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Cherokee language

Tsalagi Gawonihisdi
Bilingual post office sign written in English and the Cherokee syllabary in Tahlequah, Oklahoma
Pronunciation [dʒalaˈɡî ɡawónihisˈdî]
(Oklahoma dialect)
Native to United States
Region East and northeast Oklahoma; Great Smokey Mountains, Snowbird community,[1] and Qualla Boundary in North Carolina[2] Also in Arkansas.[3]
Ethnicity 140,000 Cherokee people (2007)[4] including 122,000 members of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, 10,000 in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, and 7,500 in the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
Native speakers
10,400  (2010 census)[4]
22,500; 17% of Cherokee citizens are proficient [5] with 60% of the UKB fluent,[6][7] 14,000 on Oklahoma rolls (1986 D. Feeling) [8]
Cherokee syllabary, Latin script
Official status
Official language in
 Cherokee Nation[5][9][7][6] [10]
Regulated by United Keetoowah Band Department of Language, History, & Culture[7][6]
Council of the Cherokee Nation[9]
Language codes
ISO 639-2 chr
ISO 639-3 chr
Pre-contact Distribution of the Cherokee Language
Current Distribution [11][12] [13]

Cherokee (Cherokee: ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ Tsalagi Gawonihisdi) is the Iroquoian language[11] spoken by the Cherokee people. It is the only Southern Iroquoian language and is significantly different than the other Iroquoian languages.[14] Cherokee is a polysynthetic language[15] and uses a unique syllabary writing system.[16]

Today, Cherokee is one of America's healthiest indigenous languages because extensive documentation of the language exists; it is the Native American language in which the most literature has been published.[17] Such publications include a Cherokee dictionary and grammar as well as translated portions of the New Testament of the Bible from 1850–1951,[11] and the Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ, Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi), the first newspaper published by Native Americans in the United States and the first published in a Native American language.[18][19] Significant numbers of Cherokee speakers of all ages[20] still populate the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina and several counties within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, significantly Cherokee, Sequoyah, Mayes, Adair, and Delaware. Increasing numbers of Cherokee youth are renewing interest in the traditions, history, and language of their ancestors.[20]

The Cherokee language currently retains between 10,400 [11] and 22,500 speakers,[20] being spoken by roughly 10,000 of the 122,000 member Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, by 1,000 of the 10,000 Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, and by a high percentage of the 7,500 members of the United Keetoowah Band of Oklahoma and Arkansas.[11] Cherokee speakers make up 17% of the total population of Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.[21] The language has remained vigorous in some Oklahoma communities[8] and elsewhere, communities like Big Cove and Snowbird of the Eastern Band in North Carolina still predominantly speak Cherokee.[22] Cherokee is one of only five Oklahoma Indian languages still spoken and acquired by children.[23] Reportedly, Cherokee is one of few Native American languages with an increasing population of speakers.[24] In 1986, the literacy rate for first language speakers was 15%–20% who could read and 5% who could write, according to the 1986 Cherokee Heritage Center.[11]

Cherokee is purportedly among the more difficult languages for native English speakers to acquire.[5] This is in part due to the polysynthetic nature of the language, [5] meaning that words consist of many parts. [5] Words are constructed to convey an assertion, its context, and a host of connotations about the speaker, the action, and the object of the action. The complexity of the Cherokee language is best exhibited in verbs, which comprise approximately 75% of the language, as opposed to only 25% of the English language. [5] Verbs must contain at minimum a pronominal prefix, a verb root, an aspect suffix, and a modal suffix.[25]


  • History 1
    • Origin of the name 1.1
    • Pre-Contact history 1.2
    • 17th century: English contact 1.3
    • 18th century 1.4
    • 19th century 1.5
      • Literacy 1.5.1
        • Cherokee Phoenix
        • Cherokee Bible
      • Removal 1.5.2
    • 20th century 1.6
    • 21st century 1.7
  • Dialects 2
    • Language drift 2.1
  • Status 3
  • Classification 4
  • Phonology 5
    • Consonants 5.1
    • Vowels 5.2
      • Diphthongs 5.2.1
    • Tone 5.3
      • Tone inventory 5.3.1
      • Tone environments 5.3.2
      • Highfall 5.3.3
  • Grammar 6
    • Pronouns and pronominal prefixes 6.1
    • Shape classifiers in verbs 6.2
    • Word order 6.3
  • Orthography 7
    • Description 7.1
    • Transliteration issues 7.2
  • Vocabulary 8
    • Word creation 8.1
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Bibliography 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13
    • Language archives, texts, audio, video 13.1
    • Language lessons and online instruction 13.2


Origin of the name

The Cherokee call their language Tsalagi (ᏣᎳᎩ) or Tslagi. They refer to themselves as Aniyunwiya (ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯ), which means "Principal People". The Iroquois based in New York have historically called the Cherokee Oyata’ge'ronoñ, which means "inhabitants of the cave country".

Many theories – though none proven – abound about the South Carolina, the Cherokee called their language jaragi, as the Eastern or lower dialect had a rolling “r” sound in place of the “l” sound used in the other dialects.[5] This pronunciation may have served as a basis for the current English language name for the people.[5]

The North American origins and eventual English language form of "Cherokee" were researched by James Mooney in the nineteenth century. In his Myths of the Cherokee (1888) he writes:

It first appears as Chalaque in the Portuguese narrative of De Soto's expedition, published originally in 1557, while we find Cheraqui in a French document of 1699, and "Cherokee" as an English form as early, at least, as 1708. The name has thus an authentic [sic] history of 360 years.
— James Mooney, "Myths of the Cherokee"[29]

Pre-Contact history

There are two prevailing views about Cherokee origins, and most of what is known about Cherokee history can be studies through their traditional language. One theory is that the Cherokee, an Iroquoian-speaking people, are relative latecomers to Southern Appalachia, who may have migrated in late prehistoric times from northern areas, the traditional territory of the later Haudenosaunee five nations and other Iroquoian-speaking peoples. Researchers in the 19th century recorded conversations with elders who recounted an oral tradition of the Cherokee people's migrating south from the Great Lakes region in ancient times. The other theory, which is disputed by academic specialists, is that the Cherokee had been in the Southeast for thousands of years. Pre-contact Cherokee are considered to be part of the later Pisgah Phase of Southern Appalachia, which lasted from circa 1000 to 1500.[30]

In 1540, The Cherokee lay claim to 40,000 square miles in the southeastern part of what later became the United States. This area included parts of what is now the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Reconstruction of a typical Tuskegee Village dwelling at Fort Loudoun State Park, near Vonore, Tennessee. The original site of Tuskegee is now under the lake in the background.

Much of what is known about pre-19th century Cherokee culture and society comes from the papers of American writer Ani-kutani( "Aní-" is a prefix referring to a group of individuals, while the meaning of "kutáni" is unknown).[31][32]

Blowgun demonstration in Oconaluftee Indian Village, Cherokee, North Carolina. Cherokee language and culture have been kept alive as one. Today, Churches within Cherokee tribal jurisdiction areas give services in the language, and on ceremonial "stomp" grounds, ceremonial leaders are required to perform all duties in the language and all information and records are kept in the syllabary.[5]

Ethnographer James Mooney, who studied the Cherokee in the late 1880s, first traced the decline of the former hierarchy to this revolt.[33] By the time of Mooney, the structure of Cherokee religious practitioners was more informal, based more on individual knowledge and ability than upon heredity.[32]

Another major source of early cultural history comes from materials written in the 19th century by the didanvwisgi (Cherokee:ᏗᏓᏅᏫᏍᎩ), Cherokee medicine men, after Sequoyah's creation of the Cherokee syllabary in the 1820s. Initially only the didanvwisgi used these materials, which were considered extremely powerful.[32] Later, the writings were widely adopted by the Cherokee people.

