This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Nuts and Bolts: code talkers.

Why, in the 1930s, did a crazy white man send experts to America to study the languages of the Native American Indians?

It was because one of these Native American languages, Choctaw, had helped win the First World War.

In the WW1 trenches, Choctaw was used as the basis of a communications code. It proved very secure because even if the  messages were intercepted almost no one in Europe understood the language behind it.

As it happened, there proved to be far too many Native American languages for the crazy white man's experts to learn properly, and so in WW2 Native American language speakers (known as code talkers) were used successfully again.

This time the language Comanche was used extensively, even though many of the necessary technical terms didn't exist in the language. So, the Comanche code word for bomber meant pregnant aeroplane, machine gun was sewing machine and Adolf Hitler became crazy white man.

Navaho speakers were used in the fighting in the Pacific, and other languages used for code-talking included Cherokee, Lakota and Meskwaki. Sixteen per cent of the Iowa's Meskwaki speakers enlisted in the US Army in January 1941 (that was twenty seven people): rather wonderfully, Meskwaki was extra valuable because it had so few speakers. 

As the war progressed, more new terms had to be invented. One of the last of the Navaho phrases to be coined was béésh łóóʼ, or iron fish, which meant...

...but you can guess that, can't you.

Thing To Do Today: some code-talking. It doesn't have to be in Native American. Basque has been used for code-talking, and so has Welsh. It doesn't even have to be in a foreign language: after all most jargon works on much the same principle.


  1. Iron fish is clever!
    The code talkers were unrecognised for many years as it was a classified program by the military.

    The movie, Windtalkers, is supposed to be based on two code talkers during World War II. But it's more about the star of the movie, Nicolas Cage.
    It could've been a great movie had it been otherwise.

    1. They called a film Windtalkers?
      Good grief.
      No wonder it turned out to be a lot of hot air.