Code-Switching in Navajo Orthographic Poetry:
On Places, the Mythic, and Mythic Places
Anthony K. Webster
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
This paper concerns code-switching in Navajo orthographic poetry.1 This is a topic of
some interest, because there is a general language shift from Navajo to English occurring
and it is important to understand the places where Navajo persists (see House 2002; Lee
and McLaughlin 2001; Spolsky 2002; Webster 2006a). It is also important to understand
what of Navajo is persisting. This paper attempts to outline those places in which Navajo
perdures. Expanding on Philip Deloria’s (1998) call for studying Native Americans in
“unexpected places”, I would call for understanding Native American languages in
“unexpected places.” In this respect, I look at the sites of code-switching in Navajo
written poetry. In keeping with the theme from Deloria, these cluster around places, the
mythic, and mythic places. I conclude by suggesting that the written form of the language
may be unexpected, but not the potential for feelingful iconicity (Samuels 2004). I use the
term code-switching in a rather broad sense, namely that any instance of a switch from one
lexical-grammatical code to another (be they syntactic clauses or lexical items) is an
example of code-switching. I believe the concern with identity displays as examples of
code-switching and as displays of language as an object will validate this position. I follow
Eva Mendieta-Lombrado and Zaida Citron (1995: 565) and their argument concerning the
use of code switching in poetry:
By code switching (CS) we understand any combination of English and Spanish
words or phrases or, in our case, a poem. This broad definition encompasses
segments that are usually considered borrowing in the linguistic analysis of
everyday speech. However, the particular situation of written poetry, with its
characteristic literary intentionality, along with the non-applicability of some
criteria used to distinguish between borrowing and CS, make this definition
This is true also for Navajo and I therefore adopt the broad definition they have developed.
1 I want to dedicate this paper to Alyse Neundorf and Mary Purpuri. Alyse Neundorf taught me a
great deal about Navajo poetry and about the orthography discussion occurring on the Navajo
Nation. She was a talented linguist and a talented poet. I spoke with my Aunt Mary a number of
times on the phone during fieldwork (at the gas station outside Chinle, AZ on 191 heading south
towards Ganado, AZ), and her good humor provided inspiration. Both will be missed.
Robert Moore (1988) has argued that certain nominal forms become templates and
exemplars of indigenous identity. That is, while syntactic knowledge may be lost, the
knowledge of certain emblematic lexical items may become the tokens of a language.
Language then becomes reduced to “words.” This is, I believe, what Michael Silverstein
(2003) means by “emblematic identity displays.” Language becomes objects—words—
that can be put on display to index a certain identity. And in writing, such objects become
icons of standard versus folk orthographies. These linguistic objects, imbued with the felt
connections to language as emblems of identity, then become linguistic heirlooms;
heirlooms that can call forth memories of the “ancestors.” What orthographies should not
be are constraints.
2. On Incommensurability:
The purpose of this paper is to point out a number of similarities in the use of Navajo
in English dominant poems by Navajo poets (see also Webster 2004, 2006a). I am
concerned with the idea, not unheard of among Navajos, that there is incommensurability
between Navajo and English, namely, that certain ideas, emotions, and objects cannot be
translated into English adequately. This is a position that Navajo poets have written about
in their work. Below I provide two examples of this metalinguistic commentary:
(1) “What is it? She asks. “What’s wrong?”
There are no English words to describe this feeling.
“T’áá ‘iighisíí biniina shil hóyéé,” I say.
(2) Hataałii sings over the patient
Someone whispers, in English
“Diné bizaad bee yádaałti’”
This is an EnemyWay.
(Chee 2001: 25)
In the first example, we see an explicit statement that certain emotions cannot be
articulated in English. Hóyéé, this emotion that entails surrounding, according to Luci
Tapahonso cannot be translated into English. The second example, by Norla Chee,
suggests a linguistic ideology concerning what Paul Kroskrity (1992) has called “strict
compartmentalization.” This linguistic ideology concerns the idea that there are certain
circumscribed domains where Navajo is not only preferable but also more efficacious.
One speaks Navajo at an Enemyway ceremony. As Gary Witherspoon (1977), among
others, has pointed out, there is a general Navajo linguistic ideology that language makes
things happen. Rex Lee Jim, a Navajo poet, for example has described to me his belief that
his poems that evoke thought, will, in so doing, create proper thought (which is the inward
quality of speech). Language is not epiphenomenal, it is something (i.e., they are both
noumena and phenomena). Curing ways are evocative and efficacious because they—the
chantways—are in Navajo, and the chants, ideally, are verbatim quotes of earlier chants.
