Cherokee/Printable version


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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.


The Cherokee most likely arrived in present-day Tennessee, the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia 3,000 years ago from the Great Lakes region, isolating themselves from the rest of the Haudenosaunee. During the Trail of Tears, most of the Cherokee (16,000) were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) from1836 to 1839, along with their slaves, resulting in around 4,000 (likely more) deaths. Other Native American groups were also relocated during this time. Today, the Cherokee Nation is one of the three federally recognized tribes of Cherokee, located on nearly 7,000 square miles of land in northeastern Oklahoma, the capital being Tahlequah. The other two tribes are the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, also headquartered in Tahlequah, and the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), located in western North Carolina.

The residential school system in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States and Canada caused many indigenous children to lose their mother tongue, as teachers discouraged and even punished students for speaking any language but English. The Cherokee were no exception. For example, the Cherokee Boarding School in Cherokee, North Carolina operated from 1890 to 1954. Some elders today (and certainly many in their parents’ generation) were former students at such boarding schools. As the school system instilled a sense of shame for speaking Cherokee, many elders refrained from passing down the language to their children, instead raising them speaking English.


Since 2001, the Cherokee Nation has operated the Cherokee Immersion School in Park Hill, Oklahoma, serving grades K-8. The EBCI also runs a K-6 immersion school since 2004, the New Kituwah Academy. Beyond these immersion schools, language classes for adults exist, as well as master-apprentice programs that pair beginning learners with fluent speakers.

Unfortunately, the generation gap—referring to the current parents’ generation who did not grow up speaking Cherokee—makes it difficult for children to use Cherokee on a daily basis outside of school. Adult learners also have significant trouble achieving proficiency in Cherokee due to the lack of good resources in language classes.

On Tone

Isn't it exceptionally difficult to learn a tonal language? edit

Yes, if you come into it with the mindset that the way intonation words in a tonal language like Cherokee is similar to how it works in another language, whether or not it is tonal.

English, for example, has a stress system not considered “tonal” but that definitely has largely predictable changes in pitch. Each word has a stressed syllable usually pronounced with a higher pitch. Also, in English you can sometimes use a rising intonation to indicate that you are asking a question. These patterns of intonation must be thought of as characteristic of English, not language in general. I cannot stress enough that you have to lose all preconceived notions of pitch movement before you tackle a language like Cherokee, which has a highly involved system of pitch.

The tonal system of Cherokee is very logical but there are many rules that can take a long time to internalize. I say this even as a native speaker of Mandarin, another tonal language. In my experience, knowing Mandarin does not directly help with learning Cherokee tonology, at least in the long run, because the tonal system is so different. Maybe in the short run I am able to better grasp certain concepts, but these concepts can all be learned by anyone capable of listening and logical reasoning. Learning Cherokee tonology is, matter-of-factly, quite difficult. Mentally prepare yourself for this, but do not be discouraged. I speak from experience that with time, you will internalize more and more of the pitch system to the point that you barely have to think about it if you persevere long enough to ride out the learning curve to the end stage.

On Polysynthesis

What's the deal with "polysynthesis"? edit

As you may know, Cherokee is described as a polysynthetic language, which to the layperson means something like “verb inflection will be the bane of my existence.” I entreat you to approach this subject with all the curiosity you can lure out, and nuance.

First, what is synthesis?

Synthesis occurs in many languages and is essentially combining morphemes into a single word. Morphemes are units of meaning. In English, for example, one could analyze the word “wanted” as having two morphemes, “want” and “ed.” The first denotes the general meaning of the verb, i.e “to desire” or “to wish to have or obtain,” etc. while the second denotes that the action or state of wanting occurred in the past. English doesn’t employ synthesis all that much in the grand scheme of things, so it is not considered synthetic enough to get the label “synthetic” slapped on the whole language.


In contrast, you have a so-called polysynthetic language like Cherokee. Polysynthesis refers to the fact that statistically speaking, words in Cherokee are composed of a higher number of morphemes than do those languages not considered polysynthetic. Fortunately, both in general and in the case with Cherokee, not all types of words are composed of multiple smooshed-together morphemes. Underived nouns in Cherokee, which make up a substantial chunk of Cherokee nouns, for instance, comprise only single morphemes and only undergo synthesis in the formation of locative constructions. Possession for underived nouns, for example, is simply accomplished the same way as in English, by using the noun in conjunction with a separate word indicating the possessor.

