The Encyclopedia of North American Indians has entries on many facets of Native American life and civilization, including languages; there are separate articles on Algonquian, Cherokee, and half a dozen other languages and families. From the Cherokee page:

Cherokee has a relatively small inventory of sounds, with only seventeen meaningful units—eleven consonants and six vowels. In addition, two prosodic features, vowel length and pitch accent, also affect meaning. The absence of bilabial stops and of labio-dental spirants (f and v sounds) leaves the bilabial nasal m sound as the only consonant requiring lip articulation. The m sound has very limited distribution, occurring in fewer than ten aboriginal words. All of these are uninflected nouns with uncertain etymologies, suggesting that the m sound is a relatively recent addition to Cherokee… All other meaningful units of sound, or phonemes, constitute regularly occurring correspondences with sounds of other Iroquoian languages.

It’s interesting that “the Iroquoian family is one of the few language families in the world that has no bilabial stops (b and p sounds)”; another blow to the idea of universals.

Addendum. I ran across what looks like a very interesting book, American Indian Languages: Cultural and Social Contexts by Shirley Silver and Wick R. Miller. The table of contents includes things like Grammatical Systems (Possession: Example from Acoma; Gender: Example from Plains Cree; Number: Example from Shasta; Person Reference: Examples from Aztec and Shoshoni; Classifying Verbs: Examples from the Apachean Languages; Evidentials: Examples from the Andes), Cultural Domain and Geographic Orientation, Language and Counting Systems, Worldview and the Hopi, Language Communities (in the Great Basin; in the Pueblos; of the Creek Confederacy; of the Aztec Empire), California Storytellers and Storytelling, The Written Word, Multilingualism, Lingua Francas, Language Contact, The Use of Language as a Tool for Prehistory… Well, let’s just say it packs a lot into 433 pages. I want to have a look at it.

Further addendum. The comments contain a description of a typeface and font company, Tiro, that makes a point of international language support and has created fonts for Cherokee and Inuit, among others. Thanks, Marian!

Incidentally, I found the Encyclopedia site because the Salishan page turned up in my referrer logs; my thanks to whoever came here from there!


  1. Does anyone know if the Native American languages are well enough studied to be sure about all the classifications? I know that in Eurasia except for Indo-China all languages either can be assigned to one of a very few groups, or else are enumerable as isolate languages. What’s that status in the Western hemisphere?

  2. Controversial. Joseph Greenberg said there are only three families: Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dené, and Amerind (which includes all the rest). Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages says: “He has not really demonstrated his thesis for all the small families and all the language isolates… But Greenberg has changed the agenda. As evidence assembles that the major language families are distantly linked, it becomes necessary in the case of the remainder to explain why they should not be linked with the rest.”

  3. I’d heard that Cherokee was one of the first written languages on the continent. Is that true, or a bunch of hoohah?

  4. I’m pretty sure that there were no written languages among US Natives until the 1800’s, when the Cherokees devised a writing system for their language.

  5. Zizka – the massive Greenberg scheme is controversial, but the smaller families most widely cited aren’t. The Algonquian familiy, for example, is quite obviously related by a set of simple consonant transitions much like the one the Grimm brothers used to classify the various dialects of German. I am less familiar with the Athabaskan languages, but my understanding is that the classification of Navajo, Apache, most of the northwest Pacific coast languages and the Mackenzie Valley/Lake Athabaska languages in a single group – usually called “Na-Dene” – is not controversial either.
    The Inuit languages are very obviously related to each other and to the languages of northeastern Siberia – they form a continuum just like the German dialects, from east Greenland to where the Yupik languages start in western Alaska. The Na-Dene group also apparently really exists, although it is a bit oddly distributed geographically. Furthrmore, the Na-Dene languages appear to correlate well to the distribution of B and AB blood types in native North Americans, offering a supporting line of evidence for a unique Na-Dene identity.
    The real controversy is the single grouping for all the other aboriginal American languages. It is plausible, but it is very hard to talk about reconstructing a root language that might have been spoken 13-16 thousand years ago. Indo-European is usually only dated back 8-10 thousand years, and we have 2-4 thousand year old records to work with. In the Americas, there are no phonetically written records more than 500 years old.

