Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (2024)

Cherokee (ᏣᎳᎩ) is a Southern Iroquoian language spoken mainly in North Carolina (Tetsas / ᏖᏣᏍ) and Oklahoma (Asgaya gigageyi / ᎠᏍᎦᏯ ᎩᎦᎨᏱ) and Arkansas (Geiyi / ᎨᎢᏱ) in the USA. Between 1,500 and 2,100 people speak Cherokee, and the majority are over 40 years old. Few children are growing up with the language [source].

According to the 2018 Cherokee Nation Tribal Survey there are 1,200 speakers of Cherokee in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, 217 speakers in the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, and 101 speakers in the United Keetoowah Band of Oklahoma and Arkansas [source].

There are two main dialects of Cherokee. The Eastern dialect is spoken in the Qualla Boundary or The Qualla, an area of western North Carolina purchashed by the Cherokee tribe in the 1870s. It is also known Middle or Kituwa (ᎩᏚᏩ) dialect. The Western dialect is spoken in eastern Oklahoma and North Carolina. It is also known as the Overhill or Otali dialect. Until about 1900, the Southern or Lower dialect of Cherokee was also spoken in South Carolina and Georgia.

Cherokee is well documented, with more literature than any other Native American language. There are Cherokee dictionaries and grammars, translations of parts of the Bible, and a Cherokee newspaper.

The Cherokee Nation has a plan, instigated in 2008, to increase the number of fluent speakers through immersion programs in schools, and encouraging people to speak Cherokee at home. In 50 years their goal is for 80% or more of the Cherokee people to speak their language fluently. Parents are taught the language along with their children, and it is possible to study Cherokee at a number of universities in Oklahoma and North Carolina.

Cherokee syllabary

The Cherokee syllabary was invented by George Guess/Gist, a.k.a. Chief Sequoyah, of the Cherokee, and was developed between 1809 and 1824. At first Sequoyah experimented with a writing system based on logograms, but found this cumbersome and unsuitable for Cherokee. He later developed a syllabary which was originally cursive and hand-written, but it was too difficult and expensive to produce a printed version, so he devised a new version with symbols based on letters from the Latin alphabet and Western numerals.

Sequoyah's descendants claim that he was the last surviving member of his tribe's scribe clan and the Cherokee syllabary was invented by persons unknown at a much earlier date.

By 1820 thousands of Cherokees had learnt the syllabary, and by 1830, 90% were literate in their own language. Books, religious texts, almanacs and newspapers were all published using the syllabary, which was widely used for over 100 years.

Today the syllabary is still used; efforts are being made to revive both the Cherokee language and the Cherokee syllabary, and Cherokee courses are offered at a number of schools, colleges and universities.

Notable features

  • Type of writing system: syllabary
  • Writing direction: left to right in horizontal lines
  • Used to write: Cherokee

Printed Cherokee syllabary

Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (1)

Hand-written Cherokee syllabary

Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (2)


Cherokee pronunciation

Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (3)


  • The consonants g and d are voiceless in certain positions and in some dialects.
  • In the Western dialect, a is often realised as /ɒ/; ts can be pronounced /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /sʰ/, /ʤ/ or /ʧ/; and w is pronounced /ɰ/.
  • The Western dialect has six tones, while the Eastern dialect usually (at most) only has a pitch accent.

You can hear the sounds of Cherokee at:

Download a Cherokee script chart (Excel)

Cherokee numerals

Sequoyah designed numerals for his script, however the Cherokee council voted not to adopt them.

Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (4)


Sample text in Cherokee (Printed)

Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (5)

Sample text in Cherokee (Hand-written)

Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (6)


Nigada aniyvwi nigegudalvna ale unitloyi unadehna duyugadv gesvi. Getsinela unadanvtedi ale unotlisadi ale squu gesv tsunilvwisdanedi anatlinvtlv adanvdo gvdi.


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Sample videos in and about Cherokee

Information about Cherokee | Phrases | Numbers | Cherokee courses on: and [affilate links]


Information about Cherokee

Online Cherokee lessons

Online Cherokee dictionaries

Phrases in Cherokee

Numbers in Cherokee

Cherokee fonts

Cherokee transliteration system

Sequoyah Birthplace Museum

Echota Tsalagi Language Revitalization Project

Cherokee Observer - online Cherokee newspaper

Cherokee Publications - Native American books, tapes, etc.

