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Translating Cherokee Names

One of the most common requests we get at our American Indian translation fundraiser is "How do I translate my name into Cherokee?" Since Cherokee has a unique writing system, it is indeed possible to spell English names in Cherokee characters, just as you can with Japanese or Hindi characters. But since this isn't a true Cherokee 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! Here's how:

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First, of course, you will need a copy of the Cherokee alphabet. We have a tutorial online on the Cherokee alphabet (actually a syllabary), which shows how to use Cherokee symbols to write words. If you need a black and white version of the syllabary 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 Cherokee 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 the Cherokee language, 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 your name 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 Sallie as a Cherokee Indian name, 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. In Cherokee names, 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 language. So to write Genie (pronounced jee-nee) as a Cherokee name, 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 the Cherokee letter QU, so that they pronounced the name Rebecca "quay-quay-gah" and spelled it . SH is usually replaced with S in Cherokee names, 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 Indian translations would spell that 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 Cherokee names can have more than one spelling. In particular, some traditional names of Cherokee Indians were borrowed from English a long time ago, and so they are spelled and pronounced differently. This is especially true of Biblical Cherokee names. 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 the Cherokee name "Luga" is spelled instead. There is also some variation in English to Cherokee translations when the vowel sounds of the two languages don't exactly match. 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 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 send you a .jpg with a Cherokee language translation of your name-- but hopefully, now you should be able to do it yourself, and for free.

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Recommended books about writing names in Cherokee:
(Our organization earns a commission from any book bought through these links)

Let's Learn Cherokee Syllabary:
    Excellent workbook for learning to read and write in Cherokee letters.
Beginning Cherokee:
    Good Cherokee textbook for sale, which can teach you Cherokee translation.
Cherokee-English Dictionary:
    A good Cherokee dictionary, with all words printed in Cherokee characters as well as the English alphabet.

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