Navajo Grammar

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The content of this page was contributed by Dr. Douglas Whalen.

Introduction

The grammatical processes by means of which Navajo words are modified are: affixing, including prefixing, suffixing, and in one case, infixing; of these prefixing is most common (Reichard).

Syntactically, Navajo is SOV in word order. The two noteworthy aspects of Navajo syntactic structure are the relative clause and the principles involved in the interpretation of clauses with elided noun phrase arguments. Transitive sentences with third person subject and object are organized in such a way as to ensure that the order of subject and object conforms to the animacy hierarchy (approximately, human > animal > inanimate).

Of the lexical categories of Navajo, the verb is by far the most complex, morphologically. A single Navajo verb can have more than 10 morphemes. Navajo has a system of classificatory verbs whose stems are chosen according to the nature of the subject or object, respectively, of the intransitive or transitive clauses in which they appear.

Basic Morphology

Nouns in Navajo can be simple nominal forms, stem nouns, or complex nominalizations. Furthermore, some nominal combinations seem to have become fully lexicalized as single nouns in modern Navajo. Nouns are typically only marked for possession, which, in addition to expressing first, second or third person possession, can mark fourth person possession when a non-salient entity is the possessor. Navajo distinguishes between alienable nouns and inalienable nouns (e.g., body parts), requiring a possessive prefix on inalienables. There is also an indefinite possessive in Navajo to mark an object that belongs to some unspecified entity. Plural markers can be added to a possessed noun to express that it is owned by more than one person. Any other plurality, however, must be marked on the verb.

A Navajo verb consists of a stem plus two to nine prefixes, ordered according to the template:

  1. postposition object
  2. post-position
  3. adverbial-thematic
  4. iterative
  5. plural
  6. direct object
  7. deictic
  8. adverbial-thematic
  9. mode-aspect
  10. subject
  11. classifier
  12. stem

There are two verb classes in Navajo: active and neuter. Active verbs can be conjugated according to three to six "modes", or paradigms, including imperfective, perfective, future/progressive, usitative/iterative and optative. Neuter verbs can be conjugated according to only one paradigm, and can be either imperfective or perfective.

Basic Syntax

Navajo word order is typically SOV when subject and object pronouns are present - these pronouns are in fact optional because they are expressed on the verb. If the subject is not third person, it is typically incorporated in the verb, and not represented elsewhere. Word order is flexible in terms of part-of-speech; arguments are typically represented in line with the animacy hierarchy. Therefore, sentence structure will be modified to ensure that humans are mentioned first, then animals, then inanimates. If following this hierarchy necessitates inversion, this inversion is marked by changing the third person object prefix yi- to the more marked prefix bi-.

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Navajo Grammar
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