Cherokee language

Last updated
Tsalagi Gawonihisdi
Cherokee sample.svg
Tsa-la-gi written in the Cherokee syllabary
Pronunciation(Oklahoma dialect)  [dʒalaˈɡî ɡawónihisˈdî]
Native to North America
Regioneast Oklahoma; Great Smoky Mountains [1] and Qualla Boundary in North Carolina [2] Also in Arkansas. [3] and Cherokee community in California.
Ethnicity Cherokee
Native speakers
1520 (2018) [4]
  • Southern Iroquoian
    • Cherokee
Cherokee syllabary, Latin script
Official status
Official language in
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina
Cherokee Nation [5] [6] [7] [8]
of Oklahoma
Regulated by United Keetoowah Band Department of Language, History, & Culture [6] [7]
Council of the Cherokee Nation
Language codes
ISO 639-2 chr
ISO 639-3 chr
Glottolog cher1273 [9]
Linguasphere 63-AB
Cherokee lang.png
Pre-contact Distribution of the Cherokee Language
Cherokee Speaking Areas Within The USA.png
Current geographic distribution of the Cherokee language
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Cherokee (ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ, Tsalagi Gawonihisdi [dʒalaˈɡî ɡawónihisˈdî] ) is an endangered Iroquoian language [4] and the native language of the Cherokee people. [5] [6] [7] There were 1,520 Cherokee speakers out of 376,000 Cherokee in 2018. [4] The number of speakers is in decline. About 8 fluent speakers die each month, and only a handful of people under 40 are fluent. [10] The dialect of Cherokee in Oklahoma is "definitely endangered", and the one in North Carolina is "severely endangered" according to UNESCO. [11] The Lower dialect, formerly spoken on the South Carolina–Georgia border, has been extinct since about 1900. [12] Cherokee speakers populate several counties within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina. [13] Around 200 speakers of the Eastern (North Carolina) dialect remain and language preservation efforts include the New Kituwah Academy. [14] The Cherokee Immersion School (Tsalagi Tsunadeloquasdi) is also present in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. [15]

Iroquoian languages language family

The Iroquoian languages are a language family of indigenous peoples of North America. They are known for their general lack of labial consonants. The Iroquoian languages are polysynthetic and head-marking.

The Cherokee are one of the indigenous people of the Southeastern Woodlands of the United States. Prior to the 18th century, they were concentrated in what is now southwestern North Carolina, southeastern Tennessee, and the tips of western South Carolina and northeastern Georgia.


Cherokee is the only Southern Iroquoian language, and it differs from other Iroquoian languages. [16] Cherokee is polysynthetic [17] and uses a unique syllabary writing system. [18] As a polysynthetic language, Cherokee is highly different from English and other Indo-European languages like French or Spanish, and can offer many challenges to adult learners. [5] A single Cherokee word can convey ideas that would require multiple English words to express, including the context of the assertion, connotations about the speaker, the action, and the object of the action. The morphological 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. [19]

In linguistic typology, polysynthetic languages are highly synthetic languages, i.e. languages in which words are composed of many morphemes. They are very highly inflected languages. Polysynthetic languages typically have long "sentence-words" such as the Yupik word tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq which means "He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer." The word consists of the morphemes tuntu-ssur-qatar-ni-ksaite-ngqiggte-uq with the meanings, reindeer-hunt-future-say-negation-again-third person-singular-indicative; and except for the morpheme tuntu "reindeer", none of the other morphemes can appear in isolation.

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 as 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 characters provide a suitable method to write Cherokee. Although some symbols resemble Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic letters, the relationship between symbols and sounds is different.

Indo-European languages family of several hundred related languages and dialects

The Indo-European languages are a language family of several hundred related languages and dialects.

Extensive documentation of the language exists, as it is the indigenous language of the Americas in which the most literature has been published. [20] Such publications include a Cherokee dictionary and grammar as well as several editions of the New Testament and Psalms of the Bible [4] 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. [21] [22]

New Testament Second division of the Christian biblical canon

The New Testament is the second part of the Christian biblical canon, the first part being the Old Testament, based on the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament discusses the teachings and person of Jesus, as well as events in first-century Christianity. Christians regard both the Old and New Testaments together as sacred scripture. The New Testament has frequently accompanied the spread of Christianity around the world. It reflects and serves as a source for Christian theology and morality. Extended readings and phrases directly from the New Testament are incorporated into the various Christian liturgies. The New Testament has influenced religious, philosophical, and political movements in Christendom and left an indelible mark on literature, art, and music.