Verbs, however, are the domain where polysynthesis is pervasive in Cherokee. In a typical Cherokee verb inflection, the first morpheme could indicate the subject (the doer of the verb), the second would be the verb root itself, and then you would have a morpheme indicating how the event of the verb fits into the timeline (e.g. “the action is taking place now,” or “the action just happened a moment ago”) and finally a suffix further specifying one of several subtypes related to time.

So ... what exactly is the problem with polysynthesis?

Why does this system trouble people so much? After all, if you’re combining morphemes together, why can’t you just memorize the individual morphemes as if they were standalone words (even though you know technically they can’t stand alone), like how you can do with an analytic—meaning “non-synthetic”—language? Then you could just say those little “words” in a specific order, and voilà!—you have a fully inflected Cherokee verb! And then, if this is indeed possible, perhaps you could even reason with yourself that the only reason these morphemes are considered word parts and not actual words may be that historically people just never wrote the word parts with spaces between them. If they had written these morphemes with spaces in between, then perhaps nowadays we would not be using “polysynthetic” to describe Cherokee. In other words, could the label of polysynthesis be a guise, essentially a just-so descriptor based on arbitrary historical conventions of thinking about and writing the language?

There are two answers to this, first a practical one, and then a nerdier approach that associates the term “polysynthesis” with a rather specific phenomenon that happens to be in Cherokee, thus justifying its usage.

First, the practical answer.

While it is possible to have a language that is called polysynthetic arbitrarily, there are a couple of good reasons to consider Cherokee morphemes within verbs just word parts. First, these morphemes always occur in a particular order. Words are typically understood to have at least some flexibility in positioning. However, this is not the case in Cherokee verb morphology. Rather, morphemes in the Cherokee verb strictly stay in their one allowable position relative to other types of morphemes in the verb. For example, the reflexive morpheme always follows the pronoun morphemes if it is used, and the verb root always comes after the reflexive morpheme. This inflexibility means that the “words” are essentially “glued” to specific slots in the verbal template. Since they cannot freely move in this template system, there is no strong incentive to analyze the morphemes as independent words.

Secondly, almost certainly as a result of inflexible ordering, most parts of the Cherokee verb have multiple forms differing slightly based on which sounds (phonemes) are found around them, or based on the usage of the verb in the larger context of the clause. One can see that these sound changes entail “words” affecting the pronunciation of neighboring words, and hence it may be easier to make sense of the language’s structure by encapsulating all parts that affect each other as a single unit. This encapsulation allows a learner, speaker, or linguist to maintain the distinction between two levels of grammar—the nitty-gritty, lower-level, sound-change-abounding realm of morphology, involving interactions between morphemes within the context of the word; and the higher-level arena of syntax, which plays with choice, and notably, order, between words. By calling the Cherokee verb a “word,” the morphological details of its inflection do not intrude into syntax, which helps keep the complexities of each system of grammar contained and thus contextualized within its own set of rules.

Second, the "nerdier" answer.

The second, “nerdier” answer to the usefulness of the polysynthetic label is that in linguist Mark Baker’s 1996 book The Polysynthesis Parameter, he makes the case that so-called polysynthetic languages, identified at the surface level by such phenomena as “sentence words,” where seemingly whole clauses can be condensed into a single word, often have behind their deeper structure a property that would be useful to identify as the true origin of polysynthetic-like surface structure. This property is whether in general, a dependent unit of meaning is required to be marked (i.e. identified) on the structure that it depends on. It will turn out that Cherokee grammar mostly aligns with this property being present.

In a more concrete way as it pertains to the verb, the object of the verb is “dependent” on the verb, as is the subject. For context, in linguistics, it is generally taken that in any clause, the verb is the central element. The verb can have dependent arguments that further specify the meaning the speaker intends. For example, in the sentence “A boy sees a cat,” the central element is the verb “sees,” and this verb allows for two arguments, its subject “a boy” and its object “a cat.” In this English example, however, notice that only a reference to the subject is made on the verb through the use of the -s suffix to indicate a third person singular subject. English syntax then makes it clear that the subject is specifically the boy.

Why isn’t the cat marked in some way on the verb? It seems that in English, it is simply not required for the verb to make some reference to its object. This is not the case in Cherokee, however. In the Cherokee sentence “achûja àgowhtíha weésa” (one formulation of “a boy sees a cat”), the à- prefix on the verb contains the meaning of a third person singular subject (achûja, “boy”) and a third person singular object (weésa, “cat”).

This is an illustration, in plainer terms, of how requiring the marking of dependents results specifically in one characteristic of Baker’s conception of polysynthesis, polypersonal agreement. Stated most simply, in a polysynthetic language the verb marks for subject and object.

