Updated 26 January, 2024
This page brings together basic information about the Cherokee script and its use for the Cherokee language. It aims to provide a brief, descriptive summary of the modern, printed orthography and typographic features, and to advise how to write Cherokee using Unicode.
It is remarkably difficult to find actual phonetic transcriptions of Cherokee words, and most so-called 'phonetic' transcriptions use one of the Latin orthographies, which also lack the more fine-grained distinctions needed to understand how to pronounce the text properly. Take, for example, the word for apple (ᏒᎦᏔ), which is written svgata in the Latin orthography, but is actually pronounced sə̃̌ːkʰtʰ. Therefore, the pronunciation information here and in the character notes is necessarily somewhat vague.
Richard Ishida, Cherokee Orthography Notes, 26-Jan-2024, https://r12a.github.io/scripts/cher/chr
Ꭰꮿꮩꮈ 1 Ꮒꭶꮣ ꭰꮒᏼꮻ ꭴꮎꮥꮕꭲ ꭴꮎꮪꮣꮄꮣ ꭰꮄ ꭱꮷꮃꭽꮙ ꮎꭲ ꭰꮲꮙꮩꮧ ꭰꮄ ꭴꮒꮂ ꭲᏻꮎꮫꮧꭲ. Ꮎꮝꭹꮎꮓ ꭴꮅꮝꭺꮈꮤꮕꭹ ꭴꮰꮿꮝꮧ ꮕᏸꮅꮫꭹ ꭰꮄ ꭰꮣꮕꮦꮯꮣꮝꮧ ꭰꮄ ꭱꮅꮝꮧ ꮟᏼꮻꭽ ꮒꮪꮎꮣꮫꮎꮥꭼꭹ ꮎ ꮧꮎꮣꮕꮯ ꭰꮣꮕꮩ ꭼꮧ.
Ꭰꮿꮩꮈ 2 Ꮒꭶꮫ ꭰꮒᏼꮻ ꭴꮎꮣꮒꮬ ꮎꭲ ꮒꭶꮣ ꭴꮒꮂ ꭲᏻꮎꮫꮑꮧꭲ ꭰꮄ ꮩꭿ ꭰꮥꮧꭲ ꮎꭲ ꮥꭶꭷꮕꭹ ꭿꭰ ꮧꭶꮓꮳꮃꮕꭲ, ꭴꮎꮴꮅꮫ ꮔꮎꮰꮿꮝꮫꮎ ꮎꭲ ꮒꭶꭵꮙ ꮷꮣꮄꮕꮣ, ꮥꭷꮑꭲꮝꮤꮕꭿ ꮷꮎꮣꮄꮕꮣ ꭰꮒᏼꮻ, ꮧꭸꭶꭶꮕꮧꭲ, ꭰꭸꮿ ꭰꮄ ꭰꮝꭶꮿ, ꭶꮼꮒꭿꮝꮧ, ꮷꮎꮑꮅꮧ, ꮧꮎꮩꭹꮿꮝꭹ ꭰꮄ ꮠꭲ ꮎꮒꮅꮝꭼꭹ, ꭰᏸꮅ ꭴꮎꮩꮲꭿ ꭰꮄ ᏼꮻ ꮒꮩꮣᏻꮎꮣꮄꮕꭹ, ꮔꮕꮏꮕ, ꭴꮥꮕ ꭰꮄ ꮠꭲ ꮔꮝꮧꮣꮕꭲ. Ꭴꮧꮧꮲꭲꭸꮝꮩꮧ, ꮭ ꮔꮎꮰꮿꮝꮫꮎ ꭴꮩꭿᏻꮢꮎ ꮎꮝꭹꮓ ꮧꮎꮩꭹꮿꮝꭹ ꮒꮣᏻꮅꮝꮩꮤꮕ ꮎꮝꭹ ꭴꮩꮲꮕꭲ, ꭲᏻꮎꮫꮑꮅꮣꮝꮧ ꭴꮒꮂꭹ ꭰꮄ ꭰᏸꮅ ꮪꮎꮩꮲꮢ ꮔꮝꮧꮣꮕ ꮎꮝꭹ ꮒꭼꮎꮫꭲ ꭰꮄ ꮝꭶꮪꭹ ꮎꮝꭹꮓ ꭰꮒᏼꮻ ꭰꮎꮑꮈꭹ, ꭲᏻꮓꮝꮚ ꮎꮝꭹꮎꭲ ꭴꮎꮣꮴꮅꮣ, ꭶꭸꭶꮕꮨ ꭸꮢꭲ, ꭼꮒꭼꭼ-ꭴꮹꮢ-ꭴꭶꮞꮝꮧꮥꭹ ꭽꮻꮒꮧꮲ ꮒꭶꭵ ꮠꭲ ꮕꮒᏺꭲꮝꮣꮑꮂꮎ ꮎꭲ ꭴꮒꮂ ꭴꮎꮣꮴꮅꭶꮿ.
