Cherokee syllabary

Last updated
Cherokee sample.svg
Tsa-la-gi ("Cherokee") written in the Cherokee syllabary
Languages Cherokee language
Time period
1820s [1] – present [2]
ISO 15924 Cher, 445
Unicode alias

The Cherokee syllabary is a syllabary invented by Sequoyah in the late 1810s and early 1820s to write the Cherokee language. His creation of the syllabary is particularly noteworthy as he could not previously read any script. [3] 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) [4] characters provide a suitable method to write Cherokee. Although some symbols resemble Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic letters, they are not used to represent the same sounds.



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

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.

The charts below show the syllabary in recitation order, left to right, top to bottom as arranged by Samuel Worcester, along with his commonly used transliterations. [5] [6] He played a key role in the development of Cherokee printing from 1828 until his death in 1859.

The transliteration working from the syllabary uses conventional consonants like qu, ts,..., and may differ from the ones used in the phonological orthographies (first column in the below chart, in the "d/t system").

The chart below uses Unicode characters from the Cherokee block. For an image alternative, see File:Cherokee Syllabary.svg.
Consonantaeiouv [ə̃]
Øa e i ouv
g / kgaka ge gi gogugv
hha he hi hohuhv
l / hlla le li lolulv
mma me mi momu*
n / hnnahnanahne ni nonunv
gw / kwqua que qui quoquuquv
sssa se si sosusv
d / tdata deteditidodudv
dl / tl (hl)dlatla tle tli tlotlutlv
j / c
(dz / ts)
tsa tse tsi tsotsutsv
w / hwwa we wi wowuwv
y / hyya ye yi yoyuyv
* The character Ᏽ was previously used to represent the syllable mv, but is no longer used. [note 1]

The Latin letter 'v' in the transcriptions, seen in the last column, represents a nasal vowel, /ə̃/.

The Cherokee character Ꮩ (do) does have a different orientation in old documents, resembling a Greek Λ (or barless A) rather than a Latin V as in modern documents. [note 2]

There is also a handwritten cursive form of the syllabary; [12] notably, the handwritten glyphs bear little resemblance to the printed forms.

Detailed considerations

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 may represent multiple variations of the same syllable. [13] Not all phonemic distinctions of the spoken language are represented:

As with some other underspecified writing systems (like Arabic), adult speakers can distinguish words by context.

If a labial consonant such as p or b appears in a borrowed word or name, it is written using the qu row. This /kw/ ~ /p/ correspondence is a known linguistic phenomenon that exists elsewhere (cf. P-Celtic, Osco-Umbrian).

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. One solution is to use an apostrophe to separate the two,[ citation needed ] as is done in Japanese (e.g.: Man'yogana): itsalis'anedi.

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 may change ᎠᏍᎡᏃ to ᎠᏎᏃ and change ᎨᏍᎥᎢ to ᎨᏒᎢ.

Character orders

Original Cherokee syllabary order, with the now obsolete letter [?] in red Cherokee syllabary original order.png
Original Cherokee syllabary order, with the now obsolete letter Ᏽ in red


Cherokee uses Arabic numerals (0–9). Sequoyah proposed a system of numerals for Cherokee, but his system was never adopted. [14] Sequoyah's system included symbols for 1–20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, as well as a group of three symbols for 'thousand', and another group of three symbols for 'million'. [14]

Early history

Sequoyah's original syllabary characters, showing both the script forms and the print forms Original Cherokee Syllabary.jpg
Sequoyah's original syllabary characters, showing both the script forms and the print forms
External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg The Cherokee Syllabary, NCLLP [15]

Around 1809, impressed by the "talking leaves" of European written languages, Sequoyah began work to create a writing system for the Cherokee language. After attempting to create a character for each word, Sequoyah realized this would be too difficult and eventually created characters to represent syllables. He worked on the syllabary for twelve years before completion and dropped or modified most of the characters he originally created.

After the syllabary was completed in the early 1820s, it achieved almost instantaneous popularity and spread rapidly throughout Cherokee society. [16] By 1825, the majority of Cherokees could read and write in their newly developed orthography. [17]

Some of Sequoyah's most learned contemporaries immediately understood that the syllabary was a great invention. For example, when Albert Gallatin, a politician and trained linguist, saw a copy of Sequoyah's syllabary, he believed it was superior to the English alphabet.[ clarification needed ] He recognized that even though the Cherokee student must learn 85 characters instead of 26 for English, the Cherokee could read immediately after learning all the symbols. The Cherokee student could accomplish in a few weeks what students of English writing might require two years to achieve. [18]

In 1828, the order of the characters in a chart and the shapes of the characters were modified by Cherokee author and editor Elias Boudinot to adapt the syllabary to printing presses. [19] The 86th character was dropped entirely. [20] Following these changes, the syllabary was adopted by the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, later Cherokee Advocate , followed by the Cherokee Messenger, a bilingual paper printed in Indian Territory in the mid-19th century. [21]

In 1834, Worcester made changes to several characters in order to improve the readability of Cherokee text. Most notably, he inverted the do character (Ꮩ) so that it could not be confused with the go character (Ꭺ). [22] Otherwise, the characters remained remarkably invariant until the advent of new typesetting technologies in the 20th century. [23]

Later developments

Sign in Cherokee, North Carolina Cherokee Central Schools.jpg
Sign in Cherokee, North Carolina
Cherokee syllabary in use today, Tahlequah, Oklahoma Cherokee stop sign.png
Cherokee syllabary in use today, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

