Cherokee remains the healthiest of the Indian languages, although use dwindles yearly as fewer families continue their bilingual roots.
The Cherokee, or Tsalagi, are a Native American Indian tribe originally hailing from the area near northern Georgia and North Carolina. In 1838, the United States government forcibly removed them from the southeastern United States to what was then the Oklahoma territory. Historians named this event “The Trail of Tears.”
The term “Cherokee” is actually a Creek Indian word meaning “people with another language.” White settlers learned this term from their interactions with the Creek and erroneously affixed it to the Tsalagi people. Both the terms Cherokee and Tsalagi are used interchangeably.
Today, the Cherokee people live throughout the United States. However, the greatest concentrations of Cherokee live in Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and California.
Linguists describe the Cherokee language as polysynthetic, which means the language contains many morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest linguistic units with meaning in a given language. The Cherokee language combines morphemes, or linguistic units with meaning, into new combinations and chains to create meaning. The word “di-ti-yo-hi-hi”, for example, contains a chain of morphemes. Each morpheme means something different, but when combined gives a new, precise meaning. In this example, di-ti-ya-hi-hi translates as “he who argues repeatedly, on purpose, and with a purpose.” In other words—a lawyer.
The Cherokee language also incorporates modern words easily. Automobile and gasoline, for example, are considered proper words and may be pronounced with Cherokee sounds. However, these words mean the same in Cherokee as they do in English.
Individuals continue today to write and publish books, newspapers and Web sites in Cherokee. There are Cherokee language radio stations that provide free downloadable broadcasts on the Internet. Computer fonts are available with Cherokee symbols too, keeping the language alive in the modern age.
Another unique aspect of the Cherokee language is that it is one of the few Native American languages with a written alphabet. Cherokee uses a 85 character syllabary invented by Sequoyah (George Guess). While some symbols look like the familiar alphabet, they are pronounced differently. Sequoyah saw English writing and the Latin alphabet. Since he could not read English, however, he copied many Latin symbols without knowing their pronunciation.
All languages ‘drift’ over time, or devolve into dialects through use and development by local populations. Cherokee is no exception. Cherokee includes two major dialects. The Giduwa dialect spoken by the Eastern Cherokee remains closer to the original language. The Otali dialect, also known as the Overhill dialect, varies the most from the language as written by Sequoyah. Otali contains many pronunciation variations, as well as the most words adopted whole cloth from standard American English.
If you saw the movie, The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel-Day Lewis, you may want to listen to the sound track a bit more closely. The soundtrack includes the song, “I Will Find You,” which has portions sung in Cherokee and Mohican.
Many resources exist on the Internet to learn Cherokee. The following sites include dictionaries, grammars, pronunciation guides, simple phrases, excerpts from Cherokee-language books or newspapers, and much more: