[FOUNTAIN]Unsung war heroes

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[FOUNTAIN]Unsung war heroes

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recently announced that out of 6,528 languages in the world, about half are being repressed by other races or are being absorbed by more powerful languages. When the organization made its announcement it warned that the disappearance of a language means that one more tool is lost to help understand other peoples' thinking processes and their perceptions of the world.

Among the currently used languages, the oldest is spoken by elephant trainers in India. This language is very different from the countless languages that are spoken in India, and its roots go back to the cave period when mankind tried to breed elephants.

According to the UN organization, out of the several hundred American Indian languages that once flourished, only about 150 survive, and some just barely. The language spoken by Navajo Indians is the most famous, for it was used in World War II as a secret code.

During the war, the American military had been trying to come up with a code that could not be broken by the enemy. What caught the military's attention was that there was no alphabet for the Navajo language. In the late 1930s there were 50,000 Navajos but fewer than 30 other people who were able to speak the language. Fortunately, none of the others were from Germany or Japan. Moreover, before the war no German or Japanese linguists had studied this language.

In 1942, after being persuaded by the U.S. Army, 29 Navajos entered the service and developed a secret code consisting of 411 Navajo words. For instance, a battleship was a "whale," and ammunition was "all kinds of shellfish." These "code talkers" were deployed and assigned around the Pacific Theater. At the end of the war the number of Navajo code talkers had grown to 420, and their work baffled Japanese code breakers.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a wave of patriotism swept the United States, and recently the U.S. Congress awarded decorations to the Navajos who served during the war. Currently, there are 200,000 Navajos living on reservations in the United States, representing the greatest number of Indians on American soil.

The Navajos' history goes back thousands of years. As a people, they have weathered the ups and downs of life trying to survive.

It is sad to see that a language with a long tradition and history had to serve as a mere tool in a war won by an English-speaking power.

The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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