Unlike most other Indians in the American southeast at the start of the historic era, the Cherokee spoke an Iroquoian language. Since the Great Lakes region was the core of Iroquoian language speakers, scholars have theorized that the Cherokee migrated south from that region. However, some argue that the Iroquois migrated north from the southeast, with the Tuscarora breaking off from that group during the migration. Linguistic analysis shows a relatively large difference between Cherokee and the northern Iroquoian languages, suggesting a split in the distant past.[34] Glottochronology studies suggest the split occurred between about 1,500 and 1,800 B.C.[35] The ancient settlement of Kituwa on the Tuckasegee River, formerly next to and now part of Qualla Boundary (the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), is often cited as the original Cherokee settlement in the Southeast.[34]

17th century: English contact

In 1657, there was a disturbance in Virginia Colony as the Rechahecrians or Rickahockans, as well as the Siouan Manahoac and Nahyssan, broke through the frontier and settled near the Falls of the James, near present-day Richmond, Virginia. The following year, a combined force of English and Pamunkey drove the newcomers away. The identity of the Rechahecrians has been much debated. Historians noted the name closely resembled that recorded for the Eriechronon or Erielhonan, commonly known as the Erie tribe. The Iroquoian people had been driven away from the southern shore of Lake Erie by the powerful Iroquois Five Nations in 1654. The anthropologist Martin Smith theorized some remnants of the tribe migrated to Virginia after the wars (1986:131–32). Few historians suggest this tribe was Cherokee.[36]

Virginian traders developed a small-scale trading system with the Cherokee before the end of the 17th century; the earliest recorded Virginia trader to live among the Cherokee was Cornelius Dougherty or Dority, in 1690.[37][38] The Cherokee sold the traders Indian slaves for use as laborers in Virginia and further north.[39]

18th century

Over the course of the 18th century, the number of Cherokee speakers was devastated. In the 1730s the population halved due to commercial trade with England that resulted in the spread of diseases such as smallpox to which the indigenous peoples had no immunity.[5] In the 1780s the Cherokee people faced genocidal wars with British settlers,[5] significantly the Anglo-Cherokee War, and conflicts with other tribes including the Muscogee.

19th century


Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary

Before the development of the Cherokee syllabary in the 1820s, Cherokee was a spoken language only. The Cherokee syllabary is a syllabary invented by Sequoyah to write the Cherokee language in the late 1810s and early 1820s. His creation of the syllabary is particularly noteworthy in that he could not previously read any script. He first experimented with logograms, but his system later developed into a syllabary. In his system, each symbol represents a syllable rather than a single phoneme; the 85 (originally 86)[40] characters in the Cherokee syllabary provide a suitable method to write Cherokee. Some symbols do resemble the Latin, Greek and even the Cyrillic scripts' letters, but the sounds are completely different (for example, the sound /a/ is written with a letter that resembles Latin D).

Around 1809, Sequoyah began work to create a system of writing for the Cherokee language.[41] At first he sought to create a character for each word in the language. He spent a year on this effort, leaving his fields unplanted, so that his friends and neighbors thought he had lost his mind.[42][43] His wife is said to have burned his initial work, believing it to be witchcraft.[41] He finally realized that this approach was impractical because it would require too many pictures to be remembered. He then tried making a symbol for every idea, but this also caused too many problems to be practical.[44]

Sequoyah did not succeed until he gave up trying to represent entire words and developed a symbol for each syllable in the language. After approximately a month, he had a system of 86 characters, some of which were Latin letters he obtained from a spelling book.[42] "In their present form, many of the syllabary characters resemble Roman, Cyrillic or Greek letters or Arabic numerals," says Janine Scancarelli, a scholar of Cherokee writing, "but there is no apparent relationship between their sounds in other languages and in Cherokee."[41]

Unable to find adults willing to learn the syllabary, he taught it to his daughter, Ayokeh (also spelled Ayoka).[41] Langguth says she was only six years old at the time.[45] He traveled to the Indian Reserves in the Arkansaw Territory where some Cherokee had settled. When he tried to convince the local leaders of the syllabary's usefulness, they doubted him, believing that the symbols were merely ad hoc reminders. Sequoyah asked each to say a word, which he wrote down, and then called his daughter in to read the words back. This demonstration convinced the leaders to let him teach the syllabary to a few more people. This took several months, during which it was rumored that he might be using the students for sorcery. After completing the lessons, Sequoyah wrote a dictated letter to each student, and read a dictated response. This test convinced the western Cherokee that he had created a practical writing system.[43]

Sequoyah's syllabary in the order that he originally arranged the characters.

When Sequoyah returned east, he brought a sealed envelope containing a written speech from one of the Arkansas Cherokee leaders. By reading this speech, he convinced the eastern Cherokee also to learn the system, after which it spread rapidly.[42][43] In 1825 the Cherokee Nation officially adopted the writing system. From 1828 to 1834, American missionaries assisted the Cherokee in using Sequoyah's syllabary to develop type characters and print the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper of the Cherokee Nation, with text in both Cherokee and English.[46]

In 1826, the Cherokee National Council commissioned George Lowrey and David Brown to translate and print eight copies of the laws of the Cherokee Nation in the new Cherokee language using Sequoyah's system.[44]

Once Albert Gallatin saw a copy of Sequoyah's syllabary, he found the syllabary superior to the English alphabet. Even though the Cherokee student must learn 85 characters instead of 26, he can read immediately. The student could accomplish in a few weeks what students of English writing could learn in two years.[45]

In 1824, the General Council of the Eastern Cherokee awarded Sequoyah a large silver medal in honor of the syllabary. According to Davis, one side of the medal bore his image surrounded by the inscription in English, "Presented to George Gist by the General Council of the Cherokee for his ingenuity in the invention of the Cherokee Alphabet." The reverse side showed two long-stemmed pipes and the same inscription written in Cherokee. Supposedly, Sequoyah wore the medal throughout the rest of his life and it was buried with him.[44]

By 1825, the Bible and numerous religious hymns and pamphlets, educational materials, legal documents and books were translated into the Cherokee language. Thousands of Cherokee became literate and the literacy rate for Cherokee in the syllabary was higher than that of whites in the English alphabet.

Though use of the Cherokee syllabary declined after many of the Cherokee were relocated to Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, it has survived in private correspondence, renderings of the Bible, and descriptions of Indian medicine[47] and now can be found in books and on the internet among other places.

Cherokee Phoenix
Cherokee Phoenix Newspaper front page on May 21, 1828 (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ)

In 1827, the Cherokee National Council appropriated funds to print a newspaper.

The Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ, Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi) was the first newspaper published by Native Americans in the United States and the first published in a Native American language.[49][50] The first issue was published in English and Cherokee on February 21, 1828, in New Echota, capital of the Cherokee Nation (present-day Georgia). The paper continued until 1834. The Cherokee Phoenix was revived in the 20th century, and today it publishes on the Web.