Code-switching then takes on a greater import given the linguistic ideology that
values language not just about the world but as a creative force in the world. But what do
Navajo poets feel can best be expressed in Navajo? As Mikhail Bakhtin (1986) noted, all
utterances are quotations of ancestors. We do not say something new, rather we insert
ourselves into the implicated and entangled history of our language. The use of Navajo is
thus both evocative and efficacious. The poetics of language, because it is implicated in
the ongoing accruing nature of language in use and language as used, becomes especially
salient points for felt incommensurability. This is the iconicity of poetic feelingfulness
(Samuels 2004). Placenames, as we will discuss below, become exemplars of this
feelingful iconicity (they are understood as the words of the ancestors and from a specific
perspective [Basso 1996]).
During my fieldwork (June 2000-August 2001), I often asked Navajo poets why they
wrote in English or Navajo. Sometimes the answer was practical: They simply did not
know how to write in Navajo. This is quite common. Many Navajos speak Navajo but do
not know how to write Navajo. Literacy is emerging. On the other hand, those poets who
could or would (the two are not the same) write in Navajo often stated that they wrote in
Navajo because it was in some feelingful way “better” or “more accurate.” One Navajo
told me that he will not write in Navajo until an orthography is created that does not look
like the English orthography.
3. Placenames as sites of incommensurability:
One of the more common examples of code-switching into English dominant
poems concerned placenames. As Keith Basso (1996) has discussed for Western Apaches
(a related Southern Athabaskan language), placenames are fundamental in creating a moral
landscape, in fact, to use a placename is to quote the ancestors. Julie Cruikshank (1990),
working with Northern Athabaskan languages, has shown how Tagish and Tutchone
people speaking in English will code-switch into their native language when discussing
placenames. Stephen Jett (2001) has remarked about the import of Navajo placenames as
well. To know the name of a place is more than simple geography, it is to know the events
and ancestors who gave the place cultural meaning. Using placenames is a form of
quotation. It creates an indexical link to the ancestors who first named the place. It is not
surprising, then, to find many Navajo poems code-switching into Navajo when discussing
place. In what follows, I provide two examples of placenaming in Navajo poetry. The
crucial element here is that these were poems written in Navajo and then translated into
English, yet the placenames remain in Navajo.
Sis naajiní Blanca Peak
Tsoodził Mount Taylor
Dook’o’oosłííd San Francisco Peak
Dibé Nitsaa Hesperus Peak
Dził Ná’oodiłii Huerfano Mountain
Ch’óol’’í Gobernador Knob
(Blueeyes 1995: 9)
Níléí éí Ch’óol’’ jó ’éí bikáá’gi awéé l, ákodei haayá, ákódei tį’
It was on top of Ch’óol’ he found the baby, up there, let’s go.
(Neundorf 1999: 2)
Both of these poems reference Ch’óol’, which is one of the sacred mountains for
many Navajo. Indeed, Blueeyes lists the sacred mountains of the Navajo, from the
formulaic and traditional east to south to west to north direction. In the Blueeyes poem
Sacred Mountains both the Navajo and English placenames are given. They are not
translations, rather they are different names in different languages for different socailly
realized places. For example, Dibé Nitsaa glosses in English as “Big Sheep” and not
Hesperus Peak (dibé glosses as ‘sheep’ and nitsaa ‘it is big’). Likewise, Alyse Neundorf
makes no effort to translate Ch’óol’, into English, nor does she provide the English
placename. You either know where Ch’óol’, is or you do not. I should add that in Alan
Wilson’s (1995) excellent discussion of Navajo placenames he leaves this placename
untranslated. This use of Navajo placenames argues for a prior placement (a “here” first
placement). These are not ”English” places, they are Navajo places.
Another use of placenames in Navajo poetry concerns the opposition between
Hwééldi and Dinétah. A little background may help at this point. Hwééldi is the Navajo
term for Bosque Redondo or Fort Sumner. This was the place that the Navajos lived for
four years (1864-1868) after the horrific Long Walk which claimed the lives of many
Navajos. It was a time of “great hardship” to quote Laura Tohe. It is perhaps the single
most salient moment in the collective memory of Navajos. It is a time of suffering and also
a time of pride. The Navajos eventually did negotiate their return to Dinétah, the
traditional Navajo homeland. And that is the contrast: Hwééldi is about removal and
Dinétah is about home. Dinétah gains meaning and feeling in opposition to Hwééldi. I
would suggest that this sense meaning is the classic Sausserian code internal binary
oposition. Note that this binary opposition is built on the accruing implications of the
discursive uses of the placenames (this a diachronic approach to the Sausserian question).