The other characteristic of Baker’s polysynthesis is productive noun incorporation, which allows objects to actually fuse with the verb root. This might allow for a verb root that meant “cat-seeing.” In related languages like Mohawk, this process is indeed productive, but in Cherokee it is no longer productive, with only a small proportion of verbs displaying evidence of historical noun incorporation. As such, Cherokee doesn’t allow for “sentence words” containing the object beyond a few fossilized objects such as garments. However, because the language exhibits polypersonal agreement and historical noun incorporation, the polysynthetic label still makes sense.

The Pros of Polysynthesis!

With this context, I suggest that the reason so many learners fear the word “polysynthetic” is that they have not properly contextualized polysynthesis in the larger scheme of grammar, or that they see the details of the system, particularly the sound changes, too readily as difficult, complex, and unnecessary rather than phonetically optimized, rich, and orderly. It’s both and neither, actually, but as a learner, which side would you rather dwell on?

I’ll leave you one positive feature of polysynthesis as food for thought: the strict order of morphemes leaves little room for ambiguity in the construction of verbal inflections. The formula is unchanging and the slots are already set up for you, each in its allocated position waiting to be filled. If you follow the formula to the tee, there’s no room to err! Now, your job is to learn all the morpheme options for the individual slots and how they change their sound to blend in smoothly among their neighboring morphemes. Once you become proficient in this process, you will already be able to express so much of the semantic load of your thoughts using Cherokee! Do not fear polysynthesis—embrace it instead!

Learning Tips

Below are some tips to keep in mind when learning Cherokee.

General Tips edit

  • Spaced repetition is the key to memorization. Look into it.
  • Not all verbs and inflections occur with equal frequency. Follow the progression of the course to learn the most common verbs and even memorize specific inflections if they occur frequently. This will more rapidly build up your knowledge to the point where you have enough words to experiment with new sentence structures and to have fun expressing your thoughts and feelings.

Cherokee-Specific Tips edit

  • Imperative and immediate past forms seem to be more psychologically fundamental than many indicative forms, even including the present continuous depending on whom you ask. As such, it is advisable to drill the immediate (IV) stem of each verb to the point of solid internalization. In other words, this stem is arguably the most important of the five, so make sure you know it comfortably!
  • Some tone processes are more important than others. The rank from most to least important is as such: Pronominal Tonic Lowering > Laryngeal Alternation > H1 > H3 > H2.

Survey of Resources

There are several third party websites with Cherokee instructional materials. Unfortunately, these resources are incomprehensive and largely ignore key phonological distinctions such as vowel length and tone.

Instead of these, I recommend the Cherokee Nation’s resources, downloadable from its website, including the preliminary course See, Say, Write and the beginners’ course We Are Learning Cherokee. These resources have fewer inaccuracies, but they once again largely ignore vowel length and tone. Thus, my prescription is to use the PDFs and the recordings only for reference, as following the courses too closely would instill bad habits such as ignoring tone or having a myopic view of the conjugation system.

Another such resource is Michael Joyner’s Cherokee Language Lessons, but this should also be taken with a grain of salt, as I have been told by a Cherokee linguists student that there are concerning inaccuracies in the curriculum.

For easy reference, I have uploaded the aforementioned three PDFs into the folder, and I recommend the learner start by skimming all three of these textbooks. Do not spend longer than an hour doing this.

After skimming these textbooks, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article for the Cherokee language: There are some issues in Romanization, and some of the information is too technical for the beginner, so do not force yourself to comprehend everything, for all of the information will be presented more accessibly in other resources, including the rest of this document.

Next, I recommend spending some time familiarizing yourself with the Cherokee English Dictionary (CED). In the folder you will find a PDF of it. I highly recommend reading the introduction in its entirety. The author, the late Durbin Feeling (1946 – 2020), is undoubtedly the greatest contributor to the preservation and revitalization of Cherokee. He has helped with adding the Cherokee syllabary to Unicode, and he has published numerous other resources related to the language.

The CED’s introduction is 12 pages long and is a primer on pronunciation, including tones, and an explanation of the layout of entries in the dictionary. One need not be able to produce the tones correctly yet, but it is important to develop a decently good understanding of Feeling’s conventions for marking them. Also pay attention to his conventions for indicating vowel length. Another important thing to understand is Feeling’s entries for verbs. The citation form is the third person singular present continuous form. In the introduction, Feeling explains that he includes five further subentries for each citation form to account for all stems of the verb. In reality, the specific subentries he chose are not the most efficient way of representing the principal parts of the Cherokee verb. Nonetheless, they suffice for now. A discussion on this issue will be found in the “5 Stems” subsection of this document under the “Basic Construction of the Verb” section. It has much to do with Feeling’s view of the language as a native speaker, which contrasts with a more analytical view adopted by linguists who are not native speakers.