The Cherokee Phoenix has published intermittently since its beginning in New Echota. It is now published by the Cherokee Nation as a monthly broadsheet in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The newspaper has modernized. It publishes on the Web and is available on the iPhone.[51]

A digitized, searchable version of the paper is available through the

  • Cherokee Language Online (Beginning dialogues, audio, flashcards and grammar from
  • Online Cherokee language classes, from Western Carolina University
  • Cherokee Language Program at Western Carolina University on Facebook, additional materials
  • (Hosts Creative Commons licensed materials including a textbook covering grammar and many hours of challenge/response based audio lesson files).
  • Cherokee language YouTube videos for beginners, by tsasuyeda
  • Cherokee speakers, Cherokee Nation

Language lessons and online instruction

  • Cherokee Traditions digital archive, from Western Carolina University
  • Cherokee New Testament Online Online translation of the New Testament. Currently the largest Cherokee document on the internet.
  • "Native American Audio Collections: Cherokee".  
  • Cherokee Language Texts, from the Boston Athenæum: Schoolcraft Collection of Books in Native American Languages. Digital Collection.

Language archives, texts, audio, video

  • Cherokee-English Dictionary Online Database
  • Cherokee Nation Dikaneisdi (Word List)
  • Cherokee numerals
  • Cherokee – Sequoyah transliteration system – online conversion tool
  • Unicode Chart
  • Cherokee Nation ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ ᏖᎩᎾᎶᏥ ᎤᎾᏙᏢᏅᎢ (Tsalagi Gawonihisdi teginalotsi unadotlvnvi / Cherokee Language Technology

External links

  • Bruchac, Joseph. Aniyunwiya/Real Human Beings: An Anthology of Contemporary Cherokee Prose. Greenfield Center, N.Y.: Greenfield Review Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-912678-92-4
  • Cook, William Hinton (1979). A Grammar of North Carolina Cherokee. Ph.D. diss., Yale University. OCLC 7562394.
  • King, Duane H. (1975). A Grammar and Dictionary of the Cherokee Language. Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia. OCLC 6203735.
  • Lounsbury, Floyd G. (1978). "Iroquoian Languages". in Bruce G. Trigger (ed.). Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15: Northeast. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 334–343. OCLC 12682465.
  • Montgomery-Anderson, Brad (May 30, 2008). "A Reference Grammar of Oklahoma Cherokee". 
  • Munro, Pamela (ed.) (1996). Cherokee Papers from UCLA. UCLA Occasional Papers in Linguistics, no. 16. OCLC 36854333.
  • Pulte, William, and Durbin Feeling. 2001. "Cherokee". In: Garry, Jane, and Carl Rubino (eds.) Facts About the World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages: Past and Present. New York: H. W. Wilson. (Viewed at the Rosetta Project)
  • Scancarelli, Janine (1987). Grammatical Relations and Verb Agreement in Cherokee. Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles. OCLC 40812890.
  • Scancarelli, Janine. "Cherokee Writing." The World's Writing Systems. 1998: Section 53.

Further reading

  • Feeling, Durbin. Cherokee-English Dictionary: Tsalagi-Yonega Didehlogwasdohdi. Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Cherokee Nation, 1975.
  • Feeling, Durbin, Craig Kopris, Jordan Lachler, and Charles van Tuyl. A Handbook of the Cherokee Verb: A Preliminary Study. Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Cherokee Heritage Center, 2003. ISBN 978-0-9742818-0-3.
  • Holmes, Ruth Bradley, and Betty Sharp Smith. Beginning Cherokee: Talisgo Galiquogi Dideliquasdodi Tsalagi Digohweli. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.
  • Montgomery-Anderson, Brad (May 30, 2008). "A Reference Grammar of Oklahoma Cherokee". 
  • Robinson, Prentice. Conjugation Made Easy: Cherokee Verb Study. Tulsa, Oklahoma: Cherokee Language and Culture, 2004. ISBN 978-1-882182-34-3.
  • Scancarelli, Janine (2005). "Cherokee". in Janine Scancarelli and Heather K. Hardy (eds.). Native Languages of the Southeastern United States. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press in cooperation with the American Indian Studies Research Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington. pp. 351–384. OCLC 56834622.


  1. ^ There was a difference between the old-form DO (Λ-like) and a new-form DO (V-like). The standard Digohweli font displays the new-form. Old Do Digohweli and Code2000 fonts both display the old-form[127]
  2. ^ This has been confirmed using the online transliteration service.
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  78. ^ . Retrieved March 27, 2011.
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  82. ^ "I Will Find You" on YouTube
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  84. ^ Feather River Singers. CD Baby. Retrieved March 12, 2009.
  85. ^ Hauk, Alexis. "Radio Free Cherokee: Endangered Languages Take to the Airwaves". The Atlantic. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  86. ^ "Cherokee Nation Radio Show". Cherokee Nation. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  87. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions: Do Cherokee people still practice their traditional culture?". The Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Retrieved June 1, 2014. 
  88. ^ Scancarelli, "Native Languages" p. 351
  89. ^ Anderton, Alice, PhD. Status of Indian Languages in Oklahoma. Intertribal Wordpath Society. 2009. Retrieved March 12, 2009.
  90. ^ "Iroquoian Languages". Retrieved May 22, 2014. 
  91. ^ a b "Current Status of the Cherokee Language - DRAFT". August 13, 2002. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  92. ^  
  93. ^ "Health Centers & Hospitals". Cherokee Nation. Retrieved June 5, 2014. 
  94. ^ "Language". Cherokee Nation. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  95. ^ "Welcome to the Cherokee Learning Center". Cherokee Nation. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  96. ^ "Voting Accessibility". United States Election Assistance Commission. Retrieved June 4, 2014. 
  97. ^ Pulte, William; Feeling, Durbin. Facts About The World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages, Past and Present. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. Cherokee: New York: H. W. Wilson, 2001. p. 127-130. 
  98. ^ Walker, Willard. Studies in Southeastern Indian Languages. Edited by James M. Crawford. Cherokee: Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975. p. 189-196. 
  99. ^ a b c "Cherokee Language Revitalization". Cherokee Preservation Foundation. 2014. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  100. ^ "Native Now : Language: Cherokee". We Shall Remain - American Experience - PBS. 2008. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  101. ^ a b c d e f g h Kituwah Preservation & Education Program Powerpoint, by Renissa Walker (2012)'. 2012. Print.
  102. ^ [2]." Part II Code of Ordinances, Chapter 16C. Retrieved on April 10, 2013.
  103. ^ "Kituwah Preservation & Education". Eastern Band of Cherokee. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  104. ^ a b c d Walker, Renissa. Personal Interview. April 9, 2013.
  105. ^ Chavez, Will (April 5, 2012). "Immersion students win trophies at language fair". Retrieved April 8, 2013. 
  106. ^ "MS BASKETBALL: Braves use Cherokee language to win SMC championship". Cherokee One Feather. Retrieved June 5, 2014. 
  107. ^ a b c d e f g h "Cherokee Immersion School Strives to Save Tribal Language". Youth on Race. Retrieved June 5, 2014. 
  108. ^ "Tribes draw knowledge from monolingual speakers". April 8, 2014. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  109. ^ "Oklahoma Schools Push to Keep Native Languages Alive". Indian Country: Today Media December 6, 2012. Retrieved June 7, 2014. 
  110. ^ a b Mckie B.P., Scott (July 19, 2013). "State Bill: Cherokee language recognized by UNC system". Cherokee One Feather. Retrieved June 7, 2014. 
  111. ^ a b "Cherokee Language Revitalization Project". Western Carolina University. 2014. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  112. ^ Feeling, "Dictionary," p. ix
  113. ^ a b Montgomery-Anderson, 2008, p. 49
  114. ^ Montgomery-Anderson, 2008, p. 50
  115. ^ Montgomery-Anderson, 2008, p. 51
  116. ^ Montgomery-Anderson, 2008, p. 52
  117. ^ Montgomery-Anderson, 2008, p. 54
  118. ^ Feeling et al., "Verb" p. 16
  119. ^ a b Robinson, "Conjugation" p. 60
  120. ^ Feeling, "Dictionary" xiii
  121. ^ Holmes, Ruth (1977) [1976]. "Cherokee Lesson 23". Beginning Cherokee. University of Oklahoma Press:Norman. p. 209.  
  122. ^ a b Feeling, "Dictionary" p. 353
  123. ^ Feeling, "Dictionary" p. 354
  124. ^ Feeling, "Dictionary" xvii
  125. ^ Feeling et al., "Verb" pp. 1–2
  126. ^ a b Walker & Sarbaugh 1993.
  127. ^ "Cherokee", Font download .
  128. ^ Scancarelli 2005.
  129. ^ Holmes and Smith, p. vi
  130. ^ a b Holmes and Smith, p. vii
  131. ^ Holmes and Smith, p. 43


