In autumn 1918, in the Allied trenches, a U.S. military captain walked past two Native American soldiers chatting in a language he didn’t understand. They were speaking Choctaw. With about 7,000 speakers, it is one of the 10 most-spoken Native American languages in the United States.
The unnamed captain had an idea: Why not use this language for sending secret military messages? The Germans had managed to tap the Allies’ phone lines and were deciphering their codes. The captain reasoned that the Germans may 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 were dispatched to strategic positions. The Choctaw Telephone Squad began communicating in their mother tongue, and, say historians, their messages were instrumental in helping the Allies win key battles in the final weeks of World War I. The Choctaw were the first Native Americans to be used by the U.S. military as “code-talkers.” More famously, during World War II, the military 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 as one of the world’s most “unusual” languages in a 2013 survey of the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), a database of the linguistic properties of almost 3,000 languages kept by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. The survey ranked languages on how dissimilar they are to each other. 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. Third was Choctaw.
Read more: Atlas Obscura