After reading the introduction, flip through the Cherokee-English portion of the dictionary and familiarize yourself with Feeling’s orthographic conventions by trying to read the entries. Also note that the example sentences lack any marking for vowel length and tone, which is quite annoying. Feeling left out these indications to save himself time. Nonetheless, the CED as it is is crucial to all other linguists’ understanding of the language, and great reverence for Feeling’s efforts is due. (I also must thank the editor William Pulte and the Cherokee Nation for publishing and disseminating this book.)

You will find that the English-Cherokee section is smaller. This is a section merely to help you locate entries in the Cherokee-English section.

In the back of the CED is a rather condensed grammar sketch of Cherokee. My scan is a subpar way to view this section. Instead, I recommend perusing the online version of this section at This version makes for a much better reading experience.

I would not recommend reading the entire grammar sketch as a learning tool. It is better suited as a quick reference. Much of the material is presented without enough explanation and will cause you to have more questions than answers. For a more thorough grammar of Cherokee, I would turn to Brad Montgomery-Anderson’s Cherokee Reference Grammar (2015). I do not have this particular edition, but in the folder I have included a PDF of the 2008 edition, A Reference Grammar of Oklahoma Cherokee. This is an older edition and has some typos and other issues, but for the most part it is rather straightforward and comprehensive. I do not recommend reading the reference grammar cover-to-cover, but rather using it as just that, a reference grammar. The table of contents at the beginning will guide you to the desired section, and for each chapter there is a detailed table of contents that will pinpoint where a discussion of a specific grammatical feature can be found. Be aware that Brad Montgomery-Anderson (BMA) uses an orthography with significant differences from that of the CED, and it will take some time for you to become accustomed to it.

Another indispensable resource for Cherokee learners and linguists alike is the Cherokee-English Dictionary Online Database at This project was initiated by Tim Nuttle and compiles words from nearly 2 dozen dictionaries and word lists, including the Cherokee English Dictionary. Be aware that if you search for a word, it is likely that the entry you are looking for will not show up on the first page, as the listing of entries containing the keyword is alphabetical, not by best match. Thus, you will have to be patient and use the “Next >>” link to navigate to the desired entry. Also, since the database compiles entries from different sources, which have different orthographic conventions, you must mentally prepare yourself for the moderate diversity in spelling practices and often, the lack of tone or even vowel length indications.

To summarize, I recommend that the new learner start learning Cherokee by following this plan:

  1. Skim the three course PDFs.
  2. Read the Wikipedia article about the Cherokee language.
  3. Read the CED introduction thoroughly.
  4. Flip through the Cherokee-English section to internalize the Feeling orthography.
  5. Skim the grammatical sketch from the CED online.
  6. Accustom oneself to the layout of the BMA reference grammar.
  7. Come back and read the rest of this document.


The Cherokee language includes six vowel sounds.

  • [ɑ] is pronounced “ah” as in “father” or “water” (ex. ᎠᎹ (ama), meaning “water”).
  • [e] is pronounced “eh” or “ay” as in “egg” or “lane” (ex. ᏎᎷ (selu), meaning “corn”).
  • [i] is pronounced “ee” as in “tree” (ex. ᏏᏲ (siyo), meaning “hello”).
  • [o] is pronounced “oh” as in “hello” (ex. ᎣᎩᎾᎵᎢ (oginaliʔi), roughly meaning “my friends”); very little rounding occurs when pronouncing this vowel in Cherokee
  • [u] is pronounced “oo” as in “blue” (ex. ᎤᏔᎾ (utana), meaning “big”); very little rounding this vowel in Cherokee and is often pronounced more like [ɯ ~ ʉ]
  • [ə͂ ~ ʌ̃] is pronounced like “uh” as in “butter”, but nasalized, similar to the French sound un (ex. ᎥᏝ (vtla), meaning “no”)

In the beginning and middle of a word, only one of the vowels is nasalized. The last vowel of the word is always nasal. These vowels cannot be combined to form diphthongs.


The Cherokee language has 13 main consonants. Most sonorant consonants also have one (or in the case of [ʥ], two) devoiced form which occurs when adjacent to h.