See also

Meaning expansion can be illustrated by the words for "warm" and "cold". They also mean "south" and "north" by an obvious extension. Around the time of the American Civil War, they were further extended to US party labels, Democratic and Republican, respectively.[131]

Other examples of adopted words are ᎧᏫ (kawi) for "coffee" and ᏩᏥ (watsi) for "watch" (which led to ᎤᏔᎾ ᏩᏥ (utana watsi) or "big watch" for clock).[130]

Other words have been adopted from another language such as the English word gasoline, which in Cherokee is ᎦᏐᎵᏁ (gasoline). Other words were adopted from the languages of tribes who settled in Oklahoma in the early 1900s. One interesting and humorous example is the name of Nowata, Oklahoma. The word nowata is a Delaware word for "welcome" (more precisely the Delaware word is nuwita which can mean "welcome" or "friend" in the Delaware language). The white settlers of the area used the name "nowata" for the township, and local Cherokee, being unaware that the word had its origins in the Delaware language, called the town ᎠᎹᏗᎧᏂᎬᎾᎬᎾ (Amadikanigvnagvna) which means "the water is all gone gone from here" – i.e. "no water."[130]

The polysynthetic nature of the Cherokee language enables the language to develop new descriptive words in Cherokee to reflect or express new concepts. Some good examples are ᏗᏘᏲᎯᎯ (ditiyohihi) which means "he argues repeatedly and on purpose with a purpose." This is the Cherokee word for "attorney." Another example is ᏗᏓᏂᏱᏍᎩ (didaniyisgi) which means "the final catcher" or "he catches them finally and conclusively." This is the Cherokee word for "policeman."[129]

Word creation


Without special provision, a round trip conversion changes ᎠᏍᎡᏃ to ᎠᏎᏃ and changes ᎨᏍᎥᎢ to ᎨᏒᎢ.[2]

  • ᎠᏍᎡᏃ and ᎠᏎᏃ both transliterate to aseno
  • ᎨᏍᎥᎢ and ᎨᏒᎢ both transliterate to gesvi

A further problem encountered in transliterating Cherokee is that there are some pairs of different Cherokee words that transliterate to the same word in the Latin script. Here are some examples:

If the Latin script is parsed from left to right, longest match first, then without special provisions, the back conversion would be wrong for the latter. There are several similar examples involving these character combinations: naha nahe nahi naho nahu nahv.

  • ᏀᎾ transliterates as nahna, yet so does ᎾᎿ. The former is nah-na, the latter is na-hna.

Other Cherokee words contain character pairs that entail overlapping transliteration sequences. Examples:

For these examples, the back conversion is likely to join s-a as sa or s-i as si. Transliterations sometimes insert an apostrophe to prevent this, producing itsalis'anedi (cf. Man'yoshu).

  • ᎢᏣᎵᏍᎠᏁᏗ = itsalisanedi = i-tsa-li-s-a-ne-di
  • ᎤᎵᎩᏳᏍᎠᏅᏁ = uligiyusanvne = u-li-gi-yu-s-a-nv-ne
  • ᎤᏂᏰᏍᎢᏱ = uniyesiyi = u-ni-ye-s-i-yi
  • ᎾᏍᎢᏯ = nasiya = na-s-i-ya

Some Cherokee words pose a problem for transliteration software because they contain adjacent pairs of single letter symbols that (without special provisions) would be combined when doing the back conversion from Latin script to Cherokee. Here are a few examples:

Transliteration issues

The phonetic values of these characters do not equate directly to those represented by the letters of the Latin script. Some characters represent two distinct phonetic values (actually heard as different syllables), while others often represent different forms of the same syllable.[126] Not all phonemic distinctions of the spoken language are represented. For example, while /d/ + vowel syllables are mostly differentiated from /t/+vowel by use of different graphs, syllables beginning with /g/ are all conflated with those beginning with /k/. Also, long vowels are not ordinarily distinguished from short vowels, tones are not marked, and there is no regular rule for representing consonant clusters. However, in more recent technical literature, length of vowels can actually be indicated using a colon. Six distinctive vowel qualities are represented in the Cherokee syllabary based on where they are pronounced in the mouth, including the high vowels i and u, mid vowels e, v, and o, and low vowel a. The syllabary also does not distinguish among syllables that end in vowels, h, or glottal stop. For example, the single symbol, Ꮡ, is used to represent su in su:dali, meaning six (ᏑᏓᎵ). This same symbol Ꮡ represents suh as in suhdi, meaning 'fishhook' (ᏑᏗ). Therefore, there is no differentiation among the symbols used for syllables ending in a single vowel versus that vowel plus "h." When consonants other than s, h, or glottal stop arise with other consonants in clusters, the appropriate consonant plus a "dummy vowel" is used. This dummy vowel is not pronounced and is either chosen arbitrarily or for etymological reasons (reflecting an underlying etymological vowel). For example, ᏧᎾᏍᏗ (tsu-na-s-di) represents the word ju:nsdi, meaning 'small.' Ns in this case is the consonant cluster that requires the following dummy vowel, a. Ns is written as ᎾᏍ /nas/. The vowel is included in the transliteration, but is not pronounced in the word (ju:nsdi). (The transliterated ts represents the affricate j).[128] As with some other writing systems (like Arabic), adult speakers can distinguish words by context.

a   e   i   o u v
ga ka   ge   gi   go gu gv
ha   he   hi   ho hu hv
la   le   li   lo lu lv
ma   me   mi   mo mu  
na hna nah ne   ni   no nu nv
qua   que   qui   quo quu quv
s sa   se   si   so su sv
da ta   de te di ti do du dv
dla tla   tle   tli   tlo tlu tlv
tsa   tse   tsi   tso tsu tsv
wa   we   wi   wo wu wv
ya   ye   yi   yo yu yv
  1. In the chart, ‘v’ represents a nasal vowel, /ə̃/.
  2. The character Ꮩ do is shown upside-down in the chart, and in some fonts. It should be oriented in the same way as the Latin letter V.[1]


The charts below show the syllabary as arranged by Samuel Worcester along with his commonly used transliterations. He played a key role in the development of Cherokee printing from 1828 until his death in 1859.

