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Language and Art in the Navajo Universe: 02/19/15

cover art

Language and Art in the Navajo Universe by Gary Witherspoon is my favorite of the books on Diné language and culture I've read by non-native speaker. Until recently, most books about the Navajo Nation were written by outsiders and many of them treat like anthropological oddities rather than a vibrant, interesting, valid culture.

The books that come closest to treating the language instruction with the same practicality that say language books for Spanish, German, or French instruction would, are those by someone who has been forced through circumstances to learn the language. In this case, the author mentions his wife a great deal, so I suspect she was one of the people who taught him the language.

So rather than teaching the language and culture, Witherspoon presents his internalized version of the highlights he has learned from his wife and other Diné. He backs up his observations with quotes from other anthropology books, which he then either agrees with or doesn't. For those that he doesn't, he uses sentence diagraming to show the errors in the assumptions.

For anyone wanting to get nitty gritty into the grammar rules of Diné bizaad, Witherspoon's book is a great start. To say though that Diné bizaad is the most difficult language out there ever, I take offense.

Every single language I've studied has had its own special collection of bizarre, illogical, unspoken but definitely important grammar rules. Think of all the exceptions in English. Just stop and think about them for a little bit. Ask a native speaker of any language about the exceptions in his language and the answer will probably something like, "just because" or "it sounds better this way" or even "I don't know; it's just how it's done."

Four stars

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