Code Talkers: The Importance of Language Translation During Wartime

When one thinks of warfare, what usually comes to mind are weapons, machinery, battlefields, etc. Language translation, however, is not something that is typically associated with war. Yet historically language translation has played a very important role in the victory or defeat of a nation during wartime. Particularly, the use of language and translation in the creation and deciphering of cryptic messages has been critical to communication on and off of the battlefield.

The ability to communicate without the risk of being understood by your enemy is vital to the success of any army. To avoid this risk, armies have developed codes that use complex language structures that are undecipherable to the untrained ear.

One important example of how language and translation have been used successfully during wartime is that of the Code Talkers during World War I and II in the United States. Beginning with Choctaw Code Talkers during World War I, Native Americans were recruited by the US Army to transmit and interpret cryptic messages using codes based on their native languages. This began after U.S. Army Commander Captain Lawrence overheard two Choctaw speakers, Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb, speaking in the Choctaw language. The Commander understood that this Native American language could serve as a valuable resource in the communication efforts of the US army. He soon recruited fourteen more Choctaw men to use their native Choctaw language as a code for the US army. As the Germans had recently “broken” the radio codes of the American Expeditionary Force, Captain Lawrence’s idea came at a critical juncture in the war campaign.

The use of the Choctaw language during World War I proved to be invaluable for the US Army. It was a language of which the Germans were unfamiliar and were unable to decipher. After the first 24 hours that the Choctaw language was used in the war, the tide of the Mousse-Argonne campaign had turned. Within 72 hours, the Germans began to retreat. Although this was the first and only time that Code Talking was used during World War I, it would prove to be a highly important resource of the US Army during World War II.

Although the Choctaw language did not include many of the military terms that were needed during the war, phrases such as “big gun” (for artillery) and “little gun shoot fast” (machine gun) were used to transmit the messages needed by the military.

Here are some Choctaw words that you can practice saying at home:

English Choctaw
Man Hattak
Woman Ohoyo
Water Ofi
Eat Oka
Leave Filvmmi or Issa