Cherokee for Beginners

Chat photoTahlequah, 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 Cherokee.

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.

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