The Cherokee language has its own
syllabic writing system which is distinct from English and
other European alphabets. You can see a chart of the Cherokee syllabary on this page,
along with an explanation on how to use the syllabary for beginners.
Cherokee is also frequently written alphabetically, using a modified English alphabet.
The following charts show the pronunciation for the alphabetic Cherokee
orthography we have used on our site, as well as some alternate spellings
that you may find in other books and websites.
Character We Use:
Sometimes Also Used:
How To Pronounce It:
Like the a in father.
Like the e sound in Spanish, similar to the a in Kate.
Like the i in police.
Like the o in note.
Like the u in tune.
Like the u in fun, only nasalized. Nasal vowels don't normally exist in English, but
the American English slang terms "uh-huh" (meaning "yes") and "nuh-uh" (meaning "no") are pronounced with two
nasalized sounds just like the v sound of Cherokee.
Like the i in ice.
Character We Use:
Sometimes Also Used:
How To Pronounce It:
d ~ t
Like d in die or t in sty.
Like g in gate or k in skate.
Like the gw in Gwen or the kw in inkwell.
Like h in English hay.
g, gh, kh
Like k in Kate.
Like l in English light. In the Lower Cherokee dialect, which is no longer spoken, it was pronounced more
like the r in right.
Like m in English moon. (This is a rare sound in Cherokee.)
Like n in English night.
gw, kw, khw
Like the qu in quell.
Like s in see.
d, dh, th
Like t in tie.
Some Cherokee speakers pronounce this sound as a "tl" or "dl" combination. Others pronounce it as a
fricative or "breathy l" like the "ll" in the Welsh name "Llewellyn." Some English speakers can pronounce
that sound well if they try to pronounce the "breathy l" in the word clue without the c
in front of it.
ch, c, ds, j
Like j in jar, ds in suds or ts in cats.
Like w in English way.
Like y in English yes.
A pause sound, like the one in the middle of the word "uh-oh." This sound is often omitted in written Cherokee, especially at the
beginning of words.
In both English and Cherokee, consonants like d, and g are unaspirated (pronounced without a breath of air)
and consonants like t, and k are unvoiced (pronounced without the vocal chords vibrating.) However, in English,
voicing is more important to the language while aspiration is variable, and in Cherokee, aspiration is more important to the language while
voicing is variable.
In English, the main difference between consonants like d and t is that d is voiced. If you put your fingers on your
adam's-apple and pronounce "d" and "t," you will see that it vibrates when you say "d." This is true whenever you pronounce a d
in English. However, t is sometimes aspirated and sometimes not, depending on where it is in the word. Place your fingers in front
of your mouth and say "tar," then "star." You can feel more air puffing out of your mouth with the aspirated "t" in "tar" than the
unaspirated "t" in "star."
Cherokee is just the opposite. Consonants like t and k are always aspirated in Cherokee.
However, consonants like d, and g are sometimes
voiced and sometimes not. Sometimes this depends on where in a word the consonant occurs;
other times the variation is due to the dialect of the speaker.
It is much more important to get the aspiration of an Cherokee word correct than the voicing.
If you pronounce the aspiration wrong, it can change the meaning of a word. If you are not proficient at Cherokee
pronunciation yet, it is always better to pronounce an unaspirated g as English "g" than as English "k."
Hyphens In Cherokee Words
In some Cherokee language-learning books and websites, Cherokee words are written with hyphens between each syllable, like this:
This is done to help students who are working on learning the Cherokee syllabary to learn where syllable breaks are. They do not make
any sound or have anything to do with the pronunciation of each word, and Cherokee people rarely use them in their writing unless they
are teaching the language to someone.
Like other Iroquoian languages, Cherokee has both long and short vowels. A long vowel is simply held longer than a short vowel is--the sound
it makes is not altered. Sometimes this distinction changes the meaning of a word in Cherokee. For example, agi'a with a short
i means "eats" in Cherokee, but agi'a with a long i means "gets."
Unfortunately for beginning language learners, Cherokee vowel length is not marked in either the standard alphabetic orthography or the traditional
syllabary. Sometimes in linguistics texts, you will see long vowels marked with a colon after them, like i:, or the short vowels marked with a
dot underneath them, like ị. But ordinary Cherokee writing represents long and short vowels the same way, just as English writing represents
the "a" sounds in "water," "cater," and "matter" the same way. You just have to learn whether the vowels are short or long as you learn each vocabulary word.
Cherokee is a tone language. That means some syllables are pronounced with higher pitch than others. In English, the last syllable
of a question is pronounced with high pitch, so you can hear the difference between sentences like "You see a man." and "You see a man?" In
Cherokee, such high and low tones are used in nearly every word, giving the language a lively sound.
Tone is not usually phonemic in Cherokee, but there are a few cases in which changing the tone of a word changes its meaning.
One famous example is uhyvdla. When this word is pronounced with a low tone on the v, it means "it's cold."
When the same word is pronounced with a high tone on the v, it means "Republican."
Cherokee tones are also not marked in either the alphabetic orthography or the syllabary. Cherokee speakers remember them automatically, just as English
speakers remember which syllables of a word are stressed. Since there are very few cases where using the wrong tone will change the meaning of a word
or sentence, the best strategy for language learners is just to listen to Cherokee speakers and imitate their pronunciation--mistakes will generally just make
your accent sound bad.
Most Cherokee syllables and nearly every Cherokee word (we could only think of two exceptions) end in a vowel. However, in quick or conversational
speech, a short vowel at the end of a word is frequently devoiced or dropped, and a long vowel is pronounced like a short vowel.
In the middle of a word, a short i that has low pitch is usually not pronounced. Some speakers drop
short a sounds that have low pitch as well.