In the fall of 1918, in the In the Allied trenches, a US Army captain walked past two Native American soldiers talking in a language he didn’t understand. They spoke Choctaw. With approximately 7,000 speakers, it is one of the 10 most widely spoken Native American languages ​​in the United States.

The anonymous captain had an idea: why not use this language to send secret military messages? The Germans had managed to tap the Allied telephone lines and were cracking their codes. The captain felt that the Germans might 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 was dispatched to strategic positions. The Choctaw Telephone Squad began communicating in their native language, and historians say their messages helped help the Allies win key battles during the final weeks of World War I. The Choctaw were the first Native Americans to be used by the United States military. as “code-talkers”. Most famously, during World War II the Army 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 among the world’s most “unusual” languages ​​in a 2013 survey of the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), a database of linguistic properties of nearly 3,000 languages ​​maintained by the Max Planck Institute for Human Sciences. History in Germany. The survey ranked the languages ​​according to their difference. 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. The third was Choctaw.

World War I Choctaw Telephone Squad, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, Company E (left to right): Solomon Lewis, Mitchell Bobb, James Edwards, Calvin Wilson, Joseph Davenport and Captain EH Horner.
World War I Choctaw Telephone Squad, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, Company E (left to right): Solomon Lewis, Mitchell Bobb, James Edwards, Calvin Wilson, Joseph Davenport and Captain EH Horner. Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Choctaw is 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’ll see. It’s very common to see verbs with two or three prefixes and five or six suffixes,” says George Aaron Broadwell, chair of the University of Florida’s linguistics department. “One of the challenges in understanding grammar is understanding those prefixes and suffixes.”

For example, Choctaw does not have individual words for pronouns. If you mean “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’s just the beginning. The affix for “I” changes depending on whether or not the verb is a verb in which the subject has power over the action, a feature linguists call “volition”. For example, the verb “to run” uses a different affix for “I” than the verb “to be fat”, since you control whether or not you run at any given time, but you cannot instantly stop. to be overweight. Making sense of language means knowing what you do and what you can’t control, and having the wisdom to tell the difference.

Originally from Mississippi, the Choctaw were expelled from their lands in the 1830s under the US government’s “Indian removal” policy. Most were forcibly relocated to lands that became Oklahoma, where an estimated 100,000 Choctaw now live, although fewer than 1,000 of this group speak the language, making it seriously endangered there.

Some Choctaw remained in Mississippi – today about 10,000, and the majority of them, about 6,000, speak the language. Despite this seemingly high number, the language is also endangered in Mississippi, says Broadwell, because very few under the age of 25 are among the speakers. However, he hopes language revitalization projects, such as summer camps and Choctaw lessons at school, bode well for the future. In 2020, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a grant to the Choctaw Tribal Language Program.

“The program aims to keep the Choctaw language modern because it is still a very much alive language,” says Jason Lewis, a Choctaw and one of the program’s leaders. “Over the past 10 years, [it] has language teachers certified to teach in Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Elementary Schools. Now, each of the six schools offers daily Choctaw classes integrated into the curriculum for early elementary school students. Hopefully in 10 years, the Mississippi Choctaw can report that all students are receiving 13 years of daily instruction, creating new texts, and spending more time talking with their families – in Choctaw.

Princess Choctaw Shemah Crosby poses near a COVID-19 memorial erected by the Mississippi Band.  Shemah lost her grandmother, Lena Denson, to the pandemic, and says she regrets not learning more about their traditions from her.
Princess Choctaw Shemah Crosby poses near a COVID-19 memorial erected by the Mississippi Band. Shemah lost her grandmother, Lena Denson, to the pandemic, and says she regrets not learning more about their traditions from her. ©Kathleen Flynn/Reuters

The program is also funding a team of outside linguists to help tribal language staff produce a print and online dictionary that will include audio and video interviews with native speakers.

Broadwell is also working with scholars from multiple institutions to understand thousands of pages of 19th-century legal documents, written in Choctaw when the tribe was setting up its own government and schools. “These thousands of pages of material can help Choctaws and non-Choctaws alike have a much deeper and historically complex understanding of this rich and beautiful language,” he says.

Our puzzle, which comes from the 2017 British Language Olympiad, is below.

Perplexed? Download the solution!