Cherokee language

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ᏣᎳᎩ Tsalagi
Spoken in Oklahoma and the Cherokee Reservation in Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina (U.S. state)United States of America
Total speakers 15,000 to 22,000
Language family Iroquoian
 Southern Iroquoian
Language codes
ISO 639-2 chr
ISO 639-3 chr
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.

Cherokee (Tsalagi) is an Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people which uses a unique syllabary writing system. It is the only Southern Iroquoian language that remains spoken.


Cherokee only has one labial consonant, /m/, which is relatively new to the language, unless one counts the Cherokee w a labial instead of a velar.


Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Aspirated stop t k
Unaspirated stop d g ʔ
Affricate ʦ
Fricative s h
Nasal m n
Approximant j ɰ
Lateral l


Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə̃ o
Open a


Cherokee has only one diphthong native to the language:

  • ai  /ai/

Another exception to the phonology above is the modern Oklahoma use of the loanword "automobile," with the /ɔ/ sound and /b/ sound of English.


Cherokee like most Native American languages, is polysynthetic. As in the case of German or Latin, units of meaning, called morphemes, are linked together and occasionally form very long words. Cherokee verbs, constituting the most important word type, must contain as a minimum a pronominal prefix, a verb root, an aspect suffix, and a modal suffix. Consider the following verb:

Verb form ke:ka
k- e: -k -a

For example, the verb form ke:ka, "I am going," has each of these elements. The pronominal prefix is k-, which indicates first person singular. The verb root is -e, "to go." The aspect suffix that this verb employs for the present-tense stem is -k-. The present-tense modal suffix for regular verbs in Cherokee is -a.

Verbs can also have prepronominal prefixes, reflexive prefixes, and derivative suffixes. Given all possible combinations of affixes, each regular verb can have 21,262 inflected forms.

Writing system

For more information, see: Cherokee syllabary.

Cherokee is written in an 85-character syllabary invented by Sequoyah (also known as George Guess). Some symbols do resemble Latin alphabet letters, but with completely different sound values; Sequoyah had seen English writing, but didn't know how to write it.

Sequoyah's invention stirred up controversy. His long absence from farming and communal affairs while he perfected his method had generated rumors of witchcraft. Even after the triumphant demonstration when he exchanged "talking leaves" with his daughter, the tribal elders were reluctant to adopt his scheme. One of them, who had been to a white man's college, devised an alternative transcription system based directly on the Roman alphabet. But popular sentiment among the tribal members overwhelmingly rejected it in favor of the native champion's invention.


Cherokee has a robust tonal system in which tones may be combined in various ways, following subtle and complex tonal rules that vary from community to community. While the tonal system is undergoing a gradual simplification in many areas (no doubt as part of Cherokee's often falling victim to second-language status), the tonal system remains extremely important in meaning and is still held strongly by many, especially older speakers. It should be noted that the syllabary does not normally display tone, and that real meaning discrepancies are rare within the native-language Cherokee-speaking community. The same goes for transliterated Cherokee ("osiyo," "dohitsu," etc.), which is rarely written with any tone markers, except in dictionaries. Native speakers can tell the difference between tone-distinguished words by context.

Computer representation

Cherokee is represented in Unicode, in the character range U+13A0 to U+13F4.

    0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F

A single Cherokee font is supplied with Mac OS X, version 10.3 (Panther) and later. Cherokee is also supported by free fonts found at, and the shareware fonts Code2000 and Everson Mono.


  • Pulte, William, and Durbin Feeling. 2001. Cherokee. In: Garry, Jane, and Carl Rubino (eds.) Facts About the World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages: Past and Present. New York: H. W. Wilson. (Viewed at the Rosetta Project)
  • Scancarelli, Janine. "Cherokee Writing." The World's Writing Systems. 1998: Section 53. (Viewed at the Rosetta Project)

External links