In the 1960s, the Cherokee Phoenix Press began publishing literature in the Cherokee syllabary, including the Cherokee Singing Book. [24] A Cherokee syllabary typewriter ball was developed for the IBM Selectric in the late 1970s. Computer fonts greatly expanded Cherokee writers' ability to publish in Cherokee. In 2010, a Cherokee keyboard cover was developed by Roy Boney, Jr. and Joseph Erb, facilitating more rapid typing in Cherokee. The keyboard cover is now used by students in the Cherokee Nation Immersion School, where all coursework is written in syllabary. [19]

In August 2010, the Oconaluftee Institute for Cultural Arts in Cherokee, North Carolina acquired a letterpress and had the Cherokee syllabary recast to begin printing one-of-a-kind fine art books and prints in syllabary. [25] Artists Jeff Marley and Frank Brannon completed a collaborative project on October 19, 2013, in which they printed using Cherokee syllabary type from Southwestern Community College in the print shop at New Echota. This was the first time syllabary type has been used at New Echota since 1835. [26]

In 2015 the Unicode Consortium encoded a lowercase version of the script, since typists would often set Cherokee with two different point sizes, so as to mark beginnings of sentences and given names (as in the Latin alphabet). Handwritten Cherokee also shows a difference in lower- and uppercase letters, such as descenders and ascenders. [27] Lowercase Cherokee has already been encoded in the font Everson Mono.

The syllabary is finding increasingly diverse usage today, from books, newspapers, and websites to the street signs of Tahlequah, Oklahoma and Cherokee, North Carolina. An increasing corpus of children's literature is printed in Cherokee to meet the needs of students in Cherokee language immersion schools in Oklahoma and North Carolina. [28]

Possible influence on Liberian Vai syllabary

In recent years evidence has emerged suggesting that the Cherokee syllabary provided a model for the design of the Vai syllabary in Liberia, Africa. The Vai syllabary emerged about 1832/33. The link appears to have been Cherokee who emigrated to Liberia after the invention of the Cherokee syllabary (which in its early years spread rapidly among the Cherokee) but before the inventions of the Vai syllabary. One such man, Austin Curtis, married into a prominent Vai family and became an important Vai chief himself. It is perhaps not coincidence that the "inscription on a house" that drew the world's attention to the existence of the Vai script was in fact on the home of Curtis, a Cherokee. [29] There also appears to be a connection between an early form of written Bassa and the earlier Cherokee syllabary.


Oklahoma Cherokee language immersion school student writing in the Cherokee syllabary. Cherokeeclass.png
Oklahoma Cherokee language immersion school student writing in the Cherokee syllabary.

Cherokee language classes typically begin with a transliteration of Cherokee into Roman letters, only later incorporating the syllabary. The Cherokee language classes offered through Haskell Indian Nations University, Northeastern State University, [19] the University of Oklahoma, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, Western Carolina University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the immersion elementary schools offered by the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, [30] such as New Kituwah Academy, all teach the syllabary. The fine arts degree program at Southwestern Community College incorporates the syllabary in its printmaking classes. [25]


Cherokee was added to the Unicode Standard in September, 1999 with the release of version 3.0. On June 17, 2015, with the release of version 8.0, Cherokee was redefined as a bicameral script; the character repertoire was extended to include a complete set of lowercase Cherokee letters as well as the archaic character (Ᏽ).


The first Unicode block for Cherokee is U+13A0U+13FF. It contains all 86 uppercase letters, together with six lowercase letters: [note 3]

Cherokee [1] [2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
1. ^ As of Unicode version 13.0
2. ^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

The Cherokee Supplement block is U+AB70U+ABBF. It contains the remaining 80 lowercase letters.

Cherokee Supplement [1]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
1. ^ As of Unicode version 13.0


A single Cherokee Unicode font, Plantagenet Cherokee, is supplied with macOS, version 10.3 (Panther) and later. Windows Vista also includes a Cherokee font. Windows 10 replaced Plantagenet Cherokee with Gadugi. 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. [31]

See also


  1. Most sources, including materials produced by the Cherokee Nation, state that this character represented the mv syllable. [7] [8] [9] However, Worcester wrote that it represented a syllable similar to hv, but more open. [10]
  2. There is a difference between the old form of do (Λ-like) and the modern form of do (V-like). The standard Digohweli font displays the modern form. Old Do Digohweli and Code2000 fonts both display the old form. [11]
  3. The PDF Unicode chart shows the modern form of the letter do.

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  15. "The North Carolina Language and Life Project" . Retrieved April 2, 2016.
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  23. Giasson 2004, p. 35.
  24. Sturtevant & Fogelson 2004, p. 750.
  25. 1 2 "Letterpress arrives at OICA" Archived November 30, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Southwestern Community College (retrieved 21 Nov 2010)
  26. "New Echota days begin this Saturday" . Calhoun Times. Oct 18, 2013. Retrieved 21 July 2017.
  27. "Working group Document : Revised proposal for the addition of Cherokee characters to the UCS" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-06-21.
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  30. "Cherokee Language Revitalization Project." Archived 2010-05-28 at the Wayback Machine Western Carolina University. (retrieved 23 Aug 2010)
  31. "Phoreus Cherokee". TypeCulture. Retrieved 15 January 2018.


Further reading