Stops edit

[ʔ], often used to separate adjacent vowel sounds; often used between the syllables in the English interjection “uh-oh”

[g] which is also aspirated to make [kʰ]; resembles the sounds used in the English “get” and “kit”

[gʷ], a labialized velar stop which is also devoiced as [kʷʰ]; for many speakers, especially in modern-day Oklahoma Cherokee, the articulation of this consonant is weakened and pronounced as [ɣʷ ~ w]. This consonant is usually pronounced like the sounds in the English words “iguana” and “question,” but sometimes is pronounced more closely to the sound in the English word “wear.”

[d], a voiced alveolar stop, can also be aspirated as the devoiced [tʰ]. This sound can be pronounced like the sounds in the English words “dam” and “taboo.”

Nasals edit

[n] and its voiceless allophone [ʰn̥]; pronounced like the sound in the sound in the English word “no,” though there isn’t an English example of the devoiced form of this consonant.

[m], which is rarely used outside of loan words; pronounced like the sound in the English word “moon.”

Fricatives edit

[h]; resembles the sound in the English word “hair”

[s], more commonly pronounced [ʂ ~ ʃ] in the Eastern dialect; pronounced like the sounds in the English words “silent” and “shook”

Affricates edit

[ʥ], a voiced alveolo-palatal affricate, which has two voiceless equivalents in Oklahoma Cherokee: [ʨ] or a voiceless alveolar affricate [ʦ]. Occasionally, [ʥ] may be pronounced as [ʣ], a voiced alveolar affricate, though this is uncommon in Oklahoma Cherokee. This sound is more common in some communities in North Carolina Cherokee, along with the voiceless [ʦ]. However, in the Snowbird community, [ʥ] and [ʨ] are retained. These sounds are pronounced like those in the English words “jaguar,” “cheat,” “tsunami,” and “dead zone,” respectively.

[dɮ], a voiced lateral affricate, which may be devoiced as [tɬ], commonly pronounced simply as a lateral fricative [ɬ]. In the Eastern dialect, this consonant is merged with the alveolar affricate. There is no English equivalent to this sound, which is formed by pressing the tip of the tongue against the roof of one's mouth and letting air pass over the sides of the tongue, making a “slurpy” version of the sound one might hear in English words like “beetle.”

Approximants edit

[l] with a voiceless allophone [l̥], often pronounced as a lateral fricative /ɬ/; an extinct dialect of Cherokee used an alveolar tap [ɾ] resembling the Spanish r. This sound pronounced like the sound in the English word “letter”

[w ~ ɰ] and devoiced as [ʍ]; pronounced like the sounds in the English word “wait” and “whip”

[j] and its devoiced equivalent [j̥ ~ ç]; pronounced like the sounds in the English word “you” and the interjection “hyah!”


Cherokee Tone Explained in One Minute edit

By default, all Cherokee vowels have a low flat pitch. Three other types of pitch, or tones, each used for different reasons, can change the default tone. They are (1) the lowfall tone, arising from the use of pronouns, which starts at the default low and goes lower (glides to a lower pitch); (2) the superhigh tone, which starts high and rises higher, associated with adjectives and dependent clauses; and (3) the high tone, associated with a word's internal stress, whether arising as a core component of the word or from an attached prefix. Tones, grammar rules, and affixes interact within a word in a largely predictable yet intricate system.

Cherokee Tone in More Detail edit

One cannot comprehend the beauty of Cherokee tone without first understanding its canvas. The basic unit of time in Cherokee is the mora, which is the length of any syllable containing a short vowel. If a syllable contains a long vowel, it is two moras long. Some tones (i.e. types of tones) in Cherokee last for one mora, and others for two moras. Yet others last for the whole syllable, regardless of its mora number. This property—which unit of time a type of tone is associated with—is a tone's "domain." The domain can be one mora, two moras, or one syllable.

One must also think of the Cherokee tonal system as having one default tone, a low tone with a domain of one mora, that is automatically realized on every syllable unless a marked tone is required to be realized there instead.

A marked tone arises in Cherokee speech or is changed (e.g. through pitch alternation or spreading) for one of two possible reasons: (1) the word or word part (morpheme) inherently has a certain tone or tone process that surfaces as a marked tone; or (2) a grammatical or phonological feature requires a tone or tone process resulting in a marked tone. To understand the entirety of Cherokee tonology, one needs to understand the intricacies of each type of tone or tone process, including its causes or uses, realization, conditions for change, and effects on coincident and neighboring tones. Every tone or tone process is unique in behavior, which is one reason learners have historically found Cherokee tone so challenging. However, if you look at this fact as testament to the richness of the language and embrace the intricacies of the tonal system, you will have a much better learning experience.

