North American Indian language, member of the Iroquoian family, spoken by
the Cherokee people originally inhabiting Virginia, North Carolina, South
Carolina, and Georgia.
Spoken by an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Cherokee
in north-eastern Oklahoma and some 1000 near the Qualla Reservation in
The second most widely used Native American
One of the few Native American languages that is
one of the first American Indian languages to have a system of writing
devised for it—a syllabary, so called because each of the graphic symbols
represents a syllable.
Tsalagi, its name in its own language) like most Native American languages,
is polysynthetic. As in the case of
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. 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.
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.
This is called Tone sandhi. 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.