The Cherokee is the most southern branch of the Iroquoian language family. Linguists believe that the Cherokee migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Southeast over three thousand years ago.
In 1540 the Cherokee lay claim to a territory comprising of 40,000 square miles in the southeastern part of what later became the United States. This area included parts of the states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
In the winter of 1838, the Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed from what was left of their original lands in the East. 20,000 people were forced along the “The Trail of Tears” to the Indian Territory of northeastern Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokees died. The journey was know by the Cherokee as nu-na-hi du-na tlo-hi-lu-i, the “trail where they cried.”
Several hundred Cherokee evaded removal by hiding in the mountains of North Carolina. In 1849 they were given the right to remain on lands purchased in their behalf. It later became the Qualla Reservation.
At the time of the first contact with Europeans, the Cherokee occupied three distinct geographical regions. Three distinct dialects were spoken: Eastern, Middle and Western.
The Eastern or lower dialect is now extinct. Its chief peculiarity is a rolling “r”, which takes the place of the “l” of the other dialects. The Cherokee speakers of the Eastern dialect occupied what is now South Carolina and made the first contact with the British. Due to the wars and conflicts of the 1800’s, the few remaining speakers were absorbed into the other Cherokee groups further inland.
The Middle dialect (Kituwah) is spoken by the Cherokee now living on the Qualla reservation in North Carolina. In some of its phonetic forms it agrees with the Eastern dialect, but resembles the Western in having the “l” sound.
The Western dialect (The Overhill) is spoken by the Cherokee Nation in the West. Because of their isolation, the Kituwah dialect was less impacted by the influence of other Indian cultures and the many conflicts the Western Cherokee encountered. The Overhill dialect is the softest and most musical of this musical language.
The name, “Cherokee,” occurs in fifty different spellings. In this form it dates back at least to 1708. From the Eastern dialect came the form tsa-ra-gi, the form with which the English settlers first became familiar (a rolling “r” took the place of the “l” of the other dialects). Thus came the word “Cherokee.” The Spaniards, advancing from the south, became familiar with the other form (Middle and Western: tsa-la-gi) and spelled the word as Chalaque. Today Cherokees both East and West refer to themselves in that form: tsi-tsa-la-gi (I am Cherokee).
The proper name by which the Cherokee call themselves is: yun-wi-ya. It comes from yun-wi (person) and ya (real or principal). When referring to the tribe, the prefix ani is added: ani-yun-wi-ya.
Cherokees are the only Native American People who possess a writing system equivalent to the European alphabet. The Cherokee syllabary is the only alphabet in history attributed to be the work of one man, George Gist, known to the world as Sequoyah. Although he did not speak or read the English language, he understood the power of the written word. After twelve years of dedicated work, Sequoyah finished the Cherokee syllabary in 1821. He spent the rest of his life teaching his people how to read and spell.
The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary of 84 characters in which each letter in a word stands for a whole syllable.
There are six vowels: a-e-i-o-u including a vowel which does not exist in English (v). The (v) vowel is decidedly tonal and is pronounced like the “u” in “huh”, nasalized.
The remaining seventy eight characters consist of combining consonants and vowels with one exception, the consonant “s”. It stands alone as the only single consonant represented as a character. Adding “s” to other syllables as a prefix or suffix eliminated the need to create seventeen more characters to the syllabary. There are no equivalent sounds for the English consonants BFPRVX. (Overhill uses the “j” sound when pronouncing the “ts” syllables; Kituwah uses the softer “z” sound.)
Across the United States, the native peoples are involved in preserving their aboriginal languages. Unfortunately some of these languages have all ready been lost. In Qualla and the Cherokee Nation, dedicated Cherokee linguists are working diligently to ensure the Cherokee language survives.
Increasing numbers of Cherokee descendants are renewing their ties with their traditions, history and language. With this renewal comes the understanding that their Cherokee heritage must be preserved and passed on to the next generation.