Celebrate an Endangered Language: Learn Cherokee (Tsalagi Gawonihisdi)

Cherokee_language_alphabet_Mango_Languages
Many high schools have at least a semester-long foreign language requirement. Although college offered more variety in this sense, it wasn’t common to be offered an “endangered” language. Today, we highlight the endangered Indigenous language of Cherokee.

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:

The tones

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.

It’s polysynthetic

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.

Why should we care about preserving Indigenous languages?

Cherokee carries with it a rich history that spans centuries. If we fail to preserve it, we risk losing not only the language itself but deep ancestral knowledge and ancient spiritual traditions. Even if you don’t speak one of these languages yourself, you can help preserve these gems by simply learning more about those who do! Mango Languages offers all of our endangered and Indigenous language courses free to anyone interested in learning.  Visit our Endangered and Indigenous languages page to give Cherokee or any of the other endangered languages a try.
For the background story on how and why Mango Languages created the Cherokee course, check out our previous post: Introducing Mango’s New  Cherokee Language Course.
Meet The Author:
Author - Britta Wilhelmsen
Britta Wilhelmsen
Linguist at Mango Languages
Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she’s not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires’ beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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