It is spoken by an estimated 171,000 people, of whom 7,600 speak only Navajo, which sounds like a. According to the Native News Online site, in 1980, 93% of Navajos spoke the language, but by 2010, that percentage had dropped to 51. There are efforts underway to try to revitalize the language and encourage its usage–like this public elementary school that offers bilingual Navajo and English education. Hopefully, education as well about the proud heritage of the language and its use during both World Wars by the Navajo Code Talkers, can help with preservation efforts.

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