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ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ Tsalagi Gawonihisdi
The Cherokee syllabary is a syllabary invented by Sequoyah to write the Cherokee language in the late 1810s and early 1820s. His creation of the syllabary is particularly noteworthy as 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 provide a suitable method to write Cherokee. Although some symbols resemble Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic letters, the relationship between symbols and sounds is different.
Each of the characters represents one syllable, 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.
The charts below show the syllabary in recitation order, left to right, top to bottom as arranged by Samuel Worcester, along with his commonly used transliterations. He played a key role in the development of Cherokee printing from 1828 until his death in 1859.
|The chart below uses Unicode characters from the Cherokee block. For an image alternative, see File:Cherokee Syllabary.svg.|
The Latin letter ‘v’ in the transcriptions, seen in the last column, represents a nasal vowel, /ə̃/.
The phonetic values of these characters do not equate directly to those represented by the letters of the Latin script. Some characters represent two distinct phonetic values (actually heard as different syllables), while others may represent multiple variations of the same syllable. 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 high 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, Ꮡ, is used to represent su in su:dali, meaning six (ᏑᏓᎵ). This same symbol Ꮡ 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). Adult speakers can distinguish words by context.
Some Cherokee words pose a problem for transliteration software because they contain adjacent pairs of single letter symbols that (without special provisions) would be combined when doing the back conversion from Latin script to Cherokee. Here are a few examples:
- ᎢᏣᎵᏍᎠᏁᏗ = itsalisanedi = i-tsa-li-s-a-ne-di
- ᎤᎵᎩᏳᏍᎠᏅᏁ = uligiyusanvne = u-li-gi-yu-s-a-nv-ne
- ᎤᏂᏰᏍᎢᏱ = uniyesiyi = u-ni-ye-s-i-yi
- ᎾᏍᎢᏯ = nasiya = na-s-i-ya
For these examples, the back conversion is likely to join s-a as sa or s-i as si. One solution is to use an apostrophe to separate the two, as is done in Japanese (e.g.: Man'yogana): itsalis'anedi.
Other Cherokee words contain character pairs that entail overlapping transliteration sequences. Examples:
- ᏀᎾ transliterates as nahna, yet so does ᎾᎿ. The former is nah-na, the latter is na-hna.
If the Latin script is parsed from left to right, longest match first, then without special provisions, the back conversion would be wrong for the latter. There are several similar examples involving these character combinations: naha nahe nahi naho nahu nahv.
A further problem encountered in transliterating Cherokee is that there are some pairs of different Cherokee words that transliterate to the same word in the Latin script. Here are some examples:
- ᎠᏍᎡᏃ and ᎠᏎᏃ both transliterate to aseno
- ᎨᏍᎥᎢ and ᎨᏒᎢ both transliterate to gesvi
Without special provision, a round trip conversion may change ᎠᏍᎡᏃ to ᎠᏎᏃ and change ᎨᏍᎥᎢ to ᎨᏒᎢ.
- The usual alphabetical order for Cherokee runs across the rows of the syllabary chart from left to right, top to bottom—this is the one used in the Unicode block: Ꭰ (a), Ꭱ (e), Ꭲ (i), Ꭳ (o), Ꭴ (u), Ꭵ (v), Ꭶ (ga), Ꭷ (ka), Ꭸ (ge), Ꭹ (gi), Ꭺ (go), Ꭻ (gu), Ꭼ (gv), Ꭽ (ha), Ꭾ (he), Ꭿ (hi), Ꮀ (ho), Ꮁ (hu), Ꮂ (hv), Ꮃ (la), Ꮄ (le), Ꮅ (li), Ꮆ (lo), Ꮇ (lu), Ꮈ (lv), Ꮉ (ma), Ꮊ (me), Ꮋ (mi), Ꮌ (mo), Ꮍ (mu), Ꮎ (na), Ꮏ (hna), Ꮐ (nah), Ꮑ (ne), Ꮒ (ni), Ꮓ (no), Ꮔ (nu), Ꮕ (nv), Ꮖ (qua), Ꮗ (que), Ꮘ (qui), Ꮙ (quo), Ꮚ (quu), Ꮛ (quv), Ꮜ (sa), Ꮝ (s), Ꮞ (se), Ꮟ (si), Ꮠ (so), Ꮡ (su), Ꮢ (sv), Ꮣ (da), Ꮤ (ta), Ꮥ (de), Ꮦ (te), Ꮧ (di), Ꮨ (ti), Ꮩ (do), Ꮪ (du), Ꮫ (dv), Ꮬ (dla), Ꮭ (tla), Ꮮ (tle), Ꮯ (tli), Ꮰ (tlo), Ꮱ (tlu), Ꮲ (tlv), Ꮳ (tsa), Ꮴ (tse), Ꮵ (tsi), Ꮶ (tso), Ꮷ (tsu), Ꮸ (tsv), Ꮹ (wa), Ꮺ (we), Ꮻ (wi), Ꮼ (wo), Ꮽ (wu), Ꮾ (wv), Ꮿ (ya), Ᏸ (ye), Ᏹ (yi), Ᏺ (yo), Ᏻ (yu), Ᏼ (yv).
