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Type Syllabary
Spoken languages Cherokee language
Time period 1819-present
Parent systems
  • Cherokee
ISO 15924 Cher
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.
This article contains Cherokee syllabic characters. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Cherokee syllabics.

The Cherokee syllabary is a syllabary invented by Sequoyah to write the Cherokee language in 1819. His creation of the syllabary is particularly noteworthy in that he could not previously read any script. He first experimented with logograms, but his system later developed into a syllabary. In his system, each symbol represents a syllable rather than a single phoneme, the 85 (originally 86) characters in the Cherokee syllabary provide a suitable method to write Cherokee. Some symbols do resemble Latin alphabet letters, but the sounds are completely different (for example, the the sound /a/ is written with a letter that resembles Latin D).

In the first decade of use, the order of the symbols in a chart and the very shapes of the symbols were modified with the 86th being dropped entirely when the type for printing the Cherokee Syllabary was cast.[1] This was due mainly to the influence of missionaries prior to 1828, who tried to assimilate natives to American culture. However, the new writing system was a key factor in enabling the Cherokee to maintain their social boundaries and ethnic identities. During this period, (around the 1820s), Cherokee literacy became an "international sensation", receiving more attention than any other Native American writing system has at any time. Since the year 1828, very few changes have been made to the syllabary.[2]



Each of the characters represents one syllable, such as in the Japanese kana and the Bronze Age Greek Linear B writing systems. The first six characters represent isolated vowel syllables. Characters for combined consonant and vowel syllables then follow. Literate Cherokees are very familiar with this chart, as English speakers are with the Roman alphabet. It is recited from left to right, top to bottom.[2]
Cherokee Syllabary.svg
Note: ‘v’ represents a nasal vowel in this chart.

The phonetic values of these characters do not relate to those represented by English letters. Some characters represent two distinct phonetic values (actually heard as different syllables), while others often represent different forms of the same syllable.[2] Not all phonemic distinctions of the spoken language are represented. For example, while /d/+vowel syllables are mostly differentiated from /t/+vowel by use of different graphs, syllables beginning with /g/ are all conflated with those beginning with /k/. Also, long vowels are not ordinarily distinguished from short vowels, tones are not marked, and there is no regular rule for representing consonant clusters. However, in more recent technical literature, length of vowels can actually be indicated using a colon. Six distinctive vowel qualities are represented in the Cherokee syllabary based on where they are pronounced in the mouth, including the front vowels i and u, mid vowels e, v, and o, and low vowel a. The syllabary also does not distinguish among syllables that end in vowels, h, or glottal stop. For example, the single symbol, , is used to represent su in su:dali, meaning 'six' (ᏑᏓᎵ). This same symbol represents suh as in suhdi, meaning 'fishhook' (ᏑᏗ). Therefore, there is no differentiation among the symbols used for syllables ending in a single vowel versus that vowel plus "h." When consonants other than s, h, or glottal stop arise with other consonants in clusters, the appropriate consonant plus a "dummy vowel" is used. This dummy vowel is not pronounced and is either chosen arbitrarily or for etymological reasons (reflecting an underlying etymological vowel). For example, ᏧᎾᏍᏗ (tsu-na-s-di) represents the word ju:nsdi, meaning 'small.' Ns in this case is the consonant cluster that requires the following dummy vowel, a. Ns is written as ᎾᏍ /nas/. The vowel is included in the transliteration, but is not pronounced in the word (ju:nsdi). (The transliterated ts represents the affricate j).[3] As with some other writing systems (like Arabic or Japanese Katakana), adult speakers can distinguish words by context.

Cherokee syllabary in use today
Sign in Cherokee, North Carolina


Sequoyah's syllabary in the order that he originally arranged the characters.

