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Code Talkers Part II

Although the Choctaw Native Americans were the pioneers of Code Talking, it is the Navajo Native Americans who are traditionally associated with the term “code talkers”. During World War II, Navajo speakers were recruited by the US army to communicate in their native Navajo language and translate messages into English. These Native Americans were vital to the success of the US in World War II and highlight the importance of communication, language, and translation for governments, especially during wartime.

A World War I veteran, Philip Johnston is credited with having proposed the idea to use the Navajo language during World War II. Raised on a Navajo reservation in the United States, Johnston grew up being fluent in both Navajo and English. He knew that Navajo involves a complex grammar structure and was, at that time, an unwritten language, only spoken on the Navajo territory in the Southwestern part of the United States. Johnston saw it as the perfect language with which to create a cryptic code to be used by the military.

With its various dialects and very particular syntax and tonal qualities, it is estimated that only around 30 non-Navajo people were able to understand the language at the start of World War II, and none of them were Japanese. Furthermore, those who do not speak the language have a hard time to distinguish the unfamiliar sounds used in Navajo, which made the language perfect to use as a code.

In the beginning, the code involved translations of 211 English words that were commonly used by the military, along with the Navajo equivalents to the English alphabet. Later the code was expanded to add 200 more words in order to reduce the time that it was taking to spell out many words. The code was only spoken and was never written down on the battlefield. The Navajos who were recruited as code talkers went through a rigorous training course so that even untrained Navajo speakers would not understand the code.

Here are some examples from the Navajo Code Dictionary:

Military Organization Navajo Word Literal Translation
Corps Din-neh-ih Clan
Division Ashih-hi Salt
Regiment Tabaha Edge water
Battalion Tacheene Red soil

Ultimately, the Navajo code talkers proved to be extremely successful. The Japanese never managed to break the code, and the Navajos were able to participate in many important battles on the Eastern front including that of Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Tarawa. These brave individuals give further emphasis to the importance of language and translation in the world.