True Tones edit

The below table identifies the four true tones of Cherokee. They are called true tones because they arise directly from their sources. This is in opposition with surface tones, which represent additional tone contours arising from the interactions between true tones or from other downstream processes, such as spreading.

The pitch numbers indicates the approximate height of pitch in the realization of the tone on its domain. For example, a low tone is given the (somewhat arbitrarily) pitch assignment of 2. For a single mora, "2" is appropriate. For a low tone on two moras (on a long vowel), "22" is written to indicate the length. For the lowfall tone, "21" is written to indicate that the pitch starts at the same level as called for by a low tone but then glides lower.

All notations use the vowel /a/ for demonstration. The first element of the pair indicates the notation for a short (or in the case of lowfall, underlyingly short) syllable with the specified tone, while the second element is for a long syllable.

Cherokee True Tones
Tone Domain Pitch Notation Sources Notes
Low mora 2, 22 a, aa default, glottal element
High mora 3, 33 á, áá glottal element, inherent stress, certain prefixes Each source is associated with a distinct type that can arguably be treated as a separate tone, just with the same realization.
Lowfall syllable 21 à, aà PTL, LA, glottal element, certain prefixes Lengthens syllable if short.
Superhigh syllable 3, 34 â, aâ subordination, adjectives, some nouns Realized 3 on a short syllable (rarely 4 for some OK speakers), 34 on a long syllable.

Surface Tones edit

Below are a list of surface tones in Cherokee. These are results of the application and interaction of true tones and do not arise alone from meaningful sources.

Cherokee Surface Tones
Tone Domain Pitch Notation Sources Notes
Final syllable 43 a default for final syllable in a full (unclipped) word Final syllables are often clipped in casual speech so you will not hear this for every word.
Rising moras (x2) 23 low preceding high (for any reason)
Falling moras (x2) 32 áa high preceding low (for any reason), coincidence of high and lowfall

Inert Tones edit

Some suffixes (and maybe other morphemes) carry high tones that cannot be attributed to one of the three high tone types discussed here. This may also be the case for non-derived nouns. They are “inert” tones because they do not change. H1, H2, and H3 are specific to verbal morphology—so you won’t confuse them with the inert tones—but they are “active” in the sense that they move around or are realized differently in different circumstances. The learner should simply memorize the inert tones as they come up—they are essentially fully lexical.

Tonicity edit

Tonicity is an important concept in Cherokee tonology. It is a property that applies to every inflection of a verb, every noun, and every adjective. Whether a form is tonic or atonic depends on certain factors.

Firstly, why does tonicity matter?

Tonicity governs the realization of two types of tone: lowfall associated with pronominal tonic lowering (PTL), and the major high tone (H1). If an inflection is tonic, then any lowfall resulting from PTL will be realized (i.e. present), and any major high tone H1 not otherwise limited will be realized high. If an inflection is atonic, then any lowfall resulting from PTL will not be realized, and any H1 will be realized low.

Tonicity is determined for an inflection by following this order of questioning:

  1. Is the assertive ("ASR," a.k.a. experienced past) suffix (-vv́qi) used? If so, the inflection is tonic. If not, move on to the next question.
  2. Does the inflection use any of the tonicizing prepronominal prefixes, namely the iterative, special partitive, relative, or combined cislocative? If so, the inflection is tonic. If not, move on to the next question.
  3. Does the inflection use any of the detonicizing prepronominal prefixes, namely the regular partitive, irrealis, translocative, single cislocative, or negative? If so, the inflection is atonic. If not, move on the next question.
  4. Is the inflection indicative? If so, the inflection is tonic. If not (i.e. if it is imperative or infinitive), then the inflection is atonic. (Nouns and adjectives are also lumped in with the non-indicative forms.)

This is to say, at the most basic level, indicative inflections are tonic, as opposed to imperative or infinitive inflections (or nouns and adjectives). However, if any prepronominal prefixes are used in the inflection, the determination of tonicity defers to them. The only higher power in tonicity determination is the presence of the -vv́qi suffix, which automatically makes an inflection tonic, even if it has a detonicizing PPP, for instance.

Also, note that questions 2 and 3 cannot be flipped in order. That is to say, in the presence of both tonicizing and detonicizing PPPs for any particular inflection, tonicizing trumps detonicizing.

A flowchart lays out these rules more clearly.