ᎠᏯᏙᎸ 1 ᏂᎦᏓ ᎠᏂᏴᏫ ᎤᎾᏕᏅᎢ ᎤᎾᏚᏓᎴᏓ ᎠᎴ ᎡᏧᎳᎭᏉ ᎾᎢ ᎠᏢᏉᏙᏗ ᎠᎴ ᎤᏂᎲ ᎢᏳᎾᏛᏗᎢ. ᎾᏍᎩᎾᏃ ᎤᎵᏍᎪᎸᏔᏅᎩ ᎤᏠᏯᏍᏗ ᏅᏰᎵᏛᎩ ᎠᎴ ᎠᏓᏅᏖᏟᏓᏍᏗ ᎠᎴ ᎡᎵᏍᏗ ᏏᏴᏫᎭ ᏂᏚᎾᏓᏛᎾᏕᎬᎩ Ꮎ ᏗᎾᏓᏅᏟ ᎠᏓᏅᏙ ᎬᏗ.
ᎠᏯᏙᎸ 2 ᏂᎦᏛ ᎠᏂᏴᏫ ᎤᎾᏓᏂᏜ ᎾᎢ ᏂᎦᏓ ᎤᏂᎲ ᎢᏳᎾᏛᏁᏗᎢ ᎠᎴ ᏙᎯ ᎠᏕᏗᎢ ᎾᎢ ᏕᎦᎧᏅᎩ ᎯᎠ ᏗᎦᏃᏣᎳᏅᎢ, ᎤᎾᏤᎵᏛ ᏄᎾᏠᏯᏍᏛᎾ ᎾᎢ ᏂᎦᎥᏉ ᏧᏓᎴᏅᏓ, ᏕᎧᏁᎢᏍᏔᏅᎯ ᏧᎾᏓᎴᏅᏓ ᎠᏂᏴᏫ, ᏗᎨᎦᎦᏅᏗᎢ, ᎠᎨᏯ ᎠᎴ ᎠᏍᎦᏯ, ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ, ᏧᎾᏁᎵᏗ, ᏗᎾᏙᎩᏯᏍᎩ ᎠᎴ ᏐᎢ ᎾᏂᎵᏍᎬᎩ, ᎠᏰᎵ ᎤᎾᏙᏢᎯ ᎠᎴ ᏴᏫ ᏂᏙᏓᏳᎾᏓᎴᏅᎩ, ᏄᏅᎿᏅ, ᎤᏕᏅ ᎠᎴ ᏐᎢ ᏄᏍᏗᏓᏅᎢ. ᎤᏗᏗᏢᎢᎨᏍᏙᏗ, Ꮭ ᏄᎾᏠᏯᏍᏛᎾ ᎤᏙᎯᏳᏒᎾ ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᏗᎾᏙᎩᏯᏍᎩ ᏂᏓᏳᎵᏍᏙᏔᏅ ᎾᏍᎩ ᎤᏙᏢᏅᎢ, ᎢᏳᎾᏛᏁᎵᏓᏍᏗ ᎤᏂᎲᎩ ᎠᎴ ᎠᏰᎵ ᏚᎾᏙᏢᏒ ᏄᏍᏗᏓᏅ ᎾᏍᎩ ᏂᎬᎾᏛᎢ ᎠᎴ ᏍᎦᏚᎩ ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᎠᏂᏴᏫ ᎠᎾᏁᎸᎩ, ᎢᏳᏃᏍᏊ ᎾᏍᎩᎾᎢ ᎤᎾᏓᏤᎵᏓ, ᎦᎨᎦᏅᏘ ᎨᏒᎢ, ᎬᏂᎬᎬ-ᎤᏩᏒ-ᎤᎦᏎᏍᏗᏕᎩ ᎭᏫᏂᏗᏢ ᏂᎦᎥ ᏐᎢ ᏅᏂᏲᎢᏍᏓᏁᎲᎾ ᎾᎢ ᎤᏂᎲ ᎤᎾᏓᏤᎵᎦᏯ.
