San José State University
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Discovery of the Athabascan Origin
of the Apache and Navajo Languages

The tribes of the Apache and Navajo are now associated with the desert areas of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, but this region was not always their home. Their ancestors migrated into the region within historical times. The original homeland of the tribes was northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska. The discovery of this origin was through linguistics.

The route of migration the migration was primarily down the great plains to the east of the Rocky Mountains, but there is some evidence of migration through the Great Basin region. In the Southwest the Tewa and the Zuñi called the newcomers Apachu meaning strangers/enemies. The newcomers who learned agriculture from the local tribes and settled down to farming were called by the Spanish the Apaches de las Nabahu, the Apaches of the Cultivated Fields, which was subsequently shortened to Navajos. This is the origin of the Navajos. They were the Apaches who adopted farming and later sheep herding. The name the Apaches and Navajos used for themselves was Na Dené, which means The People.

When linguists began recording and classifying Indian languages they found a surprising affinity of the Apache-Navajo languages to the Athabascan family of languages from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska. (Athabascan is also spelled Athapascan in the literature.) This affinity consisted not only of grammatical structure and core vocabulary but also vocabulary that had become obsolete in the region of the desert. For example, for many generations no Apache or Navajo had seen a boat but the word used to describe the gliding flight of an owl was the same word used by the Athabascans to describe the movement of a canoe over water. Words used by Athabascans for utensils made from horn were used by the Apache-Navajos for utensils made from gourds. When linguistics queried Apache-Navajos about whether they recognized words from Athabascan languages the Apache-Navajo speakers recognized them as archaic words, words that had been replaced by other words in their language.

The Apache-Navajo language and the other Athabascan languages belong to an entirely different language family from the Amerindian languages. One crucial difference that separates them from the other Amerindian languages and suggests their affinity to the languages of east Asia is that they are tonal; i.e., words with the same phonemes but spoken with different tones have different meanings. This meant that it was almost impossible for adult outsiders to learn these languages.


The Navajo Code Talkers

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