Many poets have written about the Long Walk and the internment at Hwééldi and they
have written about the return to Dinétah. What is important in relation to code-switching is
that Hwééldi and Dinétah are the terms that they use. Below I provide two examples. One
from Laura Tohe, Within Dinétah the People’s Spirit is Strong, and one from Luci
Tapahonso, In 1864.
(5) We called this place Hwééldi
this place of starvation,
this place of near death
this place of extreme hardship
And later in the poem:
(6) We returned to our land after four years.
Our spirits ragged and weary.
And vowed that we never be seperated from Dinétah;
the earth is our strength
We have grown strong.
And this example from Tapahonso’s poem In 1864:
(7) We didn’t know how far it was or even where we were going.
All that was certain was that we were leaving Dinétah, our home.
(Tapahonso 1993: 9)
And contrasted with:
(8) There were many who died on the way to Hwééldi. All the way we told each
other, “we will be strong as long as we are together.” I think that was what
kept us alive.
(Tapahonso 1993: 10)
Let me conclude this section with a brief example of the use of Dinétah in a poem that
seems to act as a counterbalance to English and some of the associated domains of use for
English (in this case organized church). Venaya Yazzie (2006) titles a recent poem
Dinétah. In that poem Dinétah acts as a foil to an urban landscape.
(9) Dinétah earth
in loud creases
of urban lingo
sounds like Navajo some days
but like English on Sundays
English and Navajo thus sit in an uneasy relationship. English is a presence in
Dinétah, but it seems connected with Sundays and the organized “church” (this is English
as the language of certain institutions). Dinétah is home.
4. On the mythic Mą’ii (Coyote):
Another kind of code-switching occurs with the lexical item mą’ii which glosses as
“Coyote.” Coyote is an especially salient and important mythic figure in Navajo verbal art
(Webster 2004). Not only are there a number of stories about the trickster Coyote, there
are also songs and a curing way that have Coyote as the central figure (see Haile 1984;
Luckert 1979; and McAllester 1980). To give a sense of the importance of Coyote, I quote
comments made by Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim to me:
Coyote is out there. . . killing your. . . sheep and goats. You can hear them
howling in canyons during the morning, the evening, the middle of the day, way
late at night. You’re surrounded by it. . . Coyote is every part of your life.
(Webster 2004: 75)
Below I present four examples of code-switching from English to Navajo to reference
mą’ii. The first example, from 1971, is one of the first examples of English to Navajo
code-switching that I have found.
He’d make us laugh with the stories of the hated
(David 1971: 9)
That which we can only guess to be
Like voiceless vacant villages of old
Coyote, Ma’ii, was always there to see
What the rest of us are only told.
(Begay 1995: 40)
Beyond the fire ma’ii sheds his coyote skin
and appears as the moral of our story.
mą’ii názdá! want to go to town tomorrow?
(Tapahonso 1987: 31)
Note that mą’ii can either stand alone or there can be an attempt at translation. One
should also note that mą’ii is spelled three different ways and only the final form is spelled
the same way as the standard mą’ii. I will return to this point below. Note, however, that
while Coyote is a common trickster figure among Native Americans in the west, by using
mą’ii the poets demarcate him as not just any Coyote but as the Navajo Coyote. This is an
emblematic identity display. Even Navajos who do not speak Navajo can and do recognize
the lexical item mą’ii. It is a salient form. Note, also, that /m/ word initial is rather
uncommon in Navajo lexical items. In a survey of the Wall and Morgan (1994: 109)
Navajo/English dictionary there were only nineteen entries under the heading M. Eight of
those words began with mą’ii (e.g., mą’iid ‘coyote’s food’ or mą’iitsoh ‘wolf, big
coyote’). Most of the others were loan words such as magi ‘monkey,’ mósí ‘cat’ and miil
Coyote can also be used metaphorically. While most of the above examples reference
Coyote (Ma’ii) the trickster, the following example of code-switching references the
trickster as Coyote. That is a Pueblo man behaves like a Coyote (a trickster). This example
also shows how the use of code-switching draws the listener into the humor of the poem.
The example is from a performance by Laura Tohe at the Native American Music Festival
in Tsaile, AZ at Diné College in June of 2001. The poem was performed a little after
10:00pm before a mixed crowd of largely middle-aged and young Navajos. The poem is
titled “Sometimes those Pueblo Men can sure be Coyotes.” The poem describes the
narrator—a teenage girl—and her friend—also a teenage girl—being driven home by a
handsome Pueblo man. The girls make a number of comments concerning the man in
Navajo, assuming the man does not know Navajo.
