Secrets of the Original Choctaw Code-Talkers
By Ales Bellos
via the Atlas Obscura web site
In autumn 1918, in the Allied trenches, a U.S. military captain walked past two Native American soldiers chatting in a language he didn’t understand. They were speaking Choctaw. With about 7,000 speakers, it is one of the 10 most-spoken Native American languages in the United States.
The unnamed captain had an idea: Why not use this language for sending secret military messages? The Germans had managed to tap the Allies’ phone lines and were deciphering their codes. The captain reasoned that the Germans may not be able to decipher a message if it was spoken in a language they had no knowledge of or access to.
Within hours, a group of eight Choctaw soldiers were dispatched to strategic positions. The Choctaw Telephone Squad began communicating in their mother tongue, and, say historians, their messages were instrumental in helping the Allies win key battles in the final weeks of World War I. The Choctaw were the first Native Americans to be used by the U.S. military as “code-talkers.” More famously, during World War II, the military repeated the idea, but with a group of Navajo.
Choctaw was a good choice, linguistically speaking, for a military code because the language is notoriously complicated and unlike other languages. Indeed, it ranked as one of the world’s most “unusual” languages in a 2013 survey of the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), a database of the linguistic properties of almost 3,000 languages kept by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. The survey ranked languages on how dissimilar they are to each other. Chalcatongo Mixtec, with about 6,000 speakers in Oaxaca, Mexico took the top spot, followed by Nenets, which has about 20,000 speakers in Siberia. Third was Choctaw.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Choctaw is the fact that it is a polysynthetic language, which means that its words are often extremely long, made up of many smaller parts, or affixes. “The language has some of the most complicated verbs you will see. It is very common to see verbs with two or three prefixes, and five or six suffixes,” says George Aaron Broadwell, chair of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Florida. “One of the challenges to understanding the grammar is to figure out these prefixes and suffixes.”
For example, Choctaw has no individual words for pronouns. If you want to say “I ran,” you include the affix for “I” in the word for “ran.” “You ran” would put a different affix in the same word, but that is just the beginning. The affix for “I” changes depending on whether or not the verb is one in which the subject has agency over the action, a feature that linguists call “volition.” For example, the verb “to run” uses a different affix for “I” than the verb “to be fat,” since you are in control of whether or not you are running at any given moment, but you can’t instantly stop being overweight. Making sense of the language means knowing what you do and don’t have control over, and having the wisdom to tell the difference.
Read the entire article on the Atlas Obscura web site.
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