It is estimated that only around 2,000 Cherokee people speak the language. However, those who do speak the language use the script widely for
writing letters, recipes, folktales, diaries, and for personal record-keeping. It is also used in some legal, governmental and religious documents and, in some areas, public signage. Efforts are being made to revive both the language and the script; to that end it is used in a limited capacity in education. Knowledge of the script is considered a prerequisite for full Cherokee citizenship.s
The script was developed by a Cherokee named Sequoyah and presented to the Cherokee Nation in 1821. It was popular and most Cherokee were literate in the script by 1828, when Sequoyah and Samuel Worcester reformed the orthography during the process of preparing it for printing.
From the 1870s to the early 1900s, the US government actively suppressed the Cherokee language and culture, sending children away from their parents and creating a generation that was unfamiliar with the language and script. The ultimate result of this policy is that the Cherokee language is now considered endangered to moribund. There are, however, efforts to increase usage, and users are able to use the language and script for social media on mobile devices.
Sources: Scriptsource, Wikipedia.
Cherokee is a syllabary. Letters typically represent a combination of consonants and vowels. See the table to the right for a brief overview of features of modern Cherokee.
Cherokee text runs left to right in horizontal lines. Words are separated by spaces.
The script is becoming bicameral, after a long period when syllabic characters ressembled uppercase letters.
The Cherokee syllabary has 85 characters, of which 6 represent syllables that start with either no consonant or with ʔ (Ꭰ Ꭱ Ꭲ Ꭳ Ꭴ Ꭵ), and one character represents the non-syllabic consonant sound s (Ꮝ). The rest nominally represent a combination of consonant plus vowel, though the actual practise is a little more nuanced, and there is a degree of vagueness in the script when it comes to phonetically transcribing spoken sounds.d It is a simple syllabary where letter shapes don't follow any systematic pattern.
The script doesn't fully represent the sounds of the spoken language. Vowel length is not distinguished, with some exceptions syllable-final consonants and syllable-initial aspiration are not reflected in the orthography, and the user has to figure out when to drop the vowel of a CV letter to make consonant clusters. Some readers are beginning to use diacritics to indicate pronunciation more accurately.
The spoken language is tonal, but tones are not written. A set of diacritics exists, however, to enable linguists to indicate tones.
There is no standard spelling. The way a word is written may vary, according to the pronunciation of the writer, or choices they make for dealing with consonant clusters.
The visual forms of letters don't interact. There are no combining characters or diacritics, and ASCII digits are used.
These are sounds for the Cherokee language.
Click on the sounds to reveal locations in this document where they are mentioned.
Phones in a lighter colour are non-native or allophones. Source Wikipedia.
Although some transcriptions suggest it, Cherokee doesn't contrast voiced vs. unvoiced stops and affricates; all are unvoiced. Instead, it contrasts aspirated and unaspirated formsma,34.
t͡s is pronounced t͡ʃ by some speakers. This also applies to the aspirated forms.