(14) we had just pulled onto Central
when one of us said
Éí hastiin ayóo baa dzólní’ this man is very handsome
Éí laa’ I agree
The important point here—but not terribly surprising—is that the audience—made up
mostly of Navajo—began laughing prior to the translations. The use of English was
clearly secondary for many Navajo and their enjoyment came—in part—from the use of
Navajo. The largest laugh comes when Tohe concludes the poem with the Pueblo man
responding in Navajo:
(15) A’héhee’ at’ééke he said thank you, girls
In this example code-switching is used to create a connection, unintended, but a
5. On Writing:
While the previous example is from an oral performance, the code-switching also
occurs in the written version by Tohe. Indeed, it is the code-switching that is the linchpin
to the poem, it is what gives it its humor. But writing in Navajo is a relatively new
phenomenon. Robert Young and William Morgan (1987) have done a great service to the
Navajo (Morgan was Navajo) by creating an orthography and dictionaries of Navajo.
Their orthography has become the standard. Writing does things. One thing that it does is
create a standard. This is both empowering and limiting. It is empowering because of a
Western linguistic ideology that sees language standards as the mark of “real” languages.
This is the common conflation of language with writing. It is limiting because it devalues
the “folk” orthographies of many non-standard writers. It should not be surprising, for
example, to find that Alyse Neundorf was not just a poet, but also a linguist who wrote
articles on Navajo and even wrote a children’s Navajo dictionary (1983). But all Navajos
do not have such training. Neundorf knew the standard and wrote in it. As we will see
below, Rutherford Ashley does not know the standard, but refuses to be limited by
orthographic conventions. Feelingful iconicity can override such constraints (for now).
When Vee Browne (2000) writes a limerick in Navajo about the Navajo language,
using her “folk orthography,” we should first pause and respect the feelingful iconic
connection that Browne is articulating about her language, through her use of a “folk
orthography.” An orthography that is wholly interpretable. Such folk orthographies are
locally controlled expressions of language loyalty (Webster 2006b). We should regard folk
orthographies as expressions of locally controlled language in use, as opportunities and not
Code-switching in speech is in some ways less problematic than code-switching in
writing, and specifically in poetry. Many non-fluent Navajo speakers will introduce
themselves at poetry performances in Navajo and by clan. This is a formulaic opening that
many Navajo poets learn (Webster 2004). Most poets that I have seen perform will
introduce themselves by their clans and in Navajo (Webster 2004). On the other had, I
know many Navajos who speak Navajo and code-switch between English and Navajo all
the time. But, they do not know how to write the standard Navajo. Laura Tohe (2005), for
example, fluent in oral Navajo has taken classes to learn to write Navajo and now she
writes poetry in both English and Navajo. Many of those poems concern place, and
specifically Tséyi’ or its Spanishified form Canyon de Chelly (Tohe 2005).
6. Mythic places:
Code-switching is dangerous when writing. A number of Navajos I spoke with
criticized poets who code-switched into Navajo for not spelling the Navajo words
“correctly.” I want to give a final example, not because it is particularly egregious, but
because the code-switching is indicative of another theme that Navajo poets use when
code-switching. Not only do Navajos code-switch concerning place and code-switch
concerning mythic figures, they also code-switch concerning mythic places. Here is the
example from Rutherford (Ford) Ashley’s Heart Vision 2000 (Ashley 2000: 14):
As from the rood of “Hajinei” his people had emerged
and that emergence,
can take many forms,
A little of the stock of knowledge that a Navajo might be expected to bring to bear
here may help. Hajíínáí is the place of emergence, it is the hole the Navajos emerged from
into this “glittering world.” Ashley, I believe, is arguing that one’s own emergence can
take many forms. When I first read this poem, I knew two things immediately about the
form Hajinei. First, I knew that it was the place of emergence. Second, I knew that it did
not conform to “the standard” orthography. But, I think, the first realization was far more
important than the second. Ashley is also quite aware that his idiosyncratic way of writing
Navajo does not conform to “the standard.” He was very clear about this to me. Rather it is
more important to make the indexical linkage and create the feelingful iconicity between
mythic place and the Navajo language.