Place names of Cherokee origin

Iroquoian languages

Cayuga, Cherokee, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora, Wendat


Bamum, Caroline Island Script, Celtiberian, Cherokee, Cypriot, Dunging (Iban), Eskayan, Hiragana, Iberian, Katakana, Kpelle, Loma, Mende (Kikakui), Mwangwego, Ndjuká, Nüshu, Nwagụ Aneke, Vai, Yi, Yugtun

Other writing systems

Page last modified: 15.03.23


Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (7)

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Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (13)

Cherokee language, writing system and pronunciation (2024)


What is the Cherokee written language? ›

Sequoyah was one of the most influential figures in Cherokee history. He created the Cherokee Syllabary, a written form of the Cherokee language. The syllabary allowed literacy and printing to flourish in the Cherokee Nation in the early 19th century and remains in use today.

How to write in Cherokee language? ›

The Cherokee language does not use a alphabet, but a syllabary. That means each Cherokee symbol represents a syllable, not just a consonant or a vowel. Because of this, Cherokee symbols are arranged in a chart, with a column for each Cherokee vowel and a row for each Cherokee consonant.

What is the Cherokee pronoun system? ›

The Cherokee pronoun system, for example, can distinguish between 'you and I', 'several other people and I' and 'you, another person and I'. In English, all these meanings are summed up in the one, crude pronoun 'we'.

Does the Cherokee language have an alphabet? ›

Sequoyah's writing system was directly connected to spoken Cherokee. Its 86 symbols represented consonant and vowel combinations – syllables. This is why written Cherokee, or Tsalagi Gawonihisdi, is correctly called a syllabary, not an alphabet.

What is unique about the Cherokee language? ›

Cherokee was 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.

How to read the Cherokee alphabet? ›

The Cherokee syllabary consists of 85 symbols, each representing a different syllable. A syllable is defined as a combination of a consonant sound and a vowel sound. Cherokee has six vowels (A, E, I, O, U, and V). The U is pronounced as in tuba, and the V is pronounced as in tub.

What does SGI mean in Cherokee? ›

The Person marker sgi- indicates action from you (one Person group) to me (the other Person group). Sgisdela. Help me.

What does tsalagi mean in Cherokee? ›

Origin of the name

The Cherokee call their language Tsalagi (ᏣᎳᎩ) or Tslagi. They refer to themselves as Aniyunwiya (ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯ), which means "Principal People". The Iroquois based in New York have historically called the Cherokee Oyata'ge'ronoñ, which means "inhabitants of the cave country".

What does Gadugi mean in Cherokee? ›

Tradition: Gadugi (ga-doo-gee)

The word gadugi means "working together." Originally, the gadugi were a group of people in a Cherokee community who helped others in a time of need.

What language is Cherokee closest to? ›

Cherokee is an Iroquoian language, and the only Southern Iroquoian language spoken today. Linguists believe that the Cherokee people migrated to the southeast from the Great Lakes region about three thousand years ago, bringing with them their language.

Is Cherokee a dying language? ›

Cherokee is a highly endangered Native American language spoken by the Cherokee people. The Cherokee culture is deeply embedded in its language.

What are the letters in the Cherokee alphabet? ›

g / k
11 more rows

Did Native American have a written language? ›

Writing and texts

No native writing system was known among North American Indians at the time of first European contact, unlike the Maya, Aztecs, Mixtecs, and Zapotecs of Mesoamerica who had native writing systems.

How old is the Cherokee written language? ›

While the Cherokee language has been spoken for thousands of years, its written form is only 200 years old. The writing system invented by Sequoyah is called the syllabary because its sounds are represented syllable-by-syllable, rather than by individual letters, like the English alphabet.

How many characters were there in the Cherokee written language? ›

Each symbol represents a syllable rather than a single phoneme as in English. There are far too many syllables in English (tens of thousands) for an English syllabary to be usable, but the 85 characters in the Cherokee syllabary are completely functional for writing the Cherokee language.


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