Cherokee Tonicity Determination
Priority Tonicizing Elements Detonicizing Elements
1: Modality ASR (-vv́qi) none
2: PPPs ITR, PRT-special, REL, CIS-combined PRT-regular, IRR, TRN, CIS-single, NEG
3: Inflection Indicative verb Imperative, infinitive, nominalized verb, noun, adjective

Sources of Tones: An Overview edit

Lowfall from Pronominal Tonic Lowering (PTL) edit

Pronominal prefixes starting with a vowel will see a lowfall on that initial vowel in a tonic environment. If the underlying vowel is short, the lowfall lengthens it. Remember that this, though, is a general property of the lowfall and not unique to this particular source. When PTL occurs concurrently with a high tone, it seems that a falling tone results. This high tone may be H1 or H3. (H2 would not be able to collide with PTL due to location restraints.)

Lowfall from Long-i Prefixes edit

Regardless of tonicity, pronominal prefixes beginning with a long /i/ always see a lowfall on that vowel. "Always" refers to the fact that tonicity does not govern the realization of this lowfall. Note that in tonic environments this lowfall will appear identical to PTL. One could argue that in tonic environments PTL also applies on top of the long-i-derived lowfall, which is intuitively true, but this fact does not affect any surface pitch movement, for supposedly the double application of a lowfall simply results in a lowfall—there is no distinct "double" lowfall realization.

Lowfall from Laryngeal Alternation (LA) edit

The laryngeal grade of most /hC/ clusters, where C represents any nonglottal consonant, is the disappearance of the /h/ and concurrent assignment of a lowfall tone on the preceding vowel. See the Laryngeal Alternation article for more details about this process.

Lowfall or Low from Glottal Element (Atonic Major High) edit

Major High (H1) edit

Minor High (H2) edit

Iambic High (H3) edit

Superhigh on Adjectives edit

All adjectives carry a superhigh tone.

Superhigh for Subordination edit

Superhigh on Miscellaneous Nouns (Diminutive, Locative, Inalienable Possession, Some Roots) edit

Superhigh on Nominalizations (Some Agentive, Action, Objective, Instrumental, Predicative) edit

Tone Behavior edit

Major High edit

Iambic High edit

Superhigh edit

Inflection Tree

The inflection tree shows the possible inflections for the general Cherokee verb, first branching out at the selection of the stem. There are up to (and typically exactly) five possible stems for each verb, which should be memorized for each verb. More detail on this can be found on other pages. [Note: provide specific link.] The stem options are indicated as the bold headings followed by Roman numeral identifiers in parentheses. Below each stem are listed its subsequent options for inflection.

Present (I) edit

Present (Continuous)

Completive (II) edit

(Remote) Past

  • Experienced
  • Non-Experienced

Future Imperative

Absolute Future (including Certain Imperative)


Future Perfect

Various Derivational Inflections

Resultative Noun or Adjective (with DVB (tonic))

Incompletive (III) edit


(Remote) Past Progressive

  • Experienced
  • Non-Experienced

Absolute Future (including Certain Imperative)

Future Progressive

Agentive Noun (with NOM and SH)

  • General Nominalization (without SH) (Uchihara 365)

Action Noun (General Nominalization) (with DVB and SH)

  • actual DVB (tonic)
  • "perfect nominal" (-vvhi/-vvqi, SH and atonic)

Immediate (IV) edit

Present Imperative

Immediate Past

Irrealis Immediate Future

Infinitive (V) edit


  • Predicative (bare usage): "for you to drink"
  • Obligatory (with superhigh)
  • Instrumental Noun (with SH) (including DVN-CAU-NOM (BMA 461))
    • General Nominalization (without SH) (Uchihara 365)


  • Infinitive (including Potential usage): "your singing"
  • Location Noun

DVB?? (which one? see tonicity)


Key edit

Lexical Indications edit

  • [A]: Set A verb.
    • [A-ga]: Set A verb that takes ga- instead of a- for the third person singular subject.
  • A-: Set A noun, a lexical feature commonly used to denote humans. The entry is a noun, listed as its root, with "A-" preceding to indicate that a Set A pronominal prefix always precedes the root. Coincidentally, the 3rd person singular (he/she/it) Set A prefix (for such nouns) is a-. (Thus I thought it was ingenious to use the notation "A-".)
  • [B]: Set B verb.
  • [D]: Verb takes the distributive prefix lexically. For the PRC, INC, and CMP stems, the form deex́- or its variants are used. For DVN, di- or its variants are used. For IMM, deex́- is used for past and future tenses; for commands di- is used instead.
  • [INC, IMM, CMP, DVN]: For verbs, the 4 stems in addition to the present continuous (PRC) stem used as citation form, namely the incompletive, immediate, completive, and deverbal noun stems.
  • s.o.: Someone (animate object).
  • Something (inanimate object).