Each of the characters represents one syllable, such as in the Japanese kana and the Bronze Age Greek Linear B writing systems. The first six characters represent isolated vowel syllables. Characters for combined consonant and vowel syllables then follow. It is recited from left to right, top to bottom.[126]


Two other scripts used to write Cherokee are a simple Latin transliteration and a more precise system with diacritical marks.[125]

Cherokee is written in an 85-character Latin letters they derive from, but have completely different sound values; Sequoyah had seen English, Hebrew, and Greek writing but did not know how to read them.[124]

Cherokee syllabary in use today, Cherokee Heritage Center (Tahlequah, Oklahoma).


A Cherokee sentence may not have a verb as when two noun phrases form a sentence. In such a case, word order is flexible. For example, Ꮎ ᎠᏍᎦᏯ ᎠᎩᏙᏓ na asgaya agidoda ("that man is my father"). A noun phrase might be followed by an adjective, such as in ᎠᎩᏙᏓ ᎤᏔᎾ agidoga utana ("my father is big").[123]

Simple declarative sentences usually have a subject-object-verb word order.[121] Negative sentences have a different word order. Adjectives come before nouns, as in English. Demonstratives, such as ᎾᏍᎩ nasgi ("that") or ᎯᎠ hia ("this"), come at the beginning of noun phrases. Relative clauses follow noun phrases.[122] Adverbs precede the verbs that they are modifying. For example, "she's speaking loudly" is ᎠᏍᏓᏯ ᎦᏬᏂᎭ asdaya gawoniha (literally, "loud she's-speaking").[122]

Word order

There have been reports that the youngest speakers of Cherokee are using only the Indefinite forms, suggesting a decline in the system of shape classification.

Conjugation of "Hand him..."
Classifier Type Cherokee Translation
Live ᎯᎧᏏ hikasi Hand him (something living)
Flexible ᎯᏅᏏ hinvsi Hand him (something like clothes, rope)
Long, Indefinite ᎯᏗᏏ hidisi Hand him (something like a broom, pencil)
Indefinite ᎯᎥᏏ hivsi Hand him (something like food, book)
Liquid ᎯᏁᎥᏏ hinevsi Hand him (something like water)

1. Live
2. Flexible (most common)
3. Long (narrow, not flexible)
4. Indefinite (solid, heavy relative to size)
5. Liquid (or container of)

Some Cherokee verbs require special classifiers which denote a physical property of the direct object. Only around 20 common verbs require one of these classifiers (such as the equivalents of "pick up", "put down", "remove", "wash", "hide", "eat", "drag", "have", "hold", "put in water", "put in fire", "hang up", "be placed", "pull along"). The classifiers can be grouped into five categories:

Shape classifiers in verbs

Table of Cherokee first person pronominal prefixes
Number Set I Set II
Singular ji-, g- agi-, agw-
Dual inclusive ini-, in- gini-, gin-
Dual exclusive osdi-, osd- ogini-, ogin-
Plural inclusive idi-, id- igi-, ig-
Plural exclusive oji-, oj- ogi-, og-

Like many Native American languages, Cherokee has many pronominal prefixes. But there are two separate words which function as pronouns: aya "I, me" and nihi "you".

Pronouns and pronominal prefixes

Cherokee does not make gender distinctions. For example, ᎦᏬᏂᎭ gawoniha can mean either "she is speaking" or "he is speaking."[120]

Verbs can also have prepronominal prefixes, reflexive prefixes, and derivative suffixes. Given all possible combinations of affixes, each regular verb can have 21,262 inflected forms.

The forms ᎨᎪᎢ, ᎮᎪᎢ, ᎡᎪᎢ gegoi, hegoi, egoi represent "I often/usually go", "you often/usually go", and "she/he/it often/usually goes", respectively.[119]

The translation uses the present progressive ("at this time I am going"). Cherokee differentiates between progressive ("I am going") and habitual ("I go") more than English does.

Full conjugation of Root Verb-e- going
Singular Dual incl. Dual excl. Plural incl. Plural excl.
1st ᎨᎦ gega – I'm going ᎢᏁᎦ inega – we're going (you + I) ᎣᏍᏕᎦ osdega – we two are going (not you) ᎢᏕᎦ idega – we're all going (3+, including you) ᎣᏤᎦ otsega – we're all going (3+, not you)
2nd ᎮᎦ hega – you're going ᏍᏕᎦ sdega – you two are going ᎢᏤᎦ itsega – you're all going
3rd ᎡᎦ ega – she/he/it's going ᎠᏁᎦ anega – they are going

The following is a conjugation in the present tense of the verb to go.[119] Please note that there is no distinction between dual and plural in the 3rd person.

The pronominal prefix is g-, which indicates first person singular. The verb root is -e, "to go." The aspect suffix that this verb employs for the present-tense stem is -g-. The present-tense modal suffix for regular verbs in Cherokee is -a

Verb form ge:ga
g- e: -g -a

Cherokee, like many Native American languages, is polysynthetic, meaning that many morphemes may be linked together to form a single word, which may be of great length. Cherokee verbs, the most important word type, must contain as a minimum a pronominal prefix, a verb root, an aspect suffix, and a modal suffix.[118] For example, the verb form ge:ga, "I am going," has each of these elements:


Highfall has a unique grammatical usage, primarily appearing with adjectives and adverbials along with most nouns derived from verbs. It only appears in verbs subordinate to another element of the sentence. When a highfall appears on a verb it changes the verbs' role in the sentence, typically to one of four main categories: agentive derivation, modal, object derivation, or subordination.[117]


The high and low tones can appear on both long and short vowels in Cherokee,[114] and remain at the same pitch throughout the duration of the vowel sound. Contour tones in Cherokee appear only in underlying long vowels.[115] At the ends of words in colloquial speech, there is a tendency to drop off a long vowel into a short vowel; this results in the highfall tone being produced as a high tone in faster speech. [116]

Tone environments

Tone Name IPA
Low ˨
High ˦
Rising ˨˦
Falling ˥˩
Highfall ˥˧
Lowfall ˧˩

The tone name in the left-hand column displays the labels most recently used in studies of the language.[113] The second represents the tone in standardized IPA.

Tone inventory

Oklahoma Cherokee is a pitch accent language with six tones, two of which are level (low, high) and the other four of which are contour (rising, falling, highfall, lowfall).[113] While the tonal system is undergoing a gradual simplification in many areas, it remains important in meaning and is still held strongly by many, especially older, speakers. Tone is poorly documented in North Carolina Cherokee. The syllabary, moreover, does not display tone, and real meaning discrepancies are rare within the native-language Cherokee-speaking community. The same goes for transliterated Cherokee ("osiyo", "dohitsu", etc.), which is rarely written with any tone markers, except in dictionaries. Native speakers can tell the difference between written tone-distinguished words by context.


Another exception to the phonology above is the modern Oklahoma use of the loanword "automobile", with the /ɔ/ sound and /b/ sound of English.