Psalms Book of the Bible

The Book of Psalms, commonly referred to simply as Psalms or "the Psalms", is the first book of the Ketuvim ("Writings"), the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and thus a book of the Christian Old Testament. The title is derived from the Greek translation, ψαλμοί, psalmoi, meaning "instrumental music" and, by extension, "the words accompanying the music". The book is an anthology of individual psalms, with 150 in the Jewish and Western Christian tradition and more in the Eastern Christian churches. Many are linked to the name of David, but his authorship is not accepted by modern scholars.

Bible Collection of religious texts in Judaism and Christianity

The Bible is a collection of sacred texts or scriptures. Varying parts of the Bible are considered to be a product of divine inspiration and a record of the relationship between God and humans by Christians, Jews, Samaritans, and Rastafarians.


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[ citation needed ] 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.

Great Lakes System of interconnected, large lakes in North America

The Great Lakes, also called the Laurentian Great Lakes and the Great Lakes of North America, are a series of interconnected freshwater lakes primarily in the upper mid-east region of North America, on the Canada–United States border, which connect to the Atlantic Ocean through the Saint Lawrence River. They consist of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Hydrologically, there are only four lakes, because Lakes Michigan and Huron join at the Straits of Mackinac. The lakes form the Great Lakes Waterway.

Mohawk language Iroquoian language spoken by around 3,000 Mohawks in the United States and Canada

Mohawk is an Iroquoian language currently spoken by around 3,500 people of the Mohawk nation, located primarily in Canada, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and to a lesser extent in the United States.

Some researchers (such as Thomas Whyte) have suggested the homeland of the proto-Iroquoian language resides in Appalachia. Whyte contends, based on linguistic and molecular studies, that proto-Iroquoian speakers participated in cultural and economic exchanges along the north-south axis of the Appalachian Mountains.[ citation needed ] The divergence of Southern Iroquoian (which Cherokee is the only known branch of) from the Northern Iroquoian languages occurred approximately 4,000-3,000 years ago as Late Archaic proto-Iroquoian speaking peoples became more sedentary with the advent of horticulture, advancement of lithic technologies and the emergence of social complexity in the Eastern Woodlands. In the subsequent millennia, the Northern Iroquoian and Southern Iroquoian would be separated by various Algonquin and Siouan speaking peoples as linguistic, religious, social and technological practices from the Algonquin to the north and east and the Siouans to the west from the Ohio Valley would come to be practiced by peoples in the Chesapeake region, as well as parts of the Carolinas.


Cherokee Heritage Center - New Hope Church - Bible cover in Cherokee script (2015-05-27 14.09.44 by Wesley Fryer) Cherokee Heritage Center - New Hope Church - Bible cover in Cherokee script (2015-05-27 14.09.44 by Wesley Fryer).jpg
Cherokee Heritage Center - New Hope Church - Bible cover in Cherokee script (2015-05-27 14.09.44 by Wesley Fryer)


Translation of Genesis into the Cherokee language, 1856 Adams Corner - Kirche 7.jpg
Translation of Genesis into the Cherokee language, 1856

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. Sequoyah had some contact with English literacy and the Roman alphabet through his proximity to Fort Loundon, where he engaged in trade with Europeans. He was exposed to English literacy through his white father. His limited understanding of the Roman alphabet, including the ability to recognize the letters of his name, may have aided him in the creation of the Cherokee syllabary. [23] When developing the written language, Sequoyah 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) [24] 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).

Syllabary set of written symbols that represent the syllables or moras which make up words

A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent the syllables or moras which make up words. A symbol in a syllabary, called a syllabogram, typically represents an (optional) consonant sound followed by a vowel sound (nucleus)—that is, a CV or V syllable—but other phonographic mappings such as CVC, CV- tone, and C are also found in syllabaries.

Sequoyah Cherokee polymath and creator of the Cherokee syllabary

Sequoyah (c.1770–1843), was an American and Cherokee polymath. In 1821 he completed his independent creation of a Cherokee syllabary, making reading and writing in Cherokee possible. This was one of the very few times in recorded history that a member of a pre-literate people created an original, effective writing system. After seeing its worth, the people of the Cherokee Nation rapidly began to use his syllabary and officially adopted it in 1825. Their literacy rate quickly surpassed that of surrounding European-American settlers.