- Cherokee has also been alphabetized based on the six columns of the syllabary chart from top to bottom, left to right: Ꭰ (a), Ꭶ (ga), Ꭷ (ka), Ꭽ (ha), Ꮃ (la), Ꮉ (ma), Ꮎ (na), Ꮏ (hna), Ꮐ (nah), Ꮖ (qua), Ꮝ (s), Ꮜ (sa), Ꮣ (da), Ꮤ (ta), Ꮬ (dla), Ꮭ (tla), Ꮳ (tsa), Ꮹ (wa), Ꮿ (ya), Ꭱ (e), Ꭸ (ge), Ꭾ (he), Ꮄ (le), Ꮊ (me), Ꮑ (ne), Ꮗ (que), Ꮞ (se), Ꮥ (de), Ꮦ (te), Ꮮ (tle), Ꮴ (tse), Ꮺ (we), Ᏸ (ye), Ꭲ (i), Ꭹ (gi), Ꭿ (hi), Ꮅ (li), Ꮋ (mi), Ꮒ (ni), Ꮘ (qui), Ꮟ (si), Ꮧ (di), Ꮨ (ti), Ꮯ (tli), Ꮵ (tsi), Ꮻ (wi), Ᏹ (yi), Ꭳ (o), Ꭺ (go), Ꮀ (ho), Ꮆ (lo), Ꮌ (mo), Ꮓ (no), Ꮙ (quo), Ꮠ (so), Ꮩ (do), Ꮰ (tlo), Ꮶ (tso), Ꮼ (wo), Ᏺ (yo), Ꭴ (u), Ꭻ (gu), Ꮁ (hu), Ꮇ (lu), Ꮍ (mu), Ꮔ (nu), Ꮚ (quu), Ꮡ (su), Ꮪ (du), Ꮱ (tlu), Ꮷ (tsu), Ꮽ (wu), Ᏻ (yu), Ꭵ (v), Ꭼ (gv), Ꮂ (hv), Ꮈ (lv), Ꮕ (nv), Ꮛ (quv), Ꮢ (sv), Ꮫ (dv), Ꮲ (tlv), Ꮸ (tsv), Ꮾ (wv), Ᏼ (yv).
- Sequoyah used a completely different alphabetical order: Ꭱ (e), Ꭰ (a), Ꮃ (la), Ꮵ (tsi), Ꮐ (nah), Ꮽ (wu), Ꮺ (we), Ꮅ (li), Ꮑ (ne), Ꮌ (mo), Ꭹ (gi), Ᏹ (yi), Ꮟ (si), Ꮲ (tlv), Ꭳ (o), Ꮇ (lu), Ꮄ (le), Ꭽ (ha), Ꮼ (wo), Ꮰ (tlo), Ꮤ (ta), Ᏼ (yv), Ꮈ (lv), Ꭿ (hi), Ꮝ (s), Ᏺ (yo), Ꮁ (hu), Ꭺ (go), Ꮷ (tsu), Ꮍ (mu), Ꮞ (se), Ꮠ (so), Ꮯ (tli), Ꮘ (qui), Ꮗ (que), Ꮜ (sa), Ꮖ (qua), Ꮓ (no), Ꭷ (ka), Ꮸ (tsv), Ꮢ (sv), Ꮒ (ni), Ꭶ (ga), Ꮩ (do), Ꭸ (ge), Ꮣ (da), Ꭼ (gv), Ꮻ (wi), Ꭲ (i), Ꭴ (u), Ᏸ (ye), Ꮂ (hv), Ꮫ (dv), Ꭻ (gu), Ꮶ (tso), Ꮙ (quo), Ꮔ (nu), Ꮎ (na), Ꮆ (lo), Ᏻ (yu), Ꮴ (tse), Ꮧ (di), Ꮾ (wv), Ꮪ(du), Ꮥ (de), Ꮳ (tsa), Ꭵ (v), Ꮕ (nv), Ꮦ (te), Ꮉ (ma), Ꮡ (su), Ꮱ (tlu), Ꭾ (he), Ꮀ (ho), Ꮋ (mi), Ꮭ (tla), Ꮿ (ya), Ꮹ (wa), Ꮨ (ti), Ꮮ (tle), Ꮏ (hna), Ꮚ (quu), Ꮬ (dla), Ꮊ (me), Ꮛ (quv).
Cherokee uses Arabic numerals (0–9). Sequoyah proposed a system of numerals for Cherokee, but his system was never adopted. Sequoyah's system included symbols for 1–20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 as well as a symbol for three zeros for numbers in the thousands and a symbol for six zeros for numbers in the millions. These last two symbols representing 000 and 000,000 are made up of three separate symbols each.
Around 1809, impressed by the "talking leaves" of European written languages, Sequoyah began work to create a writing system for the Cherokee language. After attempting to create a character for each word, Sequoyah realized this would be too difficult and eventually created characters to represent syllables. Sequoyah took some ideas from his copy of the Bible, 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 worked on the syllabary for twelve years before completion, and dropped or modified most of the characters he originally created.
