Today, we’re going to take some time to explain the Navajo alphabet, as well as the various marks you see on Navajo WOTD. The Navajo language uses short vowels, long vowels, dipthongs, extended clusters of vowels, consonants, high tones, nasal tones and glottal marks (glottal stops).
Here are the ‘letters’ of the Navajo alphabet.
Notice the absence of the following letters: c, f, p, q, r, u, and v.
The vowels (A, E, I, and O) can all carry either a high tone mark or a nasal tone mark, or both. The purpose of a high tone mark is to denote an increase in the pitch of the voice. Nasal tone marks indicate a vocalization of the vowel through both the mouth and the nasal passage. Glottal marks indicate a moment when vocalization (air) must be stopped abruptly using the glottis.
Additionally, vowels may be long, in which case they appear as double vowels. Long vowels have a longer duration when spoken. (Note that the long vowel ‘II’ is pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘be’).
Long vowels may also be high toned.
Rising vowels are either long vowels or combinations of vowels that rise in tone.
Falling vowels are long vowels that fall from high to low tone.
Dipthongs are long vowels that combine different short vowels.
Glottal marks (also known as Glottal stops – the ’ character) appear anywhere an abrupt stop is required. These stops are characterized as originating at the glottis, so the tongue plays little to no role in stopping air. To demonstrate, try saying the vowels “A, E, I, O” quickly in English and notice how your throat transitions between each vowel. These marks can appear after vowels and consonants both, so stopping the vocalization of the words needs to happen without the tongue getting too heavily involved.
Nasal tones (ą) are harder to execute. Do not confuse these with a drop in tone. To get a sense for the difference, pronounce the word “Bob” and then the word “bomb.” Notice the difference in the quality of the “o” sounds between the two words. The latter is more nasalized. All Navajo nasalized vowels carry this quality.
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