  6. Moira: By “the continent” I assume you mean what’s now the United States, since of course languages of Mexico were written much earlier. The Massachusett language was written down in Latin characters (for Bible translation) in the mid-17th century (the Bible was published in 1663), and native speakers took to the writing system (which was well designed for the language) and used it themselves; I have a copy of a 1752 petition by the community at Mashpee that begins:
    Barnstuble June 11 the 1752 year
    woj quttiantammmoe nussontimmomunnnonog kah wommosue sontimmoog ut Boston massuchusit bay yeu ut New Eng Land…

    But I believe the first independently developed writing system was indeed that devised by Sequoyah for Cherokee in 1821.
    Scott: Thanks for the more detailed explanation!

  7. Incidentally, I found this site because the Salishan page turned up in my referrer logs; my thanks to whoever came here from there!
    That must have been me. I wanted to check whether any of the texts in the Internet Sacred Text Archive were from Salishan languages (they’re not), and it seemed quickest to go through your recent post. Glad to be inadvertently helpful.

  8. I don’t know if anyone cares, but a friend of mine, Ross Mills, who is a typeface designer and font developer, is in the process of reissuing one of his fonts, Plantagenet, in OpenType format, which will have a set of Cherokee characters. OpenType fonts were developed to offer international language support (among other things), but his is the first I’ve heard of that will have Cherokee. (It is also a very beautiful font.)
    Ross and his company Tiro are big advocates of international language support and he also recently drew and developed an official font (Pigiarniq) for the Government of Nunavut which is available athttp://www.gov.nu.ca/font.htm.
    Anyway, if anyone’s interested in the Cherokee they can make note of http://www.tiro.com, although I know the site currently offers very little information. Maybe in a few months they’ll have it updated … or you could just contact Ross through the site.
    A little off-topic, but not completely, eh?

  9. Excellent – I’ve added it to the entry.

  10. I just ran across a very comprehensive page for Native American languages — Langaugegeek.com — which includes a lot of information on Syllabics and a Unicode font for rendering Syllabics, Cherokee, and Latin orthographies used for Native American languages.

  11. Thanks — it instantly became a LH post!

  12. Denny Sullivan says

    Does anyone know the meaning of the word Toonook?

  13. Try Google.

  14. Having 1st grandchild soon. Would like to know what the Cherokee name for Grandmother and Grandfather is. Thanks! Beth

  15. jerry zieglar says

    Could you give me information on the use of
    “german silver” in the plains tribes, also the
    time frame that “rocker engraving” was used with that form of material
    Thank you

  16. An answer for Beth:
    There is an English -> Cherokee dictionary at http://www.wehali.com/tsalagi/index.cfm
    For “grandmother”:
    e-ni-si : ᎡᏂᏏ
    a-li-si : ᎠᎵᏏ
    e-li-si : ᎡᎵᏏ
    For “grandfather”:
    a-gi-du-da : ᎠᎩᏚᏓ
    e-ni-si : ᎡᏂᏏ
    Interesting that there is one word for both.

  17. More for Beth: There is a paper on the Tsalagi kinship system, including terminology here: http://www.boulder.net/~gillman/anthpaper/anthpap.html

  18. Thanks, Andrew! I hope Beth sees it.

  19. Dennis Cumberland says

    I believe that most of the Native syllabics are all adapted from Sequoia’s syllabics.I am using Carrier Syllabics which were devised by father morice in 1885 ,adapted from cree syllabics which were supposedly invented by reverend evans in mid 1800’s. Ten or more years before this Sequoia’s
    alphabet was created . If you hold them up together it is clearly Sequoia’s system. Not the shape of the symbols but the vowel usage ( a,u,e i,o,oo) and the isolating of sounds in the language. News of Sequoia’s alphabet would have travelled across the land and certainly would have created quite a buzz amongst missionaries. So as I clearly see it just another R-I-P-O-F-F Indianuity.

  20. Peach Musgrave says

    Having first child, would like to know the aboriginal name for grandmother and grandfather.

  21. To set the record straight after 14 years (ah, the power of Random Link!), Cherokee syllabics were developed in the 1810s, Cree syllabics in the 1830s, and they have nothing in common except the name and the fact that Evans, who created Cree syllabics, was inspired by Sequoyah’s work.

    Cherokee uses a true syllabary in which symbols with the same consonant have nothing in common and neither do symbols with the same vowel or no vowel. Cree syllabics as well as the other Canadian syllabics are actually an abugida like Ethiopic: the consonant is expressed by the main shape, the vowel by the degree of rotation (and the size, where there is no vowel). For Ethiopic the vowel is written attached to the consonant and there is no inherent vowel, whereas Indic abugidas write their vowel marks detached from the consonant and the plain consonant represents a specific vowel (which one depends on the language).

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