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Number of Speakers: 20,000

Key Dialects: Elati, Kituhwa, Otali, Overhill-Middle Cherokee

Geographical Center: Oklahoma and North Carolina, USA

Cherokee is spoken today by about 20,000 speakers, though only 130 are monolingual speakers.

Cherokee is a member of the Iroquoian language family, which also includes Seneca, Tuscorora, Onondega, Wyandot-Huron, and Mohawk.

The major dialect differences in Cherokee fall along the geographical divide. There are two dialects spoken in North Carolina and one in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma dialect is thought to be a mixture of different dialects which formed when different tribes were relocated to the same reservation. The North Carolina dialects tend to show less change, due to the isolation of the speakers in a mountainous region. All dialects are mutually intelligible. Differences among the Oklahoma speakers tend to be limited to phonological features.

In 1821 the Cherokee tribal council approved for use a Cherokee syllabary created by a Cherokee named Sequoyah. Sequoyah was apparently an illiterate monolingual Cherokee speaker who knew only a few words of spoken English, but who realized the power the written word gave to the English-speaking community. Using some printed alphabets given to him by missionaries, which were supposedly English, Greek, and Hebrew, he created a Cherokee syllabary with eighty-six letters. One letter was soon thrown out in the process of creating a version for the printing press, which left the eighty-five-letter syllabary in use today.

The number of consonants in Cherokee is debated, but is probably around seventeen. The nasal /m/ is the only labial consonant, although the stops /k/ and /g/ can occur labialized. Vowels can occur long or short, and in all there are twelve vowel phonemes. All final vowels are nasalized. Cherokee syllables have phonemic tone – there is an even tone and a rising/falling tone.

Cherokee nouns are divided into animate and inanimate classes. This is only apparent through the plural marker, though an adjective qualifying an inanimate noun may have an animate plural marker. Many nouns are verbal in form, such as the word for ‘horse’ so-qui-li which is literally something like ‘he carries heavy things’.

Cherokee distinguishes only two free pronominal forms, 1st person singular and 2nd person singular, though these may be omitted. Otherwise, pronominal forms are bound to the verb. Cherokee has two sets of ten such forms, the set used depending on the verb. The ten forms include 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person singular, 1st person dual (including 2nd person), 2nd person dual, and 1st person dual (including 3rd person), 1st person plural (including 3rd person), 2nd person plural, 3rd person plural, and 1st person plural (including both 2nd person and 3rd person).

Verbs can be divided into those that require classifiers and those that do not. Those that do include a small set of verbs that deal with handling objects – such as picking things up, pushing things, etc. The classifier categories separate objects into groups of flexible objects, long objects, nondescript objects, liquids, and animate objects.

The word order can be SOV or SVO.

Through pressure to assimilate with American culture and the decline in numbers of the Cherokee population, knowledge and use of the Cherokee language has sharply decreased in the last century and a half. Recently more interest has been shown by Cherokees toward their heritage and classes have been set up at many reservations to teach Cherokee to tribe members.

It is believed that the Cherokees migrated to the southeast from the Great Lakes region about three thousand years ago, so similarity between Cherokee and the other Iroquoian languages is limited. The Cherokees settled in the area of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee. As early as the late 1700s some Cherokees began to migrate out West, due to pressure from white settlers. In 1817 some Cherokees accepted a monetary fee to voluntarily migrate west, but enough remained that in 1838 Andrew Jackson ordered the forcible removal of all remaining Cherokees to the Oklahoma territory. A small number of Cherokees were able to escape into the heavily forested mountains of North Carolina, and in 1845 were given the right to remain. By the time of the removal it is estimated that 70-80% of Cherokees were literate in the Cherokee script. In 1828 a weekly newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, written in Cherokee, was established, but this did not last beyond the relocation.

Campbell, G.L. 1991. Compendium of the World’s Languages. London and New York: Routledge.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Feeling, Durbin. 1975. Cherokee-English Dictionary. Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Heritage Printing.

Foley, Lawrence. 1980. Phonological Variation in Western Cherokee. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Holmes, Ruth Bradley and Betty Sharp Smith. 1989. Beginning Cherokee. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

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