Fort Loudoun (Tennessee) British colonial-era fort in Monroe County, Tennessee, United States

Fort Loudoun was a British colonial-era fort located in what is now Monroe County, Tennessee, United States. Built in 1756 and 1757 to help garner Cherokee support for the British at the outset of the Seven Years' War, the fort was one of the first significant British outposts west of the Appalachian Mountains. The fort was designed by John William G. De Brahm, its construction was supervised by Captain Raymond Demeré, and its garrison was commanded by Demeré's brother, Paul Demeré. It was named for the Earl of Loudoun, the commander of British forces in North America at the time.

Around 1809, Sequoyah began work to create a system of writing for the Cherokee language. [25] 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. [26] [27] His wife is said to have burned his initial work, believing it to be witchcraft. [25] 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. [28]

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. [26] "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." [25]

Unable to find adults willing to learn the syllabary, he taught it to his daughter, Ayokeh (also spelled Ayoka). [25] Langguth says she was only six years old at the time. [29] 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. [27]

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. [26] [27] 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. [30]

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. [28]

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. [29]

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. [28]

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 [31] and now can be found in books and on the internet among other places.

Nearly two hundred years later, John Standingdeer Jr. developed computer software to help people learn the language, based on dividing Sequoyah's 85 characters into 16 basic sounds. [32]

Geographic distribution

Cherokee is the most populous Native American language spoken in the U.S. states of Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. [33] The language has remained vigorous in some Oklahoma communities [34] and elsewhere, communities like Big Cove and Snowbird of the Eastern Band in North Carolina still predominantly speak Cherokee. [35] Cherokee is one of only five Oklahoma aboriginal languages still spoken and acquired by children. [36]


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 since about 1900. [12] Of the remaining two dialects, the Middle dialect (Kituwah) is spoken by the Eastern band on the Qualla Boundary, and retains 1,000 speakers [4] or fewer. [37] The Overhill, or Western, dialect is spoken in eastern Oklahoma and by the Snowbird Community in North Carolina [38] by an estimated 9,000 people [13] [36] or more. [4] [20] [39] The Western dialect is most widely used and is considered the main dialect of the language. [5] [13] Both dialects have had English influence, with the Overhill, or Western dialect showing some Spanish influence as well. [13]

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 word for 'no' is ᎥᏝ (ə̃tˤɑ or [ə̃tl̥á]) in the Overhill dialect, but ᎥᏣ (ə̃sɑ) in both the Lower and Kituhwa dialects.

Language drift

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.[ citation needed ]

Current status and preservation efforts

Swyddfa Bost Tahlequah.jpg
Tahlequah is a city in Oklahoma where Cherokee is still predominantly spoken.
Kituwah Academy.png
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 American 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.

The Cherokee language currently retains about 2,000 Cherokee speakers, but an average of 8 fluent speakers die each month, and only a handful of people under 40 years of age are fluent as of 2019. [10] 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. [4] A 2005 survey determined that the Eastern band had 460 fluent speakers. Ten years later, the number was believed to be 200. [32]

Official status

Tsali Boulevard in Cherokee, North Carolina Tsali Boulevard sign, Cherokee, NC IMG 4880.JPG
Tsali Boulevard in Cherokee, North Carolina

Cherokee is "definitely endangered" in Oklahoma and "severely endangered" in North Carolina according to UNESCO. [11] Cherokee has been the co-official language of the Cherokee Nation alongside English since a 1991 legislation officially proclaimed this under the Act Relating to the Tribal Policy for the Promotion and Preservation of Cherokee Language, History, and Culture. [40] Cherokee is also recognised as the official language of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. As Cherokee is official, the entire constitution of the United Keetoowah Band is available in both English and Cherokee. 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. [40] The 1991 legislation allows the political branch of the nation to maintain Cherokee as a living language. [40] 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. [41]


Oklahoma Cherokee language immersion school student writing in the Cherokee syllabary. Cherokeeclass.png
Oklahoma Cherokee language immersion school student writing in the Cherokee syllabary.
The Cherokee language taught to preschool students as a first language, at New Kituwah Academy CherokeeKituwahAcademy.png
The Cherokee language taught to preschool students as a first language, at New Kituwah Academy