  • ai  /ai/

Cherokee has only one diphthong native to the language:


Front Central Back
Close i   u  
Mid e   ə̃   ə̃ː o  
Open a  

There are six short vowels and six long vowels in the Cherokee inventory. As with all Iroquoian languages, this includes a nasalized vowel (Lounsbury 1978:337). In the case of Cherokee, the nasalized vowel is a schwa, which most orthographies represent as v and is pronounced [ɜ] as "u" in unstressed "but"; since it is nasal, it sounds rather like French un. Other vowels, when ending a word, are often nasalized. Vowels can be short or long.[112]


North Carolina Cherokee consonants
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive t k ʔ
Affricate ts
Fricative s h
Nasal m n
Approximant l j (y) ɰ (w)

As with many Iroquoian languages, the consonant inventory is very simple. The consonants for North Carolina Cherokee are given in the table below. The consonants of all Iroquoian languages pattern so that they may be grouped as (oral) obstruents, sibilants, laryngeals, and resonants (Lounsbury 1978:337). Obstruents are non-distinctively aspirated when they precede h. There is some variation in how orthographies represent these allophones. The orthography used in the table represents the aspirated allophones as th, kh, and tsh. Another common orthography represents the unaspirated allophones as d, ɣ, and dz and the aspirated allophones as t, k, and s (Scancarelli 2005:359–62). The unaspirated plosives and affricate are optionally voiced intervocally. In other dialects, the affricate is a palatal (like ch in "church"), and a lateral affricate (like tl in "atlas") may also be present.


Cherokee only has one labial consonant, m–which is relatively new to the language. The Lower dialect lacked this sound, having "w" in its place. The language thus lacks p and b. In the case of p, qw is often substituted (as in the name of Cherokee WorldHeritage, Wiɣiqwejdiʃ).


Cherokee is an Iroquoian language, and the only Southern Iroquoian language spoken today. Linguists believe that the Cherokee people migrated to the southeast from the Great Lakes region about three thousand years ago, bringing with them their language. Despite the three-thousand-year geographic separation, the Cherokee language today still shows some similarities to the languages spoken around the Great Lakes, such as Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.


Several universities offer Cherokee as a second language, including the University of Oklahoma,[11] Northeastern State University,[11] and Western Carolina University. Western Carolina University (WCU) has partnered with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to promote and restore the language through the school's Cherokee Studies program, which offers classes in and about the language and culture of the Cherokee Indians.[111] WCU and the EBCI have initiated a ten-year language revitalization plan, constituting of: (1) a continuation of the improvement and expansion of the EBCI Atse Kituwah Cherokee Language Immersion School, (2) continued development of Cherokee language learning resources, and (3) building of Western Carolina University programs to offer a more comprehensive language training curriculum.[111]

There is also a Cherokee language immersion school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma that educates students from pre-school through eighth grade.[105] Students actively speak the language, using it in all settings: on the playground, [5] in the classroom, in sports [106] and in technology. At the school, posters showing countries, planets, parts of the body and the Pledge of Allegiance are all written in letters from the Cherokee syllabary. [107]As of 2014, elderly monolingual Cherokee speakers are assisting in language preservation efforts[108] and help the tribe develop education materials for the school. Because Oklahoma's official language is English, Cherokee immersion students are hindered when taking state-mandated tests because they have little competence in English.[107] The Department of Education of Oklahoma said that in 2012 state tests: 11% of the school’s sixth-graders showed proficiency in math, and 25% showed proficiency in reading; 31% of the seventh-graders showed proficiency in math, and 87% showed proficiency in reading; 50% of the eighth-graders showed proficiency in math, and 78% showed proficiency in reading.[107] The Oklahoma Department of Education listed the charter school as a Targeted Intervention school, meaning the school was identified as a low-performing school but has not so that it was a Priority School.[107] Ultimately, the school made a C, or a 2.33 grade point average on the state’s A-F report card system.[107] The report card shows the school getting an F in mathematics achievement and mathematics growth, a C in social studies achievement, a D in reading achievement, and an A in reading growth and student attendance.[107] “The C we made is tremendous,” said school principal Holly Davis, “[t]here is no English instruction in our school’s younger grades, and we gave them this test in English.”[107] She said she had anticipated the low grade because it was the school’s first year as a state-funded charter school, and many students had difficulty with English.[107] Eighth graders who graduate from the Tahlequah immersion school are fluent speakers of the language, and they usually go on to attend Sequoyah High School where classes are taught in both English and Cherokee. Other high schools in Oklahoma offer Cherokee and other Indian languages as second languages to count toward a foreign language requirement, and thousands of students, both indigenous and non-indigenous, enroll in classes.[109] In North Carolina, the North Carolina House of Representatives has passed a state bill which mandates the requirement of constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina to recognize Cherokee as a language for which a student may satisfy a foreign language course requirement for degree completion.[110] The bill was introduced by North Carolina Senators Jim Davis and Andrew Brock and was passed in the Senate on May 13, 2013.[110]

Cherokee traffic sign in Tahlequah, Oklahoma

In 2008, to build on the success of the preschool immersion program, a new $7 million state of the art school was built in Cherokee to serve as the heart of language revitalization.[101] Atse Kituwah has become the home of the language immersion programs as well as the community cultural and language activates. The building hold both immersion programs as well as providing community spaces, adult language classes, and serves as a language and cultural campus for the EBCI.[101]

To provide feedback to KPEP, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation concluded, “The Cherokee Language Revitalization initiative of the EBCI is not only unique, it is exceptional. It is to date, in the experience of this consultant incomparable to other tribal efforts. Acknowledgment needs to be give to the stakeholders themselves, all of whom are brilliant, courageous, passionate and committed people. The finding of the assessment can only improve what has been an outstanding tribal endeavor.”[101]

Cherokee syllabary in use today, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

The Cherokee people stand at the forefront of language preservation. Upon learning that their traditional language was at risk, the Cherokee Nation instigated a 10-year language preservation plan that involved growing new fluent speakers from childhood on up through school immersion programs as well as a collaborative community effort to continue to use the language at home.[5][100] This plan was part of an ambitious goal that in 50 years, 80% or more of the Cherokee people will be fluent in the language.[5][99] The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has invested $3 million into opening schools, training teachers, and developing curricula for language education, as well as initiating community gatherings where the language can be actively used.[99] Formed in 2006, the Kituwah Preservation & Education Program (KPEP) on the Qualla Boundary focuses on language immersion programs for children from birth to fifth grade, developing cultural resources for the general public and community language programs to foster the Cherokee language among adults.[101] Section 16C-21 of the Cherokee Code provides for the structure and financing of the Kituwah Language Immersion Fund.[102] Today, the school serves over 75 students ages seven months to seven years.[103] An allotment of .60% of the total gaming revenue received by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) Tribal Government is placed aside for the Kituwah initiative. The purpose of this program is to improve the overall quality of life for Eastern Band of Cherokee members through increased fluency in Cherokee and cultural awareness by garnering community support, developing language programs and materials for all community members, as well as reestablishing a public life for the language in which Cherokee is commonly heard and spoken.[101] Currently there are two total immersion programs; early childhood education and elementary education.[104] Five preschool classrooms are dedicated to educating children ages two to five years old, which accounts for 24 students currently.[104] In 2010 the New Kituwah Academy became independent of the Cherokee Central Schools of which it was a satellite the previous year.[101] All students that attend the New Kituwah Academy are enrolled members of the EBCI. The school currently has a four-star license through the North Carolina Department of Child Development.[101] Student who attend the school learn all the same curriculum material that students in other schools learn, the only difference is that the instruction at the New Kituwah Academy is in the Cherokee language. The elementary portion of the academy is guided by the North Carolina standard course of study and the No Child Left Behind Act.[101] This is primarily accomplished by pairing teachers and fluent speakers within each classroom.[104] Understanding the need to be bi-literate, and to score well on standardized testing, the academy teaches English language arts at the end of each school day.[104]

A lesson at Kituwah Academy on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina. The language immersion school, operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, teaches the same curriculum as other primary schools, but the Cherokee language is the medium of instruction from pre-school on up and students learn it as a first language. Such schools have proven instrumental in the preservation and perpetuation of the Cherokee language.