There may come a day when the standard so overwhelms folk orthographies in
Navajo, that poets like Ford Ashley or Richard David may feel constrained from code-
switching in their poetry, because they write in some putative way “incorrectly.” That will
be a shame. Code-switching in Navajo poetry is about incommensurability, the
incommensurability of place, the mythic, and mythic places. Code-switching is also about
identity, about emblematic identity displays—code-switching is about indexing
Navajoness, no matter what orthography is used. It is also about the iconicity of feeling
between the Navajo place name, for example, and the words of the ancestors. When we
think of incommensurability as kinds of indexical linkages and feelingful iconicity, we
may begin to realize how important the options of forms (orthographic here) may be for
individuals. To lose that option is to be constrained by “standards.” It is to lose potential
and creativity. It is to constrain “genuine cultures” (Sapir 1924). Genuine cultures, which
To relate our lives, our intuitions, our passing moods to forms of expression that carry
conviction to others and make us live again in these others is the highest spiritual
satisfaction we know of, the highest welding of one’s individuality with the spirit of
his civilization. (Sapir 1924: 425 emphasis in original)
Or as Ford Ashley says, “‘Hajinei,’ can take many forms.”
Heart Vision 2000. Window Rock: Cool Runnings.
1986. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: Texas UP.
Wisdom Sits In Places. Albuquerque: New Mexico UP.
Navajo Visions and Voices Across the Mesa. New York: Scholastic, Inc.
1995. “Sacred Mountains.” In Home Places. Tucson: Arizona UP.
Ravens Dancing. Bloomington: AuthorHouse.
Cedar Smoke on Abalone Mountain. Los Angeles: UCLA.
Cruikshank, Julie, in collaboration with Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith, and Annie Ned.
Life Lived like a Story. Lincoln: Nebraska UP.
“Hosteen Race Track was shi cheeh.” Arrow III. 9-10.
Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale UP.
Haile, Fr. Berard.
Navajo Coyote Tales. Lincoln: Nebraska UP.
2002. Language Shift among the Navajos. Tucson: Arizona UP.
Navajo Placenames and Trails of the Canyon de Chelly System, Arizona.
New York: Peter Lang.
1992. “Arizona Tewa Kiva Speech as a Manifestation of Linguistic Ideology.”
Pragmatics. 2(3): 297-309.
Lee, Tiffany and McLaughlin, Daniel.
2001. “Reversing Navajo Language Shift.” In Can Threatened Languages Be
Saved? (ed. Fishman, Joshua). Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters
Coyoteway. Tucson: Arizona UP.
1980. “Coyote’s Song.” Parabola. 5(2): 47-54.
Mendieta-Lombrado, Eva and Cintron, Zaida.
1995. “Marked and Unmarked Choices of Code-Switching in Bilingual Poetry.”
Hispania. 78(3): 565-772.
1988. “Lexicalization versus lexical loss in Wasco-Wishram language
obsolescence.” IJAL.54(4): 453-468.
1983. Áłchíní Bi Naaltsoostsoh: A Navajo/English Bilingual Dictionary.
Albuquerque: Native American Materials Development Center.
“Diné Hosiidl’gi.” Red Mesa Review. 6:1-4.
Putting a Song on Top of It. Tucson: Arizona UP.
1924. “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” American Journal of Sociology. 29: 401-
2003. “The Whens and Wheres—As Well as Hows—of Ethnolinguistic
Recognition.” Public Culture. 15(3): 531-557.
2002. “Prospects for the Survival of the Navajo Language: A Reconsideration.”
Anthropology & Education Quarterly. 33(2): 139-162.
A Breeze Wept Through. Albuquerque: West End Press.
1993. Sáanii Dahataał: The Women are Singing. Sun Tracks vol. 23. Tucson:
1999. No Parole Today. Albuquerque: West End Press.
2002. “In Dinétah.” In Sister Nations. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society
2005. Tséyi’: Deep in the Rock. Tucson: Arizona UP.
Wall, Leon and Morgan, William.
Navajo-English Dictionary. New York: Hippocrene Books.
2004. “Coyote Poems: Navajo Poetry, Intertextuality, and Language Choice.”
American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 28(4): 69-91.
2006a. “‘Ałk’id’ Mą’ii Jooldlosh, Jiní: Poetic Devices in Navajo Oral and
Written Poetry.” Anthropological Linguistics. 48 (3&4).
2006b. “Keeping the Word: On Orality and Literacy (With a Sideways Glance at
Navajo).” Oral Tradition. 21(2): 1-30.
Navajo Place Names. Guilford, CT: Jeffery Norton Publishers.
Language and Art in the Navajo Universe. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP.
2006. “Dinétah.” In Saad ak’e’elchi’: Navajo/ English Poetry. (ed. Yazzie,
Venaya). Farmington: Northwest New Mexico Arts Council. 30-31.
Young, Robert and Morgan, William.
The Navajo Language. Albuquerque: New Mexico UP.
Department of Anthropology
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
Mail Code 4502
Carbondale, IL 62901