In 2008 The Cherokee Nation instigated a 10-year language preservation plan that involved growing new fluent speakers of the Cherokee language from childhood on up through school immersion programs, as well as a collaborative community effort to continue to use the language at home. [42] This plan was part of an ambitious goal that in 50 years, 80 percent or more of the Cherokee people will be fluent in the language. [43] The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has invested $4.5 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. They have accomplished: "Curriculum development, teaching materials and teacher training for a total immersion program for children, beginning when they are preschoolers, that enables them to learn Cherokee as their first language. The participating children and their parents learn to speak and read together. The Tribe operates the Kituwah Academy". [43] 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. [44] There is also a Cherokee language immersion school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma that educates students from pre-school through eighth grade. [45]

Several universities offer Cherokee as a second language, including the University of Oklahoma, Northeastern State University, 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. [46] WCU and the EBCI have initiated a ten-year language revitalization plan consisting 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. [46]


Recording of a native Cherokee speaker from the Eastern Band
Recording of a Cherokee language stomp dance ceremony in Oklahoma

The family of Iroquoian languages has a unique phonological inventory. Unlike most languages, the Cherokee inventory of consonants lacks the labial sounds p, b, f, and v. Cherokee does, however, have one labial consonant m, but it is rare, appearing in no more than ten native words. [47] In fact, the Lower dialect does not produce m at all. Instead, it uses w.

In the case of p, qw is often substituted, as in the name of the Cherokee Wikipedia, Wiɣiqwejdiʃ. Some words may contain sounds not reflected in the given phonology: for instance, the modern Oklahoma use of the loanword "automobile", with the /ɔ/ and /b/ sounds of English.


As with many Iroquoian languages, Cherokee's phonetic inventory is small. 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.

North Carolina Cherokee consonants
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop tkʔ
Affricate ts
Fricative sh
Nasal mn
Approximant ljw


There are six short vowels and six long vowels in the Cherokee inventory. [48] As with all Iroquoian languages, this includes a nasalized vowel (Lounsbury 1978:337). In the case of Cherokee, the nasalized vowel is a mid central vowel usually represented as v and is pronounced [ə̃], as "a" in unstressed "comma" plus the nasalization found in French un. Other vowels, when ending a word, are often also nasalized.

Front Central Back
Close i u 
Mid e ə̃ ə̃ːo 
Open a 


Oklahoma Cherokee has six phonemic tones, two of which are level (low, high) and the other four of which are contour (rising, falling, highfall, lowfall). [49] 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[ clarification needed ] 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.

Tone inventory

The tone name in the left-hand column displays the labels most recently used in studies of the language. [49] The second represents the tone in standardized IPA.

Tone NameIPA

Tone environments

The high and low tones can appear on both long and short vowels in Cherokee, [50] and remain at the same pitch throughout the duration of the vowel sound. Contour tones in Cherokee appear only in underlying long vowels. [51] 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. [52]


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 verb's role in the sentence, typically to one of four main categories: agentive derivation, modal, object derivation, or subordination. [53]


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. [19] For example, the verb form ge:ga, "I am going," has each of these elements:

Verb form ge:ga

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.

Cherokee has 17 verb tenses and 10 persons. [32]

The following is a conjugation in the present tense of the verb to go. [54] Please note that there is no distinction between dual and plural in the 3rd person.

Full conjugation of Root Verb-e- going
SingularDual incl.Dual excl.Plural incl.Plural excl.
I'm going
We're going (you + I)
We two are going (not you)
We're all going (3+, including you)
We're all going (3+, not you)
You're going
You two are going
You're all going
She/he/it's going
They are going

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.

The forms ᎨᎪᎢ, ᎮᎪᎢ, ᎡᎪᎢgegoi, hegoi, egoi represent "I often/usually go", "you often/usually go", and "she/he/it often/usually goes", respectively. [54]

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.

Cherokee does not make gender distinctions. For example, ᎦᏬᏂᎭgawoniha can mean either "she is speaking" or "he is speaking." [55]

Pronouns and pronominal prefixes

Like many Native American languages, Cherokee has many pronominal prefixes that can index both subject and object. Pronominal prefixes always appear on verbs and can also appear on adjectives and nouns. [49] There are two separate words which function as pronouns: aya "I, me" and nihi "you".

