One of the most common requests we get at our American Indian translation fundraiser is
"How do I translate my name (or my third-graders' names) into Cherokee?" Since Cherokee has a unique writing system, it is indeed possible to spell
English names using Cherokee characters, just as you can with Japanese or Hindi characters. But since this isn't a true translation--just a matter of
using a different alphabet to spell the same word--you don't actually need a translator who speaks Cherokee to do it for you. You can do it yourself, for free!
First, of course, you will need a copy of the Cherokee alphabet. We have a tutorial online on
the Cherokee alphabet
which shows how to use the standard chart of Cherokee characters. If you need a black and white
version to print out, here's one:
You should follow the link and read the tutorial to help yourself use this chart best, but basically,
each character represents one syllable, so if your name is Mona, you would use the two characters for MO and NA,
written left to right, like this: . This doesn't actually
mean anything in Cherokee, of course--it is just a way of spelling the English name Mona using
the Cherokee writing system.
Easy so far, right? However, there are several significant differences between the English and Cherokee writing systems
that can make it hard to spell English names in Cherokee:
1) English isn't written phonetically. There are many letters in English names that are not pronounced. In the girl's name
"Sallie," for example, the "e" and one of the "l's" don't make any sound at all. The name is pronounced the same regardless
of whether it is spelled Sallie, Salli, or Sali. So to write the name Sallie in Cherokee, you'll need to get rid of the extra letters and
spell it with the two characters for SA and LI, .
2) In English, the same vowel sound may be spelled two different ways, or two different vowel sounds may be spelled the same way.
The i in mice is not pronounced like the i in police. The a in say and the e in they
are pronounced the same. Cherokee vowels are always pronounced essentially the same: A as in "father," E as in "they," I as in "police,"
O as in "note," U as in "tune," V, which sounds like the "u" in "sun," and AI together, which sounds like the "i" in "mice." You need to
pick the vowel sound that is closest to the way your name is actually pronounced, which may be different from how it is spelled.
If your name is Laila and it is pronounced lay-lah, then you would spell it with the two characters LE and LA in Cherokee,
. If your name is Laila and it is pronounced lie-lah, then you would spell it
with the three characters LA, I, and LA in Cherokee, .
3) In English, the same consonant sound may be spelled two different ways, or two different consonant sounds may be spelled the same way.Eric, Erik, and Erick are all pronounced the same way in English, but Cindy is pronounced the same as Sindy.
Genie is pronounced the same as Jeanie, but Gary is not pronounced the same as Jerry.
In general, try to simplify your name by spelling any "c" or "ck" that sounds like K as K; any "c" sound that sounds like "s" as S;
and any "g" sound that sounds like J as J. So putting together #1, 2, and 3, if your name is Connie (pronounced kah-nee), you should spell
it with the two characters KA and NI in Cherokee, .
4) In Cherokee, two different consonant sounds may be spelled the same way. The sounds KE, KI, KO, KU, and KV are written the same as the
sounds GE, GI, GO, GU, and GV in Cherokee. The sounds TO, TU, and TV are written the same as the sounds DO, DU, and DV in Cherokee.
And syllables beginning with the consonant sounds TS, DS, J, and CH are all written the same in Cherokee. So if your name is
Genie (pronounced jee-nee) you should spell it with the two characters TSI and NI in Cherokee, .
5) Some English consonants don't exist in Cherokee. There are no Cherokee sounds equivalent to English B, F, P, R, V, X, Z, SH, or TH.
Traditionally, Cherokee speakers replaced these foreign English sounds with QU, so that they pronounced the name Rebecca "quay-quay-gah"
and spelled it . SH is usually replaced with S,
TH is usually replaced with T, and R is sometimes replaced with L instead of QU (as in the name Mary, which is pronounced "may-lee" by Cherokees
and spelled .) The English letter combination KR (or CR, or CHR) is also replaced with QU,
so that the boy's name Chris is pronounced quiss.
6) Many English syllables end in consonants. Except for S, which can be written by itself, all syllables in the Cherokee alphabet end with a vowel.
When writing English words or names in the Cherokee syllabary, the standard practice is to write a "silent i" after the final consonant. So if your
name is Ellen, most Cherokee people would spell it with the three characters E, LE, and NI,
. Sometimes for girls' names it is common to
add and pronounce an extra A after the last letter instead (so that Megan might be pronounced Megana in Cherokee, and spelled with the
three characters ME, GA, and NA.)
Those are the general rules for spelling English words in Cherokee; of course, as in any language, some names can have more than one spelling.
In particular, some names that entered the Cherokee language a long time ago, such as Biblical names, have old-fashioned Cherokee forms -- for example,
Luga (pronounced loo-gah) is a Cherokee variant of the male name Luke, and Madi (pronounced mah-dee) is a Cherokee variant of the
female name Martha. If you were going to use the
Cherokee syllabary to spell the English name "Luke," you would spell it , but to spell
the Cherokee name "Luga," you would spell that . There is also some variation in
spelling names whose vowel sounds don't exactly match Cherokee. For example, the "A" in "Annie" is about halfway between the "A" and "E" sounds
of Cherokee. Some Cherokee people spell it , and others spell it
These guidelines may seem confusing at first, but the good thing is that you can use them to write ANY name in Cherokee, whereas if I just made a
long list of Cherokee Indian names and how to spell each of them, your name might still be left off the list. Even if you have a relatively newfangled name to
contend with like "Makayla" or "LaTasha," which aren't on any of the existing Cherokee name translation lists, you can easily use the syllabary
to see that they can be spelled with the three characters MA, GE, and LA ()
and the three characters LA, TA, and SA ().
If you're still confused, feel free to use our Native American names
form and we can still send you a .jpg of what your name should look like in the Cherokee syllabary--but hopefully, now you should
be able to do it yourself, and for free.