Cherokee 101

Cherokee has been spoken for thousands of years. However, during most of that time, it was never written down. There simply wasn’t a need to do it.

The Cherokee syllabary, with symbols based on letters from the Latin alphabet, was developed between 1808 and 1824. Unlike the traditional languages and alphabets to which we are accustomed, those symbols represent syllables, not just letters.

This is hello written in the Cherokee syllabary:

Siyo - Hello in Cherokee

It’s Siyo. That’s pronounced see-yoh. 

Ironically, there is no actual “goodbye” in Cherokee because that is considered too final. Instead, you would tell someone to “be strong.” The word for that is stiyu. It’s pronounced (stee-you).

Keeping all that in mind, the 2010 U.S. Census reports that there are about 10,400 people in the country that speak Cherokee. Most of those, about 10,000 people, are members of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. There are about 122,000 members of that nation, otherwise known as the Western Band of Cherokee.

The rest of the Cherokee speakers are with the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina. There are about 10,000 members in the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

That may not seem like many people, but what has helped to preserve the language is that, thanks to the creation of the syllabary, there is plenty of documentation of the language. Researchers have found a dictionary and translated New Testament dating back to 1850. There are many other publications that have been found as well, including the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper published in a Native American language. It started in 1828 and has been published intermittently since then. It is now published on the web. 

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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