Why didn't the Japanese translate Navajo during WWII?

About the ‘windtalkers’; how could the Japanese forces never have figured out the Navajo-language based “code”? I know that there were only a handful of non-Navajo speakers of the language, which was almsot entirely an oral language, but still, didn’t the entire country of Japan have at least one linguist who could have recognized the most widely spoken Native language in North America?

I know it was orally based, but still, certainly some linguist’s dictionary and grammar of the language should have been available in the libraries of the neutral world, Germany, or Japan?

Part of the problem is that they weren’t just speaking Navajo, but that they used traditional words in different ways to refer to military things. Examples given there are “potatoes” are hand grenades, “tortoises” are tanks, “gofasters” are running shoes. Then the recruits were trained in those terms and instructed to never bring the code books into the field. So it wouldn’t have been enough to learn Navajo, but they’d also have to figure out the code within the language.

From that article;

“Because Navajo has a complex grammar, is not nearly mutually intelligible enough with even its closest relatives within the Na-Dene family to provide meaningful information, and was an unwritten language, Johnston saw Navajo as answering the military requirement for an undecipherable code. Navajo was spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest, and its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. One estimate indicates that at the outbreak of World War II fewer than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language.”

The main reason, - they didn’t know the language was Navajo. That bit alone was a highly guarded secret.

The explanations given so far are not convincing. Just because one isn’t familiar with a language doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to decipher, at least partially. As the OP proposes, a trained theoretical linguist could have been put to work studying recordings of the transmissions, working out bits and pieces of the syntax, morphology, and vocabulary. Meaning could be tentatively assigned to certain words which appeared in certain contexts, both internal to the transmission and to externally observed military events and intelligence. For example, if the Japanese know that the Americans are shipping tanks (for example, because they captured part of the shipment), it stands to reason that some of the contemporaneous communications would be about this shipment of tanks. Analysis of this set of transmissions might suggest which word in the transmissions means “tank”, regardless whether the term in common Navajo parlance actually means something else, like “tortoise”. Likewise probable assignments could be made for other salient words, such as “shipment” and “captured”.

Except that the code-on-top-of-a-code they added actually turned it from a devilishly difficult problem to solve into a trivial exercise of the sort amateurs crack all the time for fun. The ultimate version of the code had them spelling out English words using a substitution-cipher of Navajo words for English letters. And even if you don’t know what a particular Navajo word means in Navajo, it’s not hard to figure out that that word, whatever it is, stands for the English letter “D”.

Since there was no written language it was up to the linguist to correctly hear the word spoken. It would be like listening to all the dialects of English and being able to accurately distinquish hearing the same word correctly. Try to pick out a word from IDONUNERSTANWHATHISSENTENSMEENS when you hear it over a radio. It would all sound like mumbled gibberish with no basis to determine when one word started and one ended. It was deliberately made hard to understand phonetically. In order to break a code you have to be able to parse it out on paper. If the words were written and transmitted via a code machine it would have been a different story but this was used to transmit information in real time regarding battlefield conditions which meant the person decoding it needed to understand the language, the different dialects, and the code as it was spoken.

Right. I haven’t looked into the Codetalkers, and I don’t have time now. But would the code be analogous to this?


It doesn’t mean anything unless you know what the individual words stand for. In this hypothetical case, FOX = package, DEN = my home, FATHER = yesterday. (ME could be ‘today’ and SON could mean ‘tomorrow’, a different animal could be a different thing, and a different animal’s abode could be a location.)

Something like that?

While attending university, I had to learn Navajo for one class. One of the textbooks for that course predated World War II by a century and included an orthography for it. That orthography is still in use. Of course, during the war, the language was used over the radio, so that certainly wasn’t a written medium.

I don’t have a citation, but the Japanese did have a Navajo prisoner, and interrogated him … vigorously. He later revealed that even if he wanted to give some token info, he couldn’t, it was too complicated, and he told the code talkers so once he was released and he met them. You may be able to find his first hand account of the complexity within the code, in addition to the Navajo language.

Navajo is also an agglutinative language–words are regularly 20-30 letters long and often what takes an entire english sentence to say can be said in one word in Navajo.

Out of curiosity, has this ever been done?

The relates to a hypothetical scenario I once conceived: that you’re locked in solitary confinement for ten years, with only a radio tuned into a Chinese talk channel for company, and you didn’t know a word of Chinese prior to being locked up. Would you be able to work anything out? Would a trained theoretical linguist be able to work much of it out?

Joe Kieyoomia, according to Wikipedia.

Edit: Here’s a more first-hand account.


Going on Joe Kieyoomia’s account, I wonder if he didn’t inadvertently make it more difficult for the Japanese. Instead of deciding themselves from context that [word] meant “tank”, they now had a Navajo speaker telling them what it meant literally, muddling their chances of discovering its code meaning.

Trained linguists attempted to decipher hieroglyphics for centuries, with no luck until someone found the Rosetta Stone. Even then, it took years to translate the words.

Experts still haven’t translated Linear A.

I don’t see how Navaho was any different. Maybe, given years, it could have been worked out, but even then it would need someone to find a “Rosetta Stone” to use as a key.

If i understand it correctly, the language itself has no written form. You’re referring to an English translation of the oral language. If there is a Navajo written alphabet/language I stand corrected.

The beauty of using a language as a code is the ability to say the same thing in an infinite number of ways. That puts the decoder father behind the curve trying to discover the language before any decoding takes place. Add dialect, slang and a code on top of all of this and it’s a brilliant way of communicating secret information in real time.

English example: My dog has flees, ma do-oggs got fla-ees, Me doge haut wee critters.

There are many dialects of my own language I find hard to understand and that is if it spoken literally. Much of a language is further confused by adding local expressions or different meanings to the same word depending how it is used. Don’t even get me started on words that sound the same but have different meanings all together.

Yeah, kinda of like morse code today, just try and follow a conversation between to old ‘fists’. On top of the fact that most every word is an abbreviation or obscure pro-sign, they are also most likely transmitting ‘full-breakin’ – effectively both talking at the same time.

The Navaho code talkers were a small group ( originally just 29 recruits ) and were recruited and trained together. They knew each other well enough to do what all radio operators do, mostly just shoot the shit and trade barbs. If that didn’t fluster any attempts to make sense of what they were saying, nothing would.

Were the codetalkers used for anything but field communication? That is, were they used for communicating high-level tactical or strategic info? The value of field intelligence is transitory - it doesn’t help much to know where the enemy is planning to direct fire (for example) once the battle is over. For the Japanese to counteract the codetalkers during combat, they would have needed many Navaho experts in the field. This would have been hard given the difficulty of the language. I’m sure that if Navaho had been used for strategic communication, the Japanese would have put more effort into (and presumably had more success with) understanding the codetalkers.

I’m referring to an orthography for the language, an orthography that’s been in use for over 100 years. Here is the Omniglot page for it and here is the first part of the Gospel of John in Navajo.