The glottal stop appears between vowels, and also sometimes between a vowel and a consonant, though less frequently. However, it is not written when using the syllabary, and so minimal pairs may be spelled the same, eg. ᎪᎢ ᎠᏓ
Cherokee has 6 tones, 2 level and 4 contoured. They are shown in the table with Latin transcriptions used by Scancarelli (1986), Montgomery-Anderson (2008,2015), and Feeling (2003)/Uchihara (2016), respectivelyws,#Tone.
|à, a, a
|à:, aa, aa
|á, á, á
|á:, áa, áá
|ǎ:, aá, aá
|â:, áà, áà
|ȁ:, aà, àà, àa
|a̋:, áá, aa̋
The level tones can appear with short or long vowels, but the others only occur with long vowels.
Tones are not marked in the Cherokee orthography, although this doesn't often create ambiguityws,#Tone. Nor are they used in the Latin orthographies, except in dictionaries. See also tones.
For the superhigh tone, Wikipedia says:
The superhigh tone, also called "highfall" by Montgomery-Anderson, has a distinctive morphosyntactical function, primarily appearing on adjectives, nouns derived from verbs, and on subordinate verbs. It is mobile and falls on the rightmost long vowel. If the final short vowel is dropped and the superhigh tone becomes in word-final position, it is shortened and pronounced like a slightly higher final tone (notated as a̋ in most orthographies). There can only be one superhigh tone per word, constraint not shared by the other tones. For these reasons, this contour exhibits some accentual properties and has been referred to as an "accent" (or stress) in the literature.
Cherokee, like many other North American languages, builds words into short phrases by adding prefixes and suffixes to the word root. A number of phonological changes are applied during this process. Typically, but not always, the result of these changes is captured by the orthography.
In certain circumstances, vowels in the underlying morphemic model are dropped when particles are added to a word root. The rule is as followsma,65:
t, k, j, w, y, n, kw, l + short vowel + h + plosive or vowel → removal of the short vowel and aspiration of the initial letter in the sequence
This phonological change is generally reflected in the orthography, however, the kʰ in the first example still uses a non-aspirated letter.
Cherokee syllabic letters don't provide all the information needed to detect the underlying sounds if you are not familiar with the language. Features that are not generally expressed by the orthography include syllable-initial aspiration, syllable-final consonants, vowel length and unpronounced vowels, and tone. These are described in more detail below. Montgomery-Anderson lists the following possible sounds that are represented by Ꮩ [U+13D9 CHEROKEE LETTER DO]:
tò, tó, tòː, tóː, tǒː, tôː, tȍː, tőː, tòh, tóh, tòʔ, tóʔ,
tʰò, tʰó, tʰòː, tʰóː, tʰǒː, tʰôː, tʰȍː, tʰőː, tʰòh, tʰóh, tʰòʔ, tʰóʔ
The realisation of Cherokee sounds is also often affected by phonological rules that are determined by context – creating another step away from the sounds implied by the syllabic letters.
In addition, vowels at the end of a word or in syllable onsets may be dropped, eg. ᏥᎩᎵ
As mentioned in the introduction, it is difficult to find precise information about how Cherokee syllables and words are pronounced, so while we try to provide what phonetic information we can here, most of the transcriptions are in one of the rather imprecise Latin orthographies. There are also different versions of the Latin orthographies, some preferring to make a distinction between d and t, whereas others map to t and th.
The six vowel characters, when they appear at the start of a word represent plain vowel sounds. They may be short or long, and will be modified by tone, but none of those things are expressed by the orthography, eg. ᎠᎹ
Elsewhere they represent a syllable starting with ʔ,d eg. ᎯᎠ
The vowel in a CV syllable doesn't distinguish between short and long vowel sounds, nor does it indicate tonal values, eg. the following sequence of Cherokee characters represents two different words, each having different lengths and tones (low vs. high, respectively)d: ᎠᎹ
A 3rd fricative, ɬ, appears below as an aspirated form of l.
See also s_consonant.
One syllable is archaic and not used.
Because it is not followed by a vowel, this character can be used to form consonant clusters at the start of a syllabled, eg. ᏍᎪᎯ
It is also used for syllables that end with an s sound, eg. ᎯᏴᏫᏯᏍ
Some manuscripts precede syllables beginning with an s sound with this character. Sequoyah spelled his name like that, ie. ᏍᏏᏉᏯ s-si-quo-ya
Most syllables can start with aspirated forms, but only 6 pairs of letters distinguish between aspirated and non-aspirated sounds in the onset.