In August 2002, the Cherokee Nation conducted a survey of 115,026 Cherokee citizens who live within the 14 counties of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Their aim was to evaluate the status of the language. Of those surveyed, 91% reported that they at least heard the language being used in the public domain; 18% heard the language used in hospitals, 14% reported hearing it at church, 12% used/heard the language at home, 9% heard it in stores, 8% heard it at work, 7% heard it at school, 7% heard it on grounds, 6% heard it in courts, and 8% heard it in other settings. In the home, Cherokee was only used by 17% of survey respondents; the overwhelming majority spoke only English in the home setting. 18% of the surveyed persons spoke Cherokee as a first language, and 5% had learned Cherokee and English jointly as primary languages.[91] At the beginning of the 20th century, 75% of Cherokee citizens are believed to have been raised bilingually in Cherokee and English.[17] Today, only about 5% or less are raised in Cherokee-speaking homes.[17] Many speakers, perhaps the majority, are over fifty years of age. [97][98] Another 2002 survey indicated that the Cherokee language was very close to extinction, as few people younger than the grandparental generation were found who were fluent in the language.[5] Usually, older adults are the final speakers of a language. If they do not pass it along to their descendants, the language will be lost. Thus, the 2002 estimate for the lifespan of the language was only about 30-40 years.[5] The Cherokee language in North Carolina was found to be particularly imperiled, with perhaps fewer than 1,000 remaining speakers and elderly speakers dying off far more quickly than new speakers were emerging.[99] From such surveys the Cherokee Nation also learned that most of its members believed preservation of Cherokee culture and language for future generations is essential.[5]

Language remains an integral part of the Cherokee history and cultural identity,[91] and both dialects of the Cherokee language have been tenaciously preserved.[92] Cherokee has been the co-official language of the Cherokee Nation alongside English since a 1991 legislation officially proclaimed this[5] under the Act Relating to the Tribal Policy for the Promotion and Preservation of Cherokee Language, History, and Culture.[9] Cherokee is also recognized as the official language of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.[7][6] [10] As Cherokee is official, the entire constitution of the United Keetoowah Band is available in both English and Cherokee.[10] As an official language, any tribal member may communicate with the tribal government in Cherokee or English, English translation services are provided for Cherokee speakers, and both Cherokee and English are used when the tribe provides services, resources, and information to tribal members or when communicating with the tribal council. [9] By officially recognizing the Cherokee language, the 1991 legislation allows the political branch of the nation to maintain Cherokee as a living language. [9] Because they are within the Cherokee Nation tribal jurisdiction area, hospitals and health centers such as the Three Rivers Health Center in Muscogee, Oklahoma provide Cherokee language translation services.[93] The Cherokee Nation sponsors a language preservation project,[11] offering online classes for Cherokee language levels I, II, and III.[94] Participants can test their knowledge of the language online at the Cherokee Learning Center, also sponsored by the Cherokee Nation.[95] Classes for adults who do not yet speak the language are offered in many locations.[11]On the national level, the federal election voter guide is now available in the four most commonly spoken Native American/Alaska Native languages, of which Cherokee is one.[96]

General store sign in Cherokee and English, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.


There are two main dialects of Cherokee spoken by modern speakers. The Giduwa dialect (Eastern Band) and the Otali dialect (also called the Overhill dialect) spoken in Oklahoma. The Otali dialect has drifted significantly from Sequoyah's syllabary in the past 150 years, and many contracted and borrowed words have been adopted into the language. These noun and verb roots in Cherokee, however, can still be mapped to Sequoyah's syllabary. In modern times, there are more than 85 syllables in use by modern Cherokee speakers. Modern Cherokee speakers who speak Otali employ 122 distinct syllables in Oklahoma.

Language drift

The now extinct Lower dialect spoken by the inhabitants of the Lower Towns in the vicinity of the South Carolina–Georgia border had r as the liquid consonant in its inventory, while both the contemporary Kituhwa or Ani-kituwah dialect spoken in North Carolina and the Overhill dialect contain l. Only Oklahoma Cherokee developed tone. Both the Lower dialect and the Kituhwa dialect have a "ts" sound in place of the "tl" sound of the Overhill dialect. For instance, the English word "No" is ᎥᏝ (ə̃tˤɑ or [ə̃tl̥á]) in the Overhill dialect, but ᎥᏣ (ə̃sɑ) in both the Lower and Kituhwa dialects.

At the time of European contact, there were three major dialects of Cherokee: Lower, Middle, and Overhill. The Lower dialect, formerly spoken on the South Carolina-Georgia border, has been extinct for over 200 years.[20] Of the remaining two dialects, the Middle dialect (Kituwah) is spoken by the Eastern band on the Qualla Boundary, and retains 1,000 speakers [11] or fewer.[87] The Overhill, or Western, dialect is spoken in eastern Oklahoma and by the Snowbird Community in North Carolina [88]by an estimated 9,000 people[89][20] or more. [11][90][17] The Western dialect is most widely used and is considered the main dialect of the language.[5][20] Both dialects have had English influence, with the Overhill, or Western dialect showing some Spanish influence as well.[20]


The Cherokee Nation now has a radio show called "Cherokee Voices, Cherokee Sounds"[85] that plays songs in the Cherokee language, interviews speakers of the Cherokee language, and releases news and podcasts in both Cherokee and English. The show is hosted by Dennis Sixkiller and has been in operation since 2004. "Cherokee Voices, Cherokee Sounds" currently airs on the radio in the Tahlequah area on Lakes Country 102.1 FM on Sundays from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. and on Classic Country KTLQ 1350 AM from 12 p.m. until 1 p.m. and Wednesdays from 5 p.m. until 6 p.m. In the Claremore area, the show airs on the Rogers State University radio station, KRSC – 91.3 FM, Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., and Sundays from 12 p.m. until 1 p.m. The show also airs on Siloam Springs, AR, station KUOA – 1290 AM, on Sundays from 9 a.m. until 10 a.m.[86]

  • Awi Uniyvsdi Kanohelvdi ᎠᏫ ᎤᏂᏴᏍᏗ ᎧᏃᎮᎸᏗ: The Park Hill Tales. (2006) Sixkiller, Dennis, ed.
  • Baptism: The Mode
  • Cherokee Almanac (1860)
  • "Christmas in those Days"
  • Cherokee Driver's Manuel
  • Cherokee Elementary Arithmetic (1870)
  • "The Cherokee People Today"
  • Cherokee Psalms: A Collection of Hymns in the Cherokee Language (1991). Sharpe, J. Ed., ed. and Daniel Scott, trans. ISBN 978-0-935741-16-2
  • Cherokee Spelling Book (1924). J. D. Wofford
  • Cherokee Stories. (1966) Spade & Walker
  • Cherokee Vision of Elohi (1981 and 1997). Meredith, Howard, Virginia Sobral, and Wesley Proctor. ISBN 978-0-9660164-0-6
  • The Four Gospels and Selected Psalms in Cherokee: A Companion to the Syllabary New Testament (2004). Holmes, Ruth Bradley. ISBN 978-0-8061-3628-8.
  • Na Tsoi Yona Ꮎ ᏦᎢ ᏲᎾ: The Three Bears. (2007) Keeter, Ray D. and Wynema Smith. ISBN 978-0-9777339-0-3
  • Na Usdi Gigage Agisi Tsitaga Ꮎ ᎤᏍᏗ ᎩᎦᎨ ᎠᎩᏏ: The Little Red Hen. (2007) Smith, Wynema and Ray D. Keeter. ISBN 978-0-9777339-1-0.

