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Linguist Ted Fernald Continues Decadeslong Support of Navajo Language Traditions

Ted Fernald

For decades, Swarthmore College Professor of Linguistics Ted Fernald has contributed to the forefront of efforts to document the Navajo language and support Diné language traditions. 

Since 1994, Fernald has taught linguistics and the Navajo language at Swarthmore. He is a founding partner of the Navajo Language Academy (NLA/Diné Bizaad Naalkaah), which documents and supports the Navajo language, and also serves as an advisor to the Navajo Technical University (NTU) doctoral program. Fernald’s extensive involvement in sustaining the traditions of the Navajo language is a testament to the value of academic curiosity paired with persistent work. 

Linguistics, and specifically the Navajo language, have fascinated Fernald since he was a child. Fernald first pursued learning Navajo after accompanying his father on a trip doing volunteer work on the Navajo reservation in Ganado, Ariz. He was about 12 years old at the time and learned a little Navajo from books and tapes, but the available resources were cursory. It wasn't until he entered graduate school in the 1990s that his immersion into the Diné language began.

One exceptional book in particular influenced the trajectory of Fernald’s life, fueling his lifelong captivation with Navajo syntax and semantics. The book, The Navajo Language: A Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary, by Robert W. Young and William Morgan, was first published in 1980 and is a resource for Navajo speakers, people learning to speak the language, and scholars interested in Navajo linguistics. The linguistic research of Paul Platero and Ellavina Perkins, along with their mentor, MIT professor Ken Hale, also greatly inspired Fernald; eventually he published works with all of them. With Hale, Fernald produced Diné Bizaad Naalkaah: Navajo Language Investigations, which was published by MIT Working Papers on Endangered and Less Familiar Languages. With Platero, he produced The Athabaskan Languages: Perspectives on a Native American Language Family. Fernald also wrote a series of articles with Perkins and Platero.

After graduation, Fernald joined the faculty at Swarthmore, where he began teaching Navajo linguistics. Early on, he nominated Paul Platero as a Visiting Lang Professor; Platero held the position in 1996. Together at Swarthmore, Fernald and Platero hosted a conference to discuss Navajo syntax, semantics, and theoretical linguistics alongside other Navajo linguists. That conference was the beginning of the fabric of the NLA.

In 1998, along with Hale, Platero, and several other Navajo colleagues, Fernald founded the Navajo Language Academy, an organization dedicated to research that benefits Navajo communities, including improving access to linguistics and improving collaborative work between people in and out of the community. This year, the National Endowment for Humanities and the National Science Foundation jointly awarded a grant of $442,752 to Fernald, which will support the NLA’s long-standing work of promoting the tradition of using the Navajo language in Navajo communities, and supporting Navajo speakers in getting more deeply involved in linguistics.

Each summer, you can find Fernald and his NLA associates teaching three-week long courses in the Navajo Nation, which spans portions of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. Over the decades, The NLA has been hosted in a few locations, including Diné College, and is currently located at Navajo Tech University (NTU) in Crownpoint, N.M. NLA students typically have a range of Navajo fluency, most of them are K-12 teachers or people interested in linguistics. Oftentimes, almost all students can read and write English but almost none can read and write Navajo. The students are paired up with other language pros or Navajo elders, and can improve their speaking skills throughout the course.

The NLA held programs every summer from 1997 until the years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in 2018, Fernald initiated a major project to produce a group of online language resources called Saad Dílzin: The Navajo Talking Dictionary and Grammar. Jeremy Fahringer ’06, Swarthmore Linguistics lab technologist, built the user interface for the project, which later allowed Navajo scholars to collaborate remotely during the pandemic.

Saad Dílzin is one of the NLA and Fernald's most remarkable achievements. It is a collaborative dictionary and digital grammar reference resource designed to promote the ongoing tradition that is the Navajo language. The talking dictionary is a free grammar guide, allowing users to listen to Navajo word pronunciations recorded by Diné individuals themselves.

Fernald serves as an advisor to the University’s doctorate program, which launched Fall 2023 and is the first-ever Ph.D. program at any tribal college or university in North America. The program is an academic milestone and a symbol of the commitment to celebrate, safeguard, and promote the rich culture and language of the Diné people in a Diné university, guided by their own principles and policies. As an advisor, Fernald provides a wealth of experience in linguistics, higher education, and the Navajo language. 

“The Navajo Nation has a unique tradition of language and cultural scholarship conducted by Diné people and by visitors from outside the Navajo Nation. The NTU program draws on this tradition of scholarship and on the wisdom of elders. It will be a place for a new generation of Navajo scholars to find their place in this tradition and to shape its future,” Fernald told Wafa Hozien, an NTU academic affairs administrator who facilitated the creation of the Ph.D. program, for the Tribal College Journal

There is a longstanding tradition of Navajo scholars engaging in research on their language. This tradition has benefited Navajo communities by developing techniques and materials for language pedagogy, and it has benefited the international community of linguists by broadening their perspectives on grammar and its analysis. Fernald is honored to play a role in this. His goal at NTU is to help new generations of Diné students find their place in this tradition. 

This fall, Fernald is teaching Indigenous Languages of the Americas at Swarthmore College and Topics in Navajo Linguistics at Navajo Technical University. In Spring 2024, he will teach Semantics and Structure of Navajo. Each time he teaches Structure of Navajo at Swarthmore he is joined by two colleagues from NLA or NTU.

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