Cherokee is an Iroquoian language, the sole extant member of the Southern Iroquoian branch. The Northern Iroquoian branch consists of the languages of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, historically known by the exonym “Iroquois.” These consist of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Of the Iroquoian languages, Mohawk has the most speakers, at around 3,500. Cherokee has the second highest number of speakers, at around 2,000. The other Iroquoian languages are severely endangered, and Cherokee and Mohawk also unfortunately face a moribund trajectory unless revitalization efforts are successful.

Within Cherokee, there are two extant dialects, the North Carolina (Middle, or Kituwah) and Oklahoma (Overhill, or Western) dialects. There was historically a third dialect, the Lower dialect, spoken near the South Carolina-Georgia border, but it is now extinct.