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Navajo Code breakers in WWII; Essential to Victory

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Johnston’s confidence in his theory lay in the fact that the Navajo language includes a number of words that, when spoken with varying inflections, may have as many as four totally different meanings. Navajo verb forms are especially complex. To most listeners, the language is virtually incomprehensible and has been variously likened to the rumble of a moving freight train, the gurgling noises of a partially blocked sink drain, or, jokingly, the resonant thunder of an old-fashioned commode being flushed. As a result, use of the Navajo tongue was confined almost entirely to the reservation; few non-Navajos spoke or understood it. And it was a ‘hidden language,’ there not yet being an alphabet or written form for others to study.

Returning to Los Angeles, Johnston spent nearly two weeks seeking bilingual Navajos from among that city’s population. On February 28, 1942, he returned to Camp Elliott with four Indians in order to prove their linguistic capability before a group of skeptical Marine staff officers. Sent in pairs to separate rooms, the first two Navajos were given a typical military field order to transmit in their own language to the others several doors away. When retranslated back into English, the message received by the second pair proved to be an accurate copy of the order as it was given. The Marines were amazed at the speed and accuracy of the interpretation, and the presentation was pronounced a complete success.

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