Around 1809, impressed by the "talking leaves" of written language, Sequoyah began work to create a writing system for the Cherokee language. After attempting to create a character for each word, Sequoyah realised this would be too difficult and eventually created characters to represent syllables. Sequoyah took some ideas from a so-called "Bible Book", which he studied for characters to use in print, noticing the simplicity of the Roman letters and adopting them to make the writing of his syllabary easier. He couldn't actually read any of the letters in the book (as can be seen in certain characters in his syllabary, which look like Ws or 4s for example), so it is especially impressive that he came up with such a well-developed system. He worked on the syllabary for twelve years before completion, and dropped or modified most of the characters he originally created. The rapid dissemination of the syllabary is notable, and by 1824, most Cherokees could read and write in their newly developed orthography.[2]


Later developments

The syllabary achieved almost instantaneous popularity, and for decades was used in the Cherokee Phoenix, a Cherokee newspaper. It has been used since it was formed to write letters, keep diaries, and record medical formulas.[3] Although little new material is published in Cherokee, it is still used today to transcribe recipes, religious lore, folktales, etc. Knowledge of the syllabary is considered necessary for full Cherokee citizenship. According to evidence as of 1980, the (Western) Cherokee language is still spoken both formally and informally by around 10,000 people. The language remains strong, as the number of speakers has been continuing to increase since 1930.[4]

Cherokee languages classes typically begin with a transliteration of Cherokee into Roman letters, only later incorporating the syllabary. The Cherokee languages classes offered through Northeastern State University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, and the elementary school immersion classes offered by the Cherokee Nation all teach the syllabary. The syllabary is finding increasingly diverse usage today, from books, newspapers, and websites to the street signs of Tahlequah, Oklahoma and Cherokee, North Carolina.

Possible influence on Liberian Vai syllabary

In recent years evidence has emerged suggesting that the Cherokee syllabary provided a model for the design of the Vai syllabary in Liberia, Africa. The Vai syllabary is the earliest form of writing devised in western Africa, which emerged about 1832/33. The link appears to have been Cherokee who emigrated to Liberia after the invention of the Cherokee syllabary (which in its early years spread like wildfire among the Cherokee) but before the invention of the Vai syllabary. One such man, Cherokee Austin Curtis, married into a prominent Vai family and became an important Vai chief himself. It is perhaps not coincidence that the "inscription on a house" that drew the world's attention to the existence of the Vai script was in fact on the home of Curtis, a Cherokee.[5] There also appears to be a connection between an early form of written Bassa and the earlier Cherokee syllabary.

Representation in Unicode

Cherokee is represented in Unicode, in the character range U+13A0 to U+13F4.

    0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F

A single Cherokee font is supplied with Mac OS X, version 10.3 (Panther) and later and Windows Vista. Cherokee is also supported by free fonts found at and Touzet's, and the shareware fonts Code2000 and Everson Mono.


  1. ^ Kilpatrick and Kilpatick, 1968
  2. ^ a b c d Walker and Sarbaugh, 1993
  3. ^ a b Scancarelli, 2005
  4. ^ Foley, 1980
  5. ^ Tuchscherer, 2002


  • Bender, Margaret. 2002. Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Bender, Margaret. 2008. Indexicality, voice, and context in the distribution of Cherokee scripts. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 192:91-104.
  • Daniels, Peter T; William Bright. 1996. The World's Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 587-592.
  • Foley, Lawrence. Phonological Variation in Western Cherokee. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1980.
  • Kilpatrick, Jack F. and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick New Echota Letters. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.
  • Scancarelli, Janine. 2005. "Cherokee." Native Languages of the Southeastern United States. Edited by Heather K Hardy and Janine Scancarelli, 351-384.Bloomington: Nebraska Press.
  • Tuchscherer, Konrad. 2002 (with P.E.H. Hair). "Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script," History in Africa, 29, pp. 427-486.
  • Walker, Willard and James Sarbaugh. 1993. The Early History of the Cherokee Syllabary. Ethnohistory 40.1: 70-94.

Further reading

  • Cherokee Language and Culture (Firm). ([200-]). Cherokee syllabary. Tulsa, OK: Cherokee Language and Culture.
  • Cowan, A. (1981). Cherokee syllabary primer. Park Hill, OK: Cross-Cultural Education Center.

External links


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