Monday, August 18, 2014

Language Profile: Cherokee

This week we're taking a look at Cherokee, a member of the Iroquoian language family. Cherokee is spoken by the Cherokee people, a Native American tribe that primarily lives in the U.S. states of Oklahoma and North Carolina.

A stop sign featuring Cherokee with
transliteration into Latin script below.
Unlike many indigenous languages in North America that are at risk for extinction due to dwindling numbers of speakers and few written records, Cherokee is considered to be one of the healthiest indigenous languages. One of the reasons for Cherokee's success is the large number of publications in the language, including a Cherokee dictionary and grammar book and the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper published in a Native American language in the United States.

The language has somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 speakers of all ages due to renewed interest in the language by Cherokee youths. It is also thought to be one of only a few Native American languages that has an increasing number of speakers, primarily due to recent language revitalization efforts.

Cherokee was solely a spoken language until the early 1800s. In 1821, Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith, created the Cherokee syllabary. This is especially interesting because this made Sequoyah the first member of a pre-literate group to have independently created their own effective writing system. Many other indigenous languages in the Americas have writing systems that were created by Christian missionaries in order to help with their conversion efforts. As a result of the Cherokee Nation's adoption of the syllabary, the Cherokee quickly achieved high literacy rates within their communities.

Each symbol in the 85 character syllabary represents a syllable instead of a phoneme. Some Cherokee symbols resemble letters from Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic scripts, but they don't have the same sounds. For example, the symbol W in Cherokee represents the sound /la/, while D represents /a/.