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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Many Ways to Sound Diné: Linguistic Variation in Navajo

  • Author(s): Palakurthy, Kayla
  • Advisor(s): Mithun, Marianne
  • et al.

Linguistic variation is a fundamental component of human language, and the study of how speakers and listeners ascribe subtle social meaning to linguistic variants has revealed important insights for linguistic theory. Variants also constitute the seeds of potential linguistic changes within a speech community, and patterns of the linguistic and social factors that condition contemporary variation inform what we know about the actuation and diffusion of linguistic changes. However, while sociolinguistic variation has been extensively studied in many monolingual communities speaking large global languages, it is less often studied at the same level of depth in minority languages in multilingual contexts, and relatively few studies have focused on variation and change in Native American languages.

Based on interviews with participants aged 18–75, this dissertation presents an investigation of variation in contemporary Diné bizaad (Navajo), a Southern Dene (Athabaskan) language spoken by over 100,000 speakers dispersed throughout a large area in the present-day American Southwest. Through an analysis of three variable features in the speech of the fifty-one bilingual Diné bizaad-English participants, this project quantitatively analyzes the linguistic and social factors that condition variation and evaluates evidence for incipient or ongoing changes in these features. Alongside the quantitative analysis, I present a qualitative description of language attitudes and usage among these bilingual speakers.

Chapters 1, 2, and 3 provide the theoretical, sociocultural, and methodological context for this study. Chapter 1 puts forth my approach to analyzing variation and change and describes how I draw on work from the fields of variationist sociolinguistics, language contact, and language documentation. Chapter 1 also includes sociohistorical background on the Diné language and people. Chapter 2 presents an overview of Diné grammar, and chapter 3 an overview of the documentation methods.

Chapter 4 examines the aspiration of /th/ and /kh/, famous for their exceptionally long and variably fricated releases. Phonetic analysis indicates that the releases of /kh/ have shortened, while releases of /th/ remain long. I argue that the changes in /kh/ are motivated by phonological similarity to English [kh], while the salience of the stronger affrication of /th/, represented in some earlier descriptions as /tx/, inhibits a similar conflation, and results in a different trajectory of change.

Chapter 5 presents an analysis of variation and change in the laterally-released affricates: unaspirated /t͡l ~ /kl/ and ejective /t͡ɬ’/ ~ /k͡ɬ’/. Results show evidence for two changes-in-progress, of which unaspirated /kl/ is a more recent innovation, propagated by younger speakers. In contrast, the ejective variant /k͡ɬ’/ is produced by speakers of all generations including some older speakers, even those who primarily speak Diné bizaad. These changes are motivated both by phonetic similarity and a high degree of bilingualism in the speech community.

Chapter 6 investigates variation and change in the usage of the multi-functional particle nít’ę́ę́’ in discourse. The particle functions primarily as a temporal discourse sequencer, often introducing sudden or new events, and as a marker of habitual past. Overall the functions and syntactic distribution of nít’ę́ę́’ found in these stories are very similar to those recorded in earlier texts, suggesting that the development of these functions is not a new phenomenon. I discuss how an analysis of polygrammaticalization can account for the synchronic functions.

Chapter 7 presents an analysis of prominent contemporary language usage, attitudes, and ideologies that emerge from discussions about linguistic variation and language practices. The results show a more advanced stage of language shift than was observed in earlier studies: Diné bizaad continues to be widely associated with Elders, family, ceremonial practices, and the Navajo Nation government, while speakers of all ages report using English as their primary communicative code. At the same time, Diné bizaad continues to be valued for its expressive and complex nature, its function as a link to Diné identity, and connection to family, especially grandparents. These results are in line with earlier studies foretelling ongoing shift, but the continuity of ideological value may prove useful in ongoing maintenance and revitalization efforts. Finally, chapter 8 summarizes the results and discusses implications for these findings.

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