Five pairs of characters make this distinction for stops or affricates: Ꭶ+Ꭷ, Ꮣ+Ꮤ, Ꮥ+Ꮦ, Ꮧ+Ꮨ, Ꮬ+Ꮭ. For example, it is possible to distinguish between the first two syllables of ᎧᎦᎵ but notd,590 between the two meanings of ᎪᎳ
Only one nasal syllable makes this distinction, ie. compare ᎬᎾ ᎬᎿ
However, the following could have two different meanings ᎬᏂᎭ
Aspiration can also arise when there is a non-written h sound in a syllable. Most syllables can have a coda with this sound, which then interacts with the sounds around it as morpheme prefixes and suffixes are attached to the base word. In some cases, it may produce transformations in other syllables.
The following 2 words illustrate non-written h sounds, the first in the syllable coda, and the second in the onset. ᎤᏂᎷᏨ ᎠᎨᏯ
In spoken Cherokee, vowels at the end of a word are often dropped, although the orthography indicates what the vowel would have beenma,96. fig_eow_vowels shows an example based on Montgomery-Anderson of the pronunciation of the sentence:
The hungry man ate all the good food.
Additional vowel loss occurs as a result of phonological changes. See phonological_processes.
Each character may not only end with a vowel, but may also end with ʔ or h, eg. the following are written with just two characters ᏑᏗ ᏔᎵ
There is one distinctive pair related to syllables ending with h, ie. compare: Ꮎ na Ꮐ nah
Syllables that end with an s sound can be written using Ꮝ [U+13CD CHEROKEE LETTER S], eg. ᎯᏴᏫᏯᏍ
With one exception, consonant clusters are managed by using a normal syllabic character but ignoring the ('dummy') vowel, eg. ᎦᎵᏉᎩ ᎬᏙᎠ The character chosen is largely up to the writer, but some words bring in etymological connections.
The exception is Ꮝ [U+13CD CHEROKEE LETTER S], which is not followed by a vowel,d eg. ᏍᎪᎯ
Some manuscripts precede syllables beginning with an s sound with Ꮝ [U+13CD CHEROKEE LETTER S], and Sequoyah spelled his name like that, ie. ᏍᏏᏉᏯ s-si-qo-ya
Spoken Cherokee has tones, but they are not shown in the text.u
Linguists who want to show tones do so using standard allocations of combining characters. The following list shows diacritics used to express tones. (Mid is the default, and doesn't need marking.)e,5
Everson reports that some combining diacritical marks are now used in Cherokee text by ordinary readers and especially children.e,5
These diacritics are in the Unicode Combining Diacritical Marks block. The Cherokee block has no combining characters.
̣ [U+0323 COMBINING DOT BELOW] indicates shifts in consonant readings – such as voiced to voiceless, voiceless to voiced; for example, where Ꭺ is ko, Ꭺ̣ would be kʰo.
̱ [U+0331 COMBINING MACRON BELOW] indicates the dropping of a vowel; for example, Oklahoma could be written
When a consonant is both shifted and has its vowel dropped, ̤ [U+0324 COMBINING DIAERESIS BELOW] is used.
Nasalisation is only very rarely marked: in such cases, it can be indicated using ̰ [U+0330 COMBINING TILDE BELOW].
Sequoyah, the inventor of the script, created a set of Cherokee numbers, but they were not adopted and are not encoded in Unicode.u The shapes of the numbers can be seen on the Omniglot page.
Cherokee text runs left-to-right in horizontal lines.
bidi_class properties for characters in the Cherokee orthography described here.
Experiment with examples using the Cherokee character app.
There is no interaction between the glyphs in Cherokee.
Normally, there are no combining marks in Cherokee text. Such marks are only found in special cases, such as specialised educational or linguistic contexts.
Cherokee users would like their fonts to have italic and bold styles, although this is not currently common. These alternate styles would be used in the same way as for the Latin script.e,5
In 2015 a set of lowercase letters were added to version 8.0 of the Unicode repertoire, to complement the original set. This is discussed in more detail in cs.
