Cherokee is one of the few Native American languages with its own writing system. Perhaps in part because of this, Cherokee is also one of the few Native American languages which has a growing — not a shrinking — number of speakers. Studying about the Cherokee writing system can not only help students understand an important part of American history, but also encourage them to think about language more deeply.
Understanding Written Cherokee
English uses an alphabet, with letters representing sounds. Cherokee is written using symbols to represent syllables. For instance, the Cherokee word for “you are going” is written “hega” phonetically in English. We need four symbols (letters) for the four sounds. In Cherokee, the same word is written with just two symbols: ᎮᎦ, one for each syllable.
The Cherokee syllabary was developed by a Cherokee man named Sequoyah, who was a silversmith. He wanted to write his name on his work as the English speaking silversmiths did. He began with logograms, symbols that represent whole words, but Sequoyah quickly decided that it would be impractical to make symbols for all the words he wanted to write. Instead, he started to develop a syllabary. There were first 115 characters but after revision, Sequoyah eliminated some and brought the number down to 85 when the syllabary was published. Another symbol was added shortly after to bring the total to 86.
The syllabary was developed in the beginning of the 19th century, and by 1830, it is said, an astonishing 90% of Cherokee were literate. Though the use of Cherokee and its syllabary decreased during the 20th century, courses are now being taught in Cherokee at the university level and there are efforts to teach the language and its writing system in schools, too.
- Hand out a copy of the Cherokee syllabary to each student accompanied by the worksheet.
- Review the concept of syllables. Compare the Cherokee syllabary and the English alphabet.
- Explain to students the history of the Cherokee syllabary written above.
- Play audio clips for students and have them listen to basic words in Cherokee.
- Using the syllabary, ask students to write out some of the words they hear and fill in the worksheet.
- Find Cherokee words for animals at Native-Languages.org. These have transliterations, or phonetic spelling of Cherokee words with the English alphabet. Have students work to write the words with the Cherokee syllabary.
- Have students choose a color word (from the worksheet) and an animal name and create an illustration of the animal they have imagined. Have them write the animal’s name and color on their illustration.