[lg policy] Cherokee for Beginners

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 3 16:42:42 UTC 2011

Cherokee for Beginners

December 16, 2010, 10:42 am

By Lawrence Biemiller

Tahlequah, Okla. — I had no idea that my iPhone knew Cherokee. But the
other day Chris Smith showed me how to turn on the Cherokee keyboard
and then sent me a text in Cherokee (along with a translation, which I
needed). It was a simple hello—o si you—in strikingly beautiful
characters that borrow forms from the Greek and Roman alphabets but
add numerous flourishes and filigrees. Each of the 85 characters in
the Cherokee writing system represents a syllable.

Mr. Smith, a Northeastern State University senior who is the
multimedia specialist at the university’s Center for Tribal Studies,
is among a number of students and faculty members at the university
working to promote the use of Cherokee. A study in 2002 found that the
number of fluent speakers was declining rapidly as older people died,
and estimates now are that there may be only 10,000 or so people—most
of them older than 60—who speak the language with ease.

So the Cherokee Nation and the university came together to establish a
program that graduates teachers of the Cherokee language and Cherokee
culture, and that also looks for ways to encourage younger people to
learn and use Cherokee. Mr. Smith said that relying on new technology
is one focus of the program. Apple’s eagerness to incorporate the
Cherokee syllabary in its iPhone software (look under
Settings/General/International/Keyboards) was a happy development that
has led the Cherokee Nation to release a couple of language apps, such
as iSyllabary and iCherokee (the latter teaches basic vocabulary with
digital flash cards). It also led Mr. Smith to start texting in

The characters with which the language is written, Mr. Smith told me,
were created early in the 19th century by Sequoyah, a Cherokee
craftsman who never learned to read or write English but understood
the value of a writing system and labored for more than a decade to
create one for Cherokee. Completed in 1821, his syllabary was in
widespread use within just a few years for books, Bibles, and, in
1828, the first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. It
was printed with parallel columns of Cherokee and English.

Cherokee is not, however, an easy language—in fact, people here told
me, it’s probably nearly as hard to learn as Japanese. My one word of
Cherokee probably won’t get me very far, but it’s a start.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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