Applications should provide for transformations between upper and lower case forms, however the situation is slightly unusual in that the pre-existing text is now written uppercase, and transforms need to in some cases treat lowercasing as the default operation. The following is from the Unicode Standard:
This exceptional introduction of a lowercase set to change a unicameral encoding into a bicameral encoding has important implications that implementers of the Cherokee script need to keep in mind. First, in order to preserve case folding stability, Cherokee case folds to the previously encoded uppercase letters, rather than to the newly encoded lowercase letters. This exceptional case folding behavior impacts identifiers, and so can trip up implementations if they are not prepared for it. Second, representation of cased Cherokee text requires using the new lowercase letters for most of the body text, instead of just changing a few initial letters to uppercase. That means that representation of traditional text such as the Cherokee New Testament requires substantial re-encoding of the text. Third, the fact that uppercase Cherokee still represents the default and is most widely supported in fonts means that input systems which are extended to support the new lowercase letters face unusual design choices.
Lowercase characters were introduced in Unicode 8.0, to cover growing use of bicameral content in modern typesetting, as well as some older texts such as the Cherokee New Testament. The lowercase text above is likely to be displayed as tofu (boxes), since it is currently difficult to find a font that includes lowercase forms.
It is unusual for the majority of content to be in uppercase, and for lowercase to come in later, and implementers may need to take care in introducing the new characters. For example, Cherokee case-folds to uppercase, rather than lower. For more details see the Unicode Standard.u
The shapes of the upper- vs. lower-cased letters don't change radically (as they do in Latin or Cyrillic). The lowercase letters are often simply smaller, however they may have ascenders and descenders in some fontse,5.
Since there are no combining marks or decompositions in normal Cherokee text, grapheme clusters correspond to individual characters. Where combining marks are attached to letters, the combination of base and combining mark still fits within the definition of a grapheme cluster.
Each letter is a grapheme cluster, even if (rare) combining marks are attached.
Click on the text version of this word to see more detail about the composition.
Words are separated by spaces.
See type samples.
Cherokee uses standard Latin punctuation.u
, [U+002C COMMA]
; [U+003B SEMICOLON]
: [U+003A COLON]
. [U+002E FULL STOP]
? [U+003F QUESTION MARK]
! [U+0021 EXCLAMATION MARK]
In some cases, it has been known for full stops to be raised above the baseline.d
See type samples.
Cherokee commonly uses ASCII parentheses to insert parenthetical information into text.
( [U+0028 LEFT PARENTHESIS]
) [U+0029 RIGHT PARENTHESIS]
See type samples.
Cherokee texts typically use quotation marks. Of course, due to keyboard design, quotations may also be surrounded by ASCII double and single quote marks.
“ [U+201C LEFT DOUBLE QUOTATION MARK]
” [U+201D RIGHT DOUBLE QUOTATION MARK]
‘ [U+2018 LEFT SINGLE QUOTATION MARK]
’ [U+2019 RIGHT SINGLE QUOTATION MARK]
See type samples.
By default, lines are broken at inter-word spaces. As in almost all writing systems, certain punctuation characters should not appear at the end or the start of a line.
As in almost all writing systems, certain punctuation characters should not appear at the end or the start of a line. The Unicode line-break properties help applications decide whether a character should appear at the start or end of a line.
Show (default) line-breaking properties for characters in the Cherokee orthography.
The following list gives examples of typical behaviours for some of the characters used in Cherokee. Context may affect the behaviour of some of these and other characters.
Click/tap on the characters to show what they are.
Justification is done, principally, by adjusting the space between words.
Cherokee uses the so-called 'alphabetic' baseline, which is the same as for Latin and many other scripts.
Cherokee character glyphs are generally the same height, and only rarely descend (a short way) below the baseline. There are no combining marks in normal text.
To give an approximate idea, fig_baselines compares Latin and Cherokee glyphs from a Noto font. The height of uppercase Cherokee letters is that of the Latin cap-height, and lowercase is set to the Latin x-height.
fig_baselines_other shows similar comparisons for the Galvji and Gadugi fonts.