After the syllabary was completed in the early 1820s, it achieved almost instantaneous popularity and spread rapidly throughout Cherokee society. By 1825, the majority of Cherokees could read and write in their newly developed orthography.
Some of Sequoyah's most learned contemporaries immediately understood that the syllabary was a great invention. For example, when Albert Gallatin, a politician and trained linguist, saw a copy of Sequoyah's syllabary, he believed it was superior to the English alphabet. He recognized that even though the Cherokee student must learn 85 characters instead of 26 for English, the Cherokee could read immediately after learning all the symbols. The Cherokee student could accomplish in a few weeks what students of English writing might require two years to achieve.
In 1828, the order of the characters in a chart and the shapes of the characters were modified by Cherokee author and editor Elias Boudinot to adapt the syllabary to printing presses. The 86th character was dropped entirely. Following these changes, the syllabary was adopted by the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, later Cherokee Advocate, followed by the Cherokee Messenger, a bilingual paper printed in Indian Territory in the mid-19th century.
In 1834, Worcester made changes to several characters in order to improve the readability of Cherokee text. Most notably, he inverted the do character (Ꮩ) so that it could not be confused with the go character (Ꭺ). Otherwise, the characters remained remarkably invariant until the advent of new typesetting technologies in the 20th century.
In the 1960s, the Cherokee Phoenix Press began publishing literature in the Cherokee syllabary, including the Cherokee Singing Book. A Cherokee syllabary typewriter ball was developed for the IBM Selectric in the late 1970s. Computer fonts greatly expanded Cherokee writers' ability to publish in Cherokee. In 2010, a Cherokee keyboard cover was developed by Roy Boney, Jr. and Joseph Erb, facilitating more rapid typing in Cherokee. The keyboard cover is now used by students in the Cherokee Nation Immersion School, where all coursework is written in syllabary.
In August 2010, the Oconaluftee Institute for Cultural Arts in Cherokee, North Carolina acquired a letterpress and had the Cherokee syllabary recast to begin printing one-of-a-kind fine art books and prints in syllabary. Artists Jeff Marley and Frank Brannon completed a collaborative project on October 19, 2013, in which they printed using Cherokee syllabary type from Southwestern Community College in the print shop at New Echota. This was the first time syllabary type has been used at New Echota since 1835.
In 2015 the Unicode Consortium encoded a lowercase version of the script, since typists would often set Cherokee with two different point sizes, so as to mark beginnings of sentences and given names (as in the Latin alphabet). Handwritten Cherokee also shows a difference in lower- and uppercase letters, such as descenders and ascenders. Lowercase Cherokee has already been encoded in the font Everson Mono.
The syllabary is finding increasingly diverse usage today, from books, newspapers, and websites to the street signs of Tahlequah, Oklahoma and Cherokee, North Carolina. An increasing corpus of children's literature is printed in Cherokee syllabary to meet the needs of Cherokee students in the Cherokee language immersion schools in Oklahoma and 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 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 rapidly among the Cherokee) but before the invention of the Vai syllabary. One such man, 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. There also appears to be a connection between an early form of written Bassa and the earlier Cherokee syllabary.
Cherokee languages classes typically begin with a transliteration of Cherokee into Roman letters, only later incorporating the syllabary. The Cherokee language classes offered through Haskell Indian Nations University, Northeastern State University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, Western Carolina University, and the elementary school immersion classes offered by the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Immersion School all teach the syllabary. The fine arts degree program at Southwestern Community College incorporates the syllabary in its printmaking classes.
Cherokee was added to the Unicode Standard in September, 1999 with the release of version 3.0. On June 17, 2015, with the release of version 8.0, Cherokee was redefined as a bicameral script; the character repertoire was extended to include a complete set of lowercase Cherokee letters as well as the archaic character (Ᏽ).
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
The Cherokee Supplement block is U+AB70–U+ABBF. It contains the remaining 80 lowercase letters.
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
A single Cherokee Unicode font, Plantagenet Cherokee, is supplied with macOS, version 10.3 (Panther) and later. Windows Vista also includes a Cherokee font. Several free Cherokee fonts are available including Digohweli, Donisiladv, and Noto Sans Cherokee. Some pan-Unicode fonts, such as Code2000, Everson Mono, and GNU FreeFont, include Cherokee characters. A commercial font, Phoreus Cherokee, published by TypeCulture, includes multiple weights and styles.
- There is a difference between the old form of do (Λ-like) and the modern form of do (V-like). The standard Digohweli font displays the modern form. Old Do Digohweli and Code2000 fonts both display the old form.
- Most sources, including materials produced by the Cherokee Nation, state that this character represented the mv syllable. However, Worcester wrote that it represented a syllable similar to hv, but more open.
- The PDF Unicode chart shows the modern form of the letter do.
- Sturtevant & Fogelson 2004, p. 337.
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