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Cherokee is one of the more widely spoken Native languages in the United States, although only a small percentage of the entire Cherokee population are speakers. Originally, the Cherokee people lived in the south-eastern part of North A merica, in the present States of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and surrounding areas. During the Trail of Tears, the majority of Cherokee people were rounded up and forced away to Oklahoma, where their decendants live to this day. At present, the people live in both north-eastern Oklahoma and the original homeland, but there are Cherokee people living throughout the continent.

The Cherokee Syllabary, called ᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᎪᏪᎶᏙᏗ in the Cherokee language, is one of the more famous orthographies of the Americas. According to one story, it was invented by ᏍᏏᏉᏯ (Sequoyah), a Cherokee man with no prior literacy skills, in the early nineteenth century. Another version of the history has the writing system dating back to pre-Columbian times: it was utilised by the Seven Clan Scribe Society. Both are discussed in Kalter 2001. I have seen no conclusive evidence to support either history.

The original syllabary differs from the present form, as the creation of a typeset changed the form of many symbols. It bears repeating that his invention is one of the great linguistic achievements in history. More information about ᏍᏏᏉᏯ is available from the Cherokee Nation website.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there are 9,285 Cherokee speakers in the United States.


Why is DO upside-down?


The chart below is the common presentation and sorting order (?) of the Cherokee Syllabic orthography.

Cherokee Syllabarium ᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᎪᏪᎶᏙᏗ

Initial Vowel
a e i o u v
Ꭶ(ga) Ꭷ(ka)
Ꮎ(na) Ꮏ(hna) Ꮐ(nah)
Ꮜ(sa) Ꮝ(s)
Ꮣ(da) Ꮤ(ta)
Ꮥ(de) Ꮦ(te)
Ꮧ(di) Ꮨ(ti)
Ꮬ(dla) Ꮭ(tla)

Another syllabary presentation order


The asterisk * indicates where the obsolete symbol for /mv/ appears.


  • Where there are several characters per box, the pronunciation has been given in parentheses. Otherwise, for example, is /la/. In the modern orthography, there is no symbol for /mv/, although Sequoyah’s original script did contain a character for /mv/. The character is /s/, with no proceeding vowel.
  • The first row’s characters represent a glottal stop followed by a vowel ( is /ʔa/, is /ʔe/). Almost all syllabary charts neglect to indicate that there is a glottal stop sound.
  • /v/ is pronounced [ʌ̃] (the sound in English uh-uh, or uh-huh). In speech, vowels are occasionally elided or omitted, but they are always written as if the vowel were present.
  • /ts/ is often pronounced [dʒ]. /tl/ can lose the [t] and sound like [ɬ]. North Carolina dialects do not have /tl/~/dl/, pronouncing them like /ts/.
  • Cherokee writing does not typically differentiate between voiceless and voiced sounds, meaning that [k] and [g] are usually written the same, as are [kw] and [gw], [d] and [t], and [dl] and [tl]. This means that can be either [kwe] or [gwe]. In some cases, the two voicings are rendered with separate glyphs, as in [ga] and [ka].
  • By not marking voicing in the majority of cases, the syllabary in fact accurately represents the underlying structure of the language. The symbol [ka] is grammatically /gha/, and [ta] is grammatically /dha/. It is only the post-consonantal /h/ which is missing from the orthography.
  • Sequoyah’s syllabary is not entirely phonemic: it is not written exactly as pronounced. Neither /ʔ/ nor /h/ is written at the end of a syllable (except for ). Tone marking is completely absent. This is not necessarily a criticism of the system, as efficient orthographies often leave out super segmental information (such as stress, vowel length, and tone) as this omission rarely leads to confusion. Note that English does not consistantly mark these either.



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Last Update: August 4, 2010