The Cherokee, or Tsalagi, are a Native American tribe originally hailing from the area near northern Georgia and North Carolina. In 1838, the United States government forcibly removed them from the southeastern United States to what was then the Oklahoma territory. Historians named this event the "Trail of Tears."
The term "Cherokee" is actually taken from a Creek Indian word meaning "people with another language." White settlers learned this term from their interactions with the Creek and erroneously affixed it to the Aniyunwiya, or Tsalagi, people. The terms "Cherokee" and "Tsalagi" are used interchangeably today.
Today, the Cherokee people live throughout the United States. However, the greatest concentrations of native Cherokee speakers live in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Estimates indicate only about 1,500 to 2,500 people speak Cherokee fluently.
Linguists describe the Cherokee language as polysynthetic, which means the language contains many morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest linguistic units with meaning in a given language. Based on its difficulty level, Cherokee is considered a Class IV language.
The Cherokee language combines morphemes, or linguistic units with meaning, into new combinations and chains to create meaning. Unlike proper English, Cherokee sentences often start with the object, followed by the subject, and then the verb. Some elders suggest this is because the Cherokee focus on outside things first and inwardly things last.
The word "ditiyohihi," for example, contains a chain of morphemes. Each morpheme means something different, but when combined, they give a new, precise meaning. In this example, di-ti-ya-hi-hi translates as "he who argues repeatedly, on purpose, and with a purpose." In other words, he's a lawyer.
The Cherokee language as spoken by many elders includes six different tones. Younger generations don't use as many tones.
From 1809 to 1821, a half-Cherokee man named Sequoyah, also known as George Guess or Goerge Gist, produced a handwritten system to write in Cherokee. His original Cherokee syllabary had 86 symbols. While some symbols look like the familiar alphabet, they are pronounced differently and each symbol represents a syllable rather than a letter. Sequoyah and his people were inspired by written English.
The Cherokee Nation's first official newspaper, called The Cherokee Phoenix or Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi, came out in 1828. The Cherokee Nation bought a printing press and intended to publish the newspaper in both English and Cherokee.
To make the newspaper readable and look great, they had to modify some of Sequoyah's symbols using Roman letters and modified Roman letters from the printing press. Because this was the first mainstream distribution of the written language, the Latinized version became the primary writing system for all Cherokees. The new syllabary includes 85 characters that represent all the sounds used in spoken Cherokee.
All languages "drift" over time, or devolve into dialects through use and development by local populations. Cherokee is no exception. Cherokee includes two major dialects. The Giduwa dialect spoken by the Eastern Cherokee remains closer to the original language.
The Otali dialect, also known as the Overhill dialect, varies the most from the language as written by Sequoyah. Otali contains many pronunciation variations, as well as the most words adopted whole cloth from standard American English.
To get a better idea of what the Cherokee language looks and sounds like, check out some common Cherokee words translated to English using the Cherokee-English Dictionary Online Database:
- ᏚᏓᏘᎿᎥᎢ or dudatihnavi - His family
- ᎤᎾᎵᎢ or unalii - Friend
- ᎣᏏᏲ or osiyo- Hello
- ᏅᏓ or nvda - Moon
- ᏗᏟᎯ or ditlihi- Warrior
- ᏍᎩᏛ, ᎥᏍᎩᏛ or sgidv, vsgidv - Yes
While it's not very prevalent in mainstream pop culture, there are several great examples of bringing the language and culture of the Cherokees back to life in big ways.
- The soundtrack for the 1992 movie, The Last of the Mohicans, includes the song "I Will Find You." It has portions sung in Cherokee and Mohican.
- In 2010, Cherokee became the first native language added to Apple devices. It was added to the iPhone and iPod.
- In 2015, the film First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee won several film festival awards and was chosen by PBS for national distribution.
- In 2018, actor Wes Studi was a presenter at the Oscars and delivered a portion of his lines in Cherokee.
Many resources exist online to learn Cherokee. The following sites include dictionaries, grammar guides, pronunciation guides, simple phrases, excerpts from Cherokee-language books or newspapers, and much more.
- The Native Languages website includes free Cherokee language guides and worksheets suitable for classroom use to learn Cherokee names for the parts of the body, colors, and other simple topics.
- Omniglot includes the Cherokee syllabary with a pronunciation guide. There are also links to downloadable free Cherokee fonts, lessons in Cherokee, and online Cherokee language newspapers.
- The Cherokees of California provide free lessons on their website for those interested in learning more about the language.
- You can use the extensive language learning program from Mango Languages to learn Cherokee. It costs about $8 per month for a single language or you can often get free access through your local library.
- The Cherokee Nation website includes free materials for teaching the Cherokee language, including children's picture books. Nonprofits with an educational purpose can also request translation services.
By learning about the Cherokee language or learning to speak it, you are contributing to the efforts to preserve a native language. For more information about the Cherokee language and how you can help preserve this culture, consider reaching out to a native Cherokee group near you.