Saving A Lost Language

By 2000 BC, Cherokee language and culture spread throughout the North Carolina mountains, and yet, it was almost lost to history. Now Western Carolina University researchers are working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee to study, preserve and grow the language once again.

CULLOWHEE — Stop at any scenic rest area along and Blue Ridge Parkway, get out of the car and gaze out at the mountains, blue sky, and birds riding the updrafts from the hills. Watch the trees and flowers sway in the breeze.

This is the land of the Cherokee.

The clouds were called ooh-lo-gee-la.

The mountains were named doh-da-la.

The entire spectacle of nature before you is called een-ah-gay.

The Cherokee believe everything in the environment, from crops and animals to creeks, mountains and even the wind, all have an intelligent spirit and play a central role in daily life. The Cherokee do not view themselves as separate from the environment. Rather, they see themselves as part of it. Their language reflects that.

“Language is the core to any culture because it is what that culture expresses itself with and it is the dynamic mechanism through which that culture continues,” says Tom Belt, Coordinator of the Cherokee Language Revitalization Program at Western Carolina University. Belt says without its language, the Cherokee culture would have to sustain itself using the language and linguistic rules of another culture, which would most likely be English.

“In other words, we have to describe who we are and be who we are through the English language, or we have at best a way to describe our history. And there’s a difference between history and culture,” adds Belt.

Belt understands the relationship between the Cherokee language and culture better than most people. He was born on tribal lands in Oklahoma and didn’t learn English until age six. That’s why he is one of a group of researchers and linguists at Western Carolina University working to preserve, sustain and revitalize the Cherokee language.

That requires teaching the language. However, teaching Cherokee is difficult because there is no standardized spelling or grammar. And like most indigenous languages, Cherokee is verb-based. English is noun-based. Almost 75% of the Cherokee language is verbs. That’s because verbs convey ideas, thoughts and concepts.

Belt admits it’s been a challenging eight years since the revitalization program began because the faculty is starting the program from scratch.

“We have to build a curriculum for it, we have to build a grammar for it,” says Belt. “It’s like building a boat in the water, but at least we have all of the information as far as speaking the language.”

But even building a set of grammar rules out of a spoken language isn’t easy. Take, for example, how to explain the act of walking. The Cherokee have a word for taking a step. The language also has a word for dancing. It’s the same in English. However, English provides many other words to put the action in context. Cherokee does as well, to an extent, but the word for both actions is nearly the same.

“Ah-ski-ya means to dance, while ah-la-ski-yah means to step,” explains Belt. "So if you omit one vowel, in this case the 'la,' it changes the meaning because it’s the same word.”

Dr. Hartwell Francis, the Director of the Cherokee Language Revitalization Program, cites the word “eat” for another example of the challenge of teaching Cherokee as well as the cultural significance of language.

“There’s a word for eating a meal, like dine, that isn’t used as much in English but it is useful in Cherokee culture because the community enjoys having dinners and meeting and eating,” says Francis. "But then there are also words for eating a specific food, such as a word for eating a solid food like a potato, or a long and rigid food like a carrot, and another for a food that’s flexible like a pancake.”

Cherokee SyllabaryThen there’s the alphabet. The Cherokee alphabet was written in syllabary form in the early 1800s. A syllabary is an alphabet in which each letter in a word stands for a whole syllable instead of a single letter. The Cherokee syllabary has roughly 85 phonetic sounds.

Despite all of the challenges, the university now offers six Cherokee language classes. There’s also a distance learning class with students at UNC Chapel Hill. Dozens of students have taken the classes, including Keyonah Lambert, who is a junior and also happens to be Cherokee. She hopes to attend dental school and then open a clinic in the nearby town of Cherokee to work with her people.

“To me it feels really good to be learning the language that was taken from my grandparents," says Lambert. “They had to go to boarding school and it was taken from them because they had to learn English, so to me it has always been important to learn it, because even my father speaks just a little.”

The chance to learn more about the Cherokee culture lures other students. For example, the Cherokee considered saying goodbye too final.

“There’s no word for bye, so its until we meet again.” explains Rachel Cox, who is a junior at Western Carolina. “So a lot of times there’s not the same words for everything like in English. That makes it difficult so you just have to learn it.”

The university is also working closely with the Eastern Band of Cherokee on a Cherokee language immersion school. 

“Cherokee is this incredible human creation that we wouldn’t want to lose just because of what it is, what it can tell us about psychology and what happens in the mind,” explains Francis, who adds that the language can help to illustrate thousands of years of history and culture. “If we lose Cherokee we have nothing to replace it with. We can’t replace it with a computer program.”

"It’s sustaining a culture, it’s preserving an intrinsic tool and a cultural property that has been honed for thousands of years,” adds Belt. “The Cherokee language was constructed to express a consciousness, a psychology and culture with all the values and mores that construct a culture and we need to preserve that.”

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