An Introduction to the Navajo Language and Culture

An Introduction to the Navajo Language and Culture

The Navajo language, known to its speakers as Diné Bizaad, is spoken by the Navajo people, primarily in the southwestern United States. It is part of the Athabaskan language family, which is widespread across the western US and Canada. The Navajo Nation, where the majority of speakers live, spans across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Cultural Insight

The Navajo world view is deeply connected to the land, the elements, and the cosmos. For instance, the Navajo cosmology includes the concept of the universe comprising twelve worlds, with the Earth being the surface on which we live.

The language reflects this deep connection with nature, with specific words for natural phenomena like dawn (hayííłka), twilight (nahookǫsjí), and different types of clouds (kós).

Part One

Basic Vocabulary and Pronunciation

Navajo pronunciation can be challenging for beginners due to its unique sounds and the use of tones. However, focusing on some basic vocabulary is a good starting point:

Hello: Yá’át’ééh (yah-ah-teh-eh)
Thank you: Ahéhee’ (ah-heh-heh’)
Water: Tó (toh)
Earth: Nahasdzáán (nah-has-dzahn)
Sky: Yá (yah)

Pronunciation Tips:

  • The apostrophe (’) signifies a glottal stop, similar to the break between the syllables of “uh-oh”.
  • Accent marks indicate that you should stress that syllable more than the others.

Simple Phrases

Good morning: Yá’át’ééh abíní.
Thank you, my friend and my people: Ahéhee’ shik’éí dóó shidine’é.
I am thirsty: Tó hólǫ́.

Interactive Practice

Try greeting someone in Navajo, introducing yourself, and saying thank you. Practice the pronunciation of the words for “sky”, “earth”, and “water”, and reflect on their significance in Navajo culture and worldview.

Cultural Activity: Navajo Cosmology

Understanding Navajo cosmology can enrich your appreciation of the language. Explore the concept of the universe’s structure in Navajo belief—how the Earth is viewed as part of a larger cosmos, with the sky and natural phenomena playing critical roles. Reflect on how this worldview might influence the way you see the natural world around you.

Part Two

Now let’s focus on nature, family, and common objects. We’ll also give you some more cultural notes to enhance your understanding and appreciation of this beautiful language.

Nature and the Environment

Sun: Jóhonaaʼéí (joh-ho-nah-eh-ih)
Moon: Tłʼéhonaaʼéí (tł’eh-ho-nah-eh-ih)
Star: Sóh (soh)
Mountain: Dził (dzil)
Rain: Tóo (toh-o)

Family and People

Mother: Shímá (shih-mah)
Father: Shízheʼé (shih-zheh-eh)
Child: Awééʼ (ah-weh-eh)
Friend: Shikʼéí (shih-keh-ih)


Dog: Łééchąąʼí (łeh-chah-ih)
Sheep: Dibé (dih-beh)
Horse: Łį́į́ʼ (łih-ih)

Common Objects and Actions

House/Home: Kinłání (kin-lah-nih)
Eat: Nímasii (nih-mah-sih)
Sleep: Yíniłtso (yih-nihł-tso)
Walk: Naaltsoos (nah-alt-sohs)

Sentences and Phrases

I see a mountain: Dził naʼííłta. (Dzil nah-ih-ihł-tah)
The dog is sleeping: Łééchąąʼí yíniłtso. (Łeh-chah-ih yih-nihł-tso)
I am eating with my family: Shikʼé dóó nímasii. (Shih-keh doh-oh nih-mah-sih)
We walk together: Tááʼ niidááhí. (Tah-ah nih-dah-hee)

Connection to Animals

In Navajo culture, animals are not just pets or livestock but are considered relatives and are integral to the Navajo way of life. For instance, sheep (dibé) are central to the Navajo economy and culture, providing wool for weaving, meat for sustenance, and are a symbol of wealth and well-being.

A word before you go

I hope this introductory lesson has been insightful and valuable.

As you step into the world of Diné Bizaad, remember, it’s more than just learning a language; it’s about connecting with a culture that sees the world in vibrant colors and deep, earthy textures.

Each word you’ve learned is a thread in the rich tapestry of Navajo life, woven with stories of the land and its people. Carry these words with you as tools of understanding and bridges to new horizons.