Five facts you didn’t know about Cherokee:
- Today, Cherokee is one of the most well-preserved Indigenous languages of North America; the largest percentage of speakers residing in Oklahoma and North Carolina.
- In Cherokee, the context, the object, the action, and other connotations can be conveyed within one single word. In English, we usually use a full sentence to express our thoughts.
- A monolingual Cherokee farmer named Sequoyah invented the Cherokee writing system, or “syllabary,” in 1821 – before that, it was a spoken language only. Although his work soon became fundamental to the Cherokee culture, Sequoyah was actually illiterate when he first created the system.
- Verbs comprise about 75% of the Cherokee language and are the most important word type (compare this to only 25% of English!).
- There has recently been a renewed interest among Cherokee youth to maintain the language and history of their ancestors, despite a local and widespread push to maintain English as lingua franca.
Three important characteristics of the Cherokee language:
Cherokee has six tones (high, low, rising, falling, highfall, and lowfall) that are still important to understand, but are used more strictly by elderly speakers of the language. Younger generations these days are simplifying the tone system – perhaps to make the language easier to grasp for new speakers.
This means that many different morphemes can be linked together to form one word. Morphemes are parts of words that have their own meanings, but may not be able to stand alone. For example, the Cherokee word datsigowhtisgv’i means, “I was seeing something facing me”. The different word parts are da- (something facing the speaker), tsi- (first person conjugation), gowhti (to see), -sg- (ongoing action), and v’I (past tense).
It uses a syllabary
This is a certain type of alphabet where each character is used to represent a whole syllable. By contrast, in English, each of our letters represents a single sound.