Resources helping to expand and develop Cherokee include books. The following books now exist in the Cherokee language, among others:

The Cherokee language has also made some appearances in popular culture which have helped it further develop. The theme song "I Will Find You"[82] from the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans by the band Clannad features Máire Brennan singing in Cherokee as well as Mohican.[83] Cherokee rapper Litefoot incorporates Cherokee into songs, as do Rita Coolidge's band Walela and the intertribal drum group, Feather River Singers.[84]

A video game for learning the Cherokee language, "Talking Games", was released in March 2013.[81]

On March 25, 2011, Google announced the option to perform searches in Cherokee.[78] As of November 2012, Gmail is supported in Cherokee.[79][80]

Since 2003, all [72][73] (released September 8, 2010) and for the iPad with iOS 4.2.1, which was released on November 22, 2010. A number of Cherokee language apps are available for iPhone, iPad, and other iOS devices.[74][75][75][76][77]

Technology has allowed use of Cherokee to expand. For years, many people wrote transliterated Cherokee on the internet or used poorly compatible fonts to type out the syllabary. However, since the fairly recent addition of the Cherokee syllables to Unicode, the Cherokee language is experiencing a renaissance in its use on the Internet.[68] The entire New Testament[69] is online in the Cherokee Syllabary, and there is a Cherokee language WorldHeritage featuring over 400 articles.[70] Most Linux distributions support Cherokee input and display in any font containing the characters in Unicode environments. Windows 8, the first Windows release in Cherokee, contains "nearly 180,000 words and phrases" in Cherokee, and is the first Windows release in a Native American language.[71]

Bilingual plaque in Cherokee and English. Memorial with a quote from the famous Keetoowah Society member and Cherokee statesman Redbird Smith.

21st century

Since 1930, the number of speakers of the Cherokee language has increased [24] in spite of attempts by the United States government to assimilate Native Americans.

Over the course of the 19th century and into the 20th century, American Indian boarding schools were set up by the United States government to assimilate Native Americans into a western society. [65] Such schools discouraged and even prohibited use of Native American languages and convinced students that a tribal identity was inferior.[65] Instead, students were forced to speak and think in English.[65] If they were caught "speaking Indian" they were punished,[65] sometimes severely beaten with a leather belt [65] and sometimes soap was put into their mouths, in an attempt to "wash the language out." [66] Students participated in a military style regimentation of classes and activities, awaking at 5:45 a.m. with exercise and military drills following, breakfast at 6:45, and industrial work at 8:00 and formal school at 9:00.[65] After lunch there was more industrial work and school with lectures into the evening.[65] There was less than an hour of free time each day, and bedtime was at 9:00 p.m.[65] A Cherokee Boarding School, founded in 1880, likewise maintained an English-only policy specifically designed to eradicate the Cherokee language.[67] The purpose of the boarding schools was to forcibly acculturate Cherokee to mainstream white society.[67] Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their homes in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the man.”[67] Indian children were taken from their families, given “white” names, wardrobes, and haircuts, and forced to speak only English.[67] This school enacted English-only rules until 1933, having devastating effects on Cherokee fluency.[67] U.S. policies of Indian assimilation lasted into the 1950s. [17]

The first known use of Native Americans in the American military to transmit messages under fire was a group of Cherokee troops utilized by the American 30th Infantry Division serving alongside the British during the Second Battle of the Somme. According to the Division Signal Officer, this took place in September 1918. Their unit was under British command at the time.[63] The Cherokee language was also used by code talkers in the 36th Division of the 142nd Infantry Regiment during World War I, in which Cherokee troops were discovered by the U.S. Army by happenstance to speak the Cherokee language which their enemies could not understand.[64] Native American code talkers during World War I primarily used type 2 code talking.[64] The Cherokee language was later utilized to transmit secret messages in the 32nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in Normandy, Europe during World War II.[64]

20th century

In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nu na da ul tsun yi (the place where they cried); another term is Tlo va sa (our removal). However, this phrase was not used by Cherokee at the time, and seems to be of Choctaw origin. The Cherokee were not the only American Indians to emigrate as a result of the Indian Removal efforts. American Indians were not only removed from the American South but also from the North, Midwest, Southwest, and Plains regions. The Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creek Indians (Muskogee) emigrated reluctantly. The Seminoles in Florida resisted removal by guerrilla warfare with the United States Army for decades (1817–1850). Ultimately, some Seminoles remained in their Florida home country, while others were transported to Indian Territory in shackles.

Cherokee removal, part of the South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Alabama to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the Western United States, which resulted in the death of an estimated 4000 Cherokee.


Translation John (ᏣᏂ) 3:16
(Transliteration) nasgiyeno nigavgi unelanvhi ugeyusvgi elohi, denvyosvgi utseliga uwetsi uwasvhiyu udenelvhi, gilo nasgi yigohiyuhvsga uyohuhisdiyi nigesvna, gvnidvquosgini uwadvdi.

In 1965 the Perkins School of Theology published a translation of Haggai by Jack and Anna Kilpatrick.[62]

Revisions of John (1948) and the New Testament (1951) were published in Westville, Oklahoma.[59]

A "corrected version" of old Testament portions, prepared by M.A. Pearson, was published in 1953 by the American Bible Society.

Jonah, translated by Amory N. Chamberlain, was published in Tahlequah in 1888. Joshua was at an advanced stage of translation, and was perhaps even completed [61] but was never published.

With the help of Stephen Foreman, Worcester also translated portions of Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah.[60]

Worcester and Boudinot continued with translation, publishing Mark 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Titus, Jude, and Philemon in 1847, and Galatians through Colossians, 1 and 2 Peter in 1848 and Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Hebrews and Revelation in 1849. Their work was published by the Cherokee Baptist Mission.[59] The full New Testament was published by the American Bible Society in 1860.

Samuel Worcester, and [58] A third edition was printed by the Park Hill Mission Press in 1840.

Translation of Genesis into the Cherokee language, 1856

The Matthew. This was printed in the Cherokee Phoenix from April 3, 1828 to July 29, 1829. It is uncertain if this translation was ever published in book form.

In 1824 the first portion of the Bible was translated into the Cherokee language: John 3, translated by a native Cherokee, At-see (also known as John Arch). It was circulated in manuscript, and received with wonderful avidity, being copied hundreds of times.[55] He completed the Gospel of John by 1824[56] The complete New Testament was translated in September 1825 by David Brown, also a native Cherokee; this was also circulated in manuscript form, as a type for the Cherokee syllabary had not yet been created. Both Archer and Brown translated the full New Testament into Cherokee.[57]

New Testament translated into the Cherokee language, front page in 1860.
Cherokee Bible

Artists Jeff Marley and Frank Brannon completed a collaborative project on October 19, 2013, in which they printed using Cherokee syllabary type in the print shop at New Echota. This was the first time syllabary printing type has been used at New Echota since 1835. [54]

[53]'s Web site.Hunter Library's Western Carolina University Transcriptions of the English-language portions of the 19th-century newspaper can be found at [52]

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