Cherokee language faces extinction

There are less than 250 native Cherokee speakers left.

Just a few years ago, that number was at 500. The decline is happening so fast, it would be easy for Cherokee linguists to despair, but they haven’t. They won’t.

Instead, they have been working tirelessly to reclaim the Cherokee language. Language and culture are one and the same, and many members of the community are worried that the Cherokee will lose a vital part of their culture if Cherokee is no longer spoken.

When the Eastern and Western band Cherokee sat down a few decades ago to decide what they should call a car, a word that didn’t exist in the Cherokee language at that time, they decided to call it a word that roughly translates to “big round eyes.” referring to the headlights on a car. Shirley Oswalt, a leading voice in the movement to revitalize the Cherokee language, explained in a talk that the language is influenced more by what an object looks like than almost anything else.

Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary in the early 1800s. He is the only known illiterate person  to singlehandedly invent a written alphabet or syllabary.

Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary in the early 1800s. He is the only known illiterate person to singlehandedly invent a written alphabet or syllabary.

Although there are tenses in the traditional sense, what’s often more important in Cherokee is how an object appears. For example, objects are conjugated based on whether they are hard and inflexible, soft and flexible, and so on.

Individual Cherokee from both the Eastern and Western coasts meet around four times a year to tackle the ever-increasing number of words that the Cherokee need to add to their vocabulary, including words relating to biology and medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and – of course – technology. Sometimes they’ve been forced, for lack of a better option, to simply adopt the English word for objects, such as CD and DVD.

Meanwhile, Oswalt, in small-town North Carolina, and her counterparts on the Western and Eastern coasts have been running language immersion camps and instituting Cherokee classes in local elementary, middle, and high schools. Western Carolina University has become a pioneer by instituting college-level language learning classes and collaborating with Cherokee leaders on how best to rejuvenate the language.

A lot of people are working to encourage a new generation of Cherokee to speak their native tongue. Already if you go to the local community center in North Carolina and ask the kids there if they know any Cherokee, the words that come out of their mouths will not be in English.

And that is beautiful.

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Katie is an Anthropology and Spanish double major. She is a self-proclaimed bibliophile, enjoys Earl Grey, and adores the College. She is a contributor at CisternYard News.

'Cherokee language faces extinction' have 2 comments

  1. April 3, 2015 @ 4:39 pm Kenia

    Hi Katie!

    I came across your post and thought I’d reach out to you. I work at Mango Languages – an online learning-language software company. Your post hit close to home because we actually just created a Cherokee course, working with Roy Boney from the Cherokee nation, and released it about two months ago. If you want to check it out, I’d love to create a Mango Language account for you. Or you can check out if your public library or university library subscribes to Mango Languages. If so – you have free access through them. Either way, let me know!



  2. April 9, 2015 @ 10:06 am Ned

    Hey! I loved your coverage of the Cherokee language, however the speaker numbers are not accurate. Cherokee has upwards of ten thousand speakers, a lot more than 250. Perhaps you are only talking about the Kituwah dialect? Anyhow, Cherokee is the second most commonly spoken Native American language in the United States, so it’s not accurate to say it “faces extinction” when two immersion schools – one in North Carolina and one in Oklahoma – are teaching children all subjects solely in Cherokee, and the number of speakers has been steadily on the incline since 1930. Heck, some sources even indicate the number of speakers has hit the 50,000 mark, and lots of Oklahoma schools (including the University of Oklahoma) offer Cherokee as a second language. I just wanted to point out that Cherokee is a LOT healthier than the article presents it to be.

    ᎣᏍᏓ ᏒᎯᏰ (Osda svhiye),


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