Table of Cherokee first person pronominal prefixes
NumberSet ISet II
Singularji-, g-agi-, agw-
Dual inclusiveini-, in-gini-, gin-
Dual exclusiveosdi-, osd-ogini-, ogin-
Plural inclusiveidi-, id-igi-, ig-
Plural exclusiveoji-, oj-ogi-, og-

Shape classifiers in verbs

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:


Conjugation of "Hand him ..."
Classifier TypeCherokeeTransliterationTranslation
LiveᎯᎧᏏhikasiHand him (something living)
FlexibleᎯᏅᏏhinvsiHand him (something like clothes, rope)
Long, IndefiniteᎯᏗᏏhidisiHand him (something like a broom, pencil)
IndefiniteᎯᎥᏏhivsiHand him (something like food, book)
LiquidᎯᏁᎥᏏhinevsiHand him (something like water)

There have been reports that the youngest speakers of Cherokee are using only the indefinite forms, suggesting a decline in usage or full acquisition of the system of shape classification. [57] Cherokee is the only Iroquoian language with this type of classificatory verb system, leading linguists to reanalyze it as a potential remnant of a noun incorporation system in Proto-Iroquoian. [58] However, given the non-productive nature of noun incorporation in Cherokee, other linguists have suggested that classificatory verbs are the product of historical contact between Cherokee and non-Iroquoian languages, and instead that the noun incorporation system in Northern Iroquoian languages developed later. [59]

Word order

Simple declarative sentences usually have a subject-object-verb word order. [60] Negative sentences have a different word order. Adjectives come before nouns, as in English. Demonstratives, such as ᎾᏍᎩnasgi ("that") or ᎯᎠhia ("this"), come at the beginning of noun phrases. Relative clauses follow noun phrases. [61] Adverbs precede the verbs that they are modifying. For example, "she's speaking loudly" is ᎠᏍᏓᏯ ᎦᏬᏂᎭasdaya gawoniha (literally, "loud she's-speaking"). [61]

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 ᎠᎩᏙᏓna asgaya agidoda ("that man is my father"). A noun phrase might be followed by an adjective, such as in ᎠᎩᏙᏓ ᎤᏔᎾagidoga utana ("my father is big"). [62]


Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary Sequoyah.jpg
Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary

Cherokee is written in an 85-character syllabary invented by Sequoyah (also known as Guest or George Gist). Many of the letters resemble the Latin letters they derive from, but have completely unrelated sound values; Sequoyah had seen English, Hebrew, and Greek writing but did not know how to read them. [63]

Two other scripts used to write Cherokee are a simple Latin transliteration and a more precise system with diacritical marks. [64]


Each of the characters represents one syllable, 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. [65] [ page needed ]

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.

Cherokee Syllabary.svg


  1. In the chart, ‘v’ represents a nasal vowel, /ə̃/.
  2. The character Ꮩ do is shown upside-down in some fonts. It should be oriented in the same way as the Latin letter V. [lower-alpha 1]
a e i ouv
gaka ge gi gogugv
ha he hi hohuhv
la le li lolulv
ma me mi momu 
nahnanahne ni nonunv
qua que qui quoquuquv
ssa se si sosusv
data deteditidodudv
dlatla tle tli tlotlutlv
tsa tse tsi tsotsutsv
wa we wi wowuwv
ya ye yi yoyuyv

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. [65] [ page needed ] 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 /ɡ/ 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, and other disambiguation methods for consonants (somewhat like the Japanese dakuten) have been suggested. 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 both su as in su:dali, meaning six (ᏑᏓᎵ), and 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, as in other Iroquoian languages due to etymological reasons, cf. the Korean letter ). [67] [ page needed ] As with some other writing systems (like Arabic), adult speakers can distinguish words by context.

Transliteration issues

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:

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).

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

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:

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


Cherokee was added to the Unicode Standard in September, 1999 with the release of version 3.0.


The main Unicode block for Cherokee is U+13A0–U+13FF. [note 1] It contains the script's upper-case syllables as well as six lower-case syllables.

Cherokee [1] [2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
1. ^ As of Unicode version 12.0
2. ^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

The rest of the lower-case syllables are encoded at U+AB70–ABBF.

Cherokee Supplement [1]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
1. ^ As of Unicode version 12.0

Fonts and digital platform support

A single Cherokee Unicode font, Plantagenet Cherokee, is supplied with macOS, version 10.3 (Panther) and later. Windows Vista also includes a Cherokee font. Several free Cherokee fonts are available including Digohweli, Donisiladv, and Noto Sans Cherokee. Some pan-Unicode fonts, such as Code2000, Everson Mono, and GNU FreeFont, include Cherokee characters. A commercial font, Phoreus Cherokee, published by TypeCulture, includes multiple weights and styles. [68] The Cherokee Nation Language Technology Program supports "innovative solutions for the Cherokee language on all digital platforms including smartphones, laptops, desktops, tablets and social networks." [69]


