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What is the Cherokee Language?

By Jennifer Voight
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Cherokee language is the only south Iroquoian language still spoken in the United States. Although this colorful language of the Cherokee people, or Tsalagi, has been spoken for thousands of years, its written syllabary was invented in the early 19th century. Like many Iroquoian languages, the Cherokee language is polysynthetic, meaning words are composed of many morphemes and can be very long.

In 1821, a Cherokee named Sequoyah began work on a Cherokee written language syllabary. Although he could not read or write English, he created a syllabary based on the English alphabet. When he finished 12 years later, he had established the Cherokee language as the only Native American language with a written alphabet based on English.

The Cherokee syllabary contains about 85 characters. Each letter stands for an entire syllable. There are six vowels, including all of the familiar English vowels, but with the addition of a “v” which is pronounced like “u” as in “but,” only with a nasalized quality. There are also many characters that stand for a combination of vowels and consonants.

Two Cherokee language dialects survive. A third, the Eastern, or lower dialect, is now extinct. The remaining two dialects developed separately from each other after the U.S. government forcibly relocated the Cherokee Nation from Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama in the 1830s to Oklahoma. Some Overhill Cherokees resisted relocation and went into hiding in Tennessee and northern Georgia, adopting the lifestyle and customs of European settlers in public. In private, they continued to speak their language and practice traditional customs.

The Middle, or Kituwah dialect, is spoken on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina and has been the least influenced by other languages. The Western, or Overhill dialect, is spoken by Cherokees in Oklahoma and a few isolated pockets in Tennessee and has experienced some changes and additions since Sequoya’s syllabary.

Another blow to the survival of the Cherokee language came in 1879, when the first Indian boarding schools were opened. Young Native American children were removed from their homes, forced to wear European-style dress, and speak only English in an attempt to assimilate them into European-American culture. Mainstreaming efforts continued for the next 50 years.

Several groups are trying to preserve the Cherokee language. The Cherokee preservation Foundation offers Cherokee-language-only classrooms where Cherokee children are immersed in the language on a daily basis. Online classes and podcasts have been developed by the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program to make sure the language is recorded for generations to come.

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