The Cherokee are a people native to North America who populated the Eastern and Southeastern United States before being forcibly moved to Northeastern Oklahoma during the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838-39 by order of President Andrew Jackson. The Cherokee language, known to the native people as Tsalagi, is spoken today by approximately 22,000 people, mostly in Western North Carolina and Northeastern Oklahoma. It is an Iroquoian language that is closely related to languages spoken by other native tribal groups of North America. It is the only Southern Iroquoian tongue still spoken today, and Cherokee speakers account for the 7th largest group of speakers of a native tongue north of Mexico.
The Cherokee language became a language in its own right approximately 35,000 years ago. It is closely related to other Iroquoian languages spoken by the people of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora groups of New York and Ontario, Canada. Because of time and distance there is evidence that these groups would not have been able to communicate with one another in their own native languages. However, because of the similarities in the languages, it is thought that there might have been some amalgamation between the Cherokee and the other groups.
The Cherokee language is the one North American Indian language in which the most literature is published. This is no doubt due to the invention of the syllabary. The Cherokee syllabary was invented by a Cherokee scholar named Sequoya (also known as George Guess). Sequoya holds the distinction of being the only person in recorded history to invent a written language without being literate in any languages at all. In Sequoya’s syllabary, each symbol represents a different syllable rather than an individual phoneme. 85 characters make up the Cherokee syllabary, and are quite suitable for written language. The Cherokee language is a polysynthetic language. It is similar to the Latinate languages in that morphemes are connected together to form words of varying lengths. Though Sequoya had seen written English, he was not able to read it or write it himself. Therefore, some of the Tsalagi symbols resemble Latin alphabet characters, but do not represent the same letter or sound (for example, Tsalagi ‘D’ = a, Tsalagi ‘W’ = la, Tsalagi ‘T’ = I).
Cherokee is a term coined by the white man. It comes from a Creek word that means “people with another language”. The Cherokee refer to themselves as Aniyunwiya, which is a Tsalagi term. There are approximately 350,000 Cherokee people today, mostly living in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Many of them speak a dialect of Tsalagi, though it has become endangered. Government policies enforced as recently as the 1950’s implemented the removal of Cherokee children from their Tsalagi speaking homes, which has resulted in the decrease of Cherokee children raised bilingually from 75% to less than 5% today.
At the time of the European landfall in the New World, there were 3 Tsalagi dialects that were being spoken consistently. These dialects corresponded more or less with the major geographic regions of the Cherokee Nation. The Lower, or Elati, dialect was spoken in NW South Carolina and NE Georgia. The Middle, or Kituhura, dialect was spoken in Western North Carolina. The Overhill, or Otali, dialect was spoken in Eastern Tennessee, North Carolina, NE Alabama, and NW Georgia. Today, we see that some of these dialects have survived time and the hardships of the Cherokee Nation. Currently, 13,000 people speak the Overhill dialect in NE Oklahoma, and 700 people speak the Middle dialect in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the Lower dialect of the Cherokee Nation is extinct today. However, approximately 350 people near Robbinsville, North Carolina speak one other dialect, a combination of the Overhill and Middle dialects.
The survival of the Cherokee language, or Tsalagi, into today’s modern world is a testament of the strength and immovable character of the Cherokee Nation. Surviving the Trail of Tears and other atrocities intended to destroy the language, culture, and sprit of this native North American tribe, they have persevered and proven that, as one of the Five Civilized Tribes of North America, they can continue and survive the pressures that other cultures have tried to force upon them.