Parts of Speech edit

  • adj.: Adjective.
  • vi.: Intransitive verb.
  • vt.: Transitive verb.
  • n.: Noun.

Floating Tones and Length edit

  • -x́: Previous syllable takes high tone. (<x> is a placeholder.)
  • x́-: Following syllable takes high tone.
  • -xx: Previous syllable gets lengthened.

Miscellaneous edit

  • NA: Not applicable.

Dictionary edit

A edit

  • -alisdáayvvhvsg- [-alisdáayvvhvsg-, -alisdàyvvhvga, -alisdáayvvhn-, -alisdàyvhd-]: vi. [A] eat a meal

Ch edit

  • A-chũja ᎠᏧᏣ: n. boy

D edit

  • doosvv́dáqli ᏙᏒᏓᎵ: n. ant
    • possibly derived noun

E edit

  • eeloóhi ᎡᎶᎯ: n. Earth, world

G edit

  • gaáda ᎦᏓ: n. (1) soil, dirt; (2) land
  • gansda ᎦᎾᏍᏓ: n. stick
  • ganvvnoowa ᎦᏅᏃᏩ: n. pipe
  • -gíqa [-gíisg-, -ga, -g-, -gísd-]: vt. eat (neutral/solid object)
  • guule ᎫᎴ: n. acorn

H edit

  • -ha [-h-, -héésti, -h-, NA]: vt. [B] have (neutral/solid object)
    • 3SG exceptional form: uúha (tone unexpected)

I edit

J edit

  • -xxjayoohíha [-xxjayoohih-, -xxjayoóha, -xxjayoohl-, -xxjayoost-]: vt. [A-ga] (1) prick; (2) give s.o. an injection
    • IMM stem ends in -yoóha for inanimate object but -yoqa for animate object. H/Q alternation expected, tone/length change probably linked thereto.
  • joólani ᏦᎳᏂ: n. window

K edit

  • kamaama ᎧᎹᎹ: n. (1) butterfly; (2) elephant

L edit

  • -loónéqa [-loónéesg-, -loóna, -loónéq-, -loónéed-]: vt. [A-ga] oil
  • -lvv́gwóhdi [-lvv́gwóhd-, -lvvgwohda, -lvv́gwóhd-, -lvv́gwóhdohd-]: vt. [B] like
  • [D]-lvv́hwísdàneha [-lvv́hwísdàneeh-, see note, lvv́hwísdàneel-, lvv́hwísdànehd-]: vi. [B] work
    • CED cites IMM (with distributive prefix, in command form) as diijálv́v́hwiisdàsi. This is the only IMM stem in any dictionary cited with a long vowel in the di- prefix, i.e. dii-. Should be elicited to confirm.

N edit

  • nokwsi ᏃᏈᏏ: n. star
  • nuúna ᏄᎾ: n. potato
  • nvvwóoti ᏅᏬᏘ: n. medicine

O edit

  • -oolihga [-oolihg-, -ooligi, -oolihj-, -oolihísd-]: vt. [A-ga] (1) understand; (2) recognize s.o.

Q edit

  • -x́qluhga [-x́qluhg-, -qluhgi, -qlúhj-, -qlúhísd-]: vi. [A-ga] arrive

S edit

  • seélu ᏎᎷ: n. corn

T edit

  • tuúya ᏚᏯ: n. bean

U edit

  • uuwáqni ᎤᏩᏂ: n. wool

V edit

  • vvdali ᎥᏓᎵ: n. pond, lake

W edit

  • weésa ᏪᏌ: n. cat

Y edit

  • -xxyeewisga [-xxyeewisg-, -xxyeéwa, -xxyeewis-, -xxyeewist-]: vt. [A-ga] sew


Here are a whole bunch of phrases we could incorporate into lessons:

Simple Phrases edit

Gado hadvne (what are you doing?)
dagilawisdane (I am working)
tsayosihas (are you hungry?)
v v agiyosi (yes I am hungry)
tsadulis hawiya? do you want meat?
v v hawiya aquaduli yes meat I want
kawi tsadulis? Do you want coffee? (lit: coffee you want it?)
v v kawi aquaduli yes coffee I want it
ugodidas agasga ahnai?----alot it is raining there?
tla tlayagasga-- --no it is not raining
Okay Ho wa
Thank you Wa do
Yes vv ii
No Thla
I don't know Thla ya gwan ta


Old and Unclassified Links edit