Cherokee stop sign, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with "alehwisdiha" (also spelled "halehwisda") meaning "stop" Cherokee stop sign.png
Cherokee stop sign, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with "alehwisdiha" (also spelled "halehwisda") meaning "stop"
Cherokee traffic sign in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, reading "tla adi yigi", meaning "no parking" from "tla" meaning "no" Cwy no parking.jpg
Cherokee traffic sign in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, reading "tla adi yigi", meaning "no parking" from "tla" meaning "no"


Cherokee uses Arabic numerals (0–9). The Cherokee council voted not to adopt Sequoyah's numbering system. [70] Sequoyah created individual symbols for 1–20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 as well as a symbol for three zeros for numbers in the thousands, and a symbol for six zeros for numbers in the millions. These last two symbols, representing ",000" and ",000,000", are made up of two separate symbols each. They have a symbol in common, which could be used as a zero in itself.

EnglishCherokee [71] Transliteration



EnglishCherokee [71] [72] Transliteration

Days of the WeekᎯᎸᏍᎩᎢᎦhilvsgiiga



JanuaryMonth of the Cold MoonᏚᏃᎸᏔᏂdunolvtani
FebruaryMonth of the Bony MoonᎧᎦᎵkagali
MarchMonth of the Windy MoonᎠᏄᏱanuyi
AprilMonth of the Flower MoonᎧᏩᏂkawani
MayMonth of the Planting MoonᎠᎾᎠᎬᏘanaagvti
JuneMonth of the Green Corn MoonᏕᎭᎷᏱdehaluyi
JulyMonth of the Ripe Corn MoonᎫᏰᏉᏂguyequoni
AugustMonth of the End of Fruit MoonᎦᎶᏂᎢgalonii
SeptemberMonth of the Nut MoonᏚᎵᎢᏍᏗduliisdi
OctoberMonth of the Harvest MoonᏚᏂᏅᏗduninvdi
NovemberMonth of Trading MoonᏄᏓᏕᏆnudadequa
DecemberMonth of the Snow MoonᎥᏍᎩᎦvsgiga



grayᎤᏍᎪᎸ ᏌᎪᏂᎨusgolv sagonige
silverᎠᏕᎸ ᎤᏁᎬadelv unegv

Word creation

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, "he argues repeatedly and on purpose with a purpose") corresponding to "attorney" and ᏗᏓᏂᏱᏍᎩ (didaniyisgi, "the final catcher" or "he catches them finally and conclusively") for "policeman." [73]

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 deriving from nowata, a Delaware word for "welcome" (more precisely the Delaware word is nuwita which can mean "welcome" or "friend" in the Delaware languages). 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." [74]

Other examples of adopted words are ᎧᏫ (kawi) for "coffee" and ᏩᏥ (watsi) for "watch"; which led to ᎤᏔᎾ ᏩᏥ (utana watsi, "big watch") for clock. [74]

Meaning expansion can be illustrated by the words for "warm" and "cold", which can be also extended to mean "south" and "north". Around the time of the American Civil War, they were further extended to US party labels, Democratic and Republican, respectively. [75]


From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Nigada aniyvwi nigeguda'lvna aleAll human beings are born free andᏂᎦᏓ ᎠᏂᏴᏫ ᏂᎨᎫᏓᎸᎾ ᎠᎴ
unihloyi unadehna duyukdv gesv'i. Gejinela equal in dignity and rights. They areᎤᏂᎶᏱ ᎤᎾᏕᎿ ᏚᏳᎧᏛ ᎨᏒᎢ. ᎨᏥᏁᎳ
unadanvtehdi ale unohlisdiendowed with reason and conscienceᎤᎾᏓᏅᏖᏗ ᎠᎴ ᎤᏃᎵᏍᏗ
ale sagwu gesv junilvwisdanedi anahldinvdlv adanvdo gvhdi.and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.ᎠᎴ ᏌᏊ ᎨᏒ ᏧᏂᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᏗ ᎠᎾᏟᏅᏢ ᎠᏓᏅᏙ ᎬᏗ.

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History of the Cherokee language

This article is a detailed history of the Cherokee language, the Native American Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people.


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  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 [66]
  2. This has been confirmed using the online transliteration service.
  1. The PDF Unicode chart shows the new-form of the letter do.


Concerning the syllabary

Further reading

Language archives, texts, audio, video

Language lessons and online instruction