Written by Mary ᎺᎵ Rae, Art by Miriam Rae-Silver
1. Introduction to Cherokee Verbs and Pronoun Prefixes
In this and upcoming discussions about Cherokee verbs, read and try to understand
the material, but don’t worry about trying to take it all in or memorize. All of this
material will come up again, and you can always refer back. The most important thing
is to just become familiar with how the verbs work.
Cherokee verbs are complicated because they are very specific, and they contain a lot
of information that we might need several words for in English.
There are different ways to look at and study Cherokee verbs. Different linguists may use
different terms, but, in general, all Cherokee verbs must contain at least these three parts:
The PRONOUN PREFIX, which tells who is doing what, and sometimes, to whom; the VERB STEM,
which tells what is being done; and the TENSE SUFFIX, which tells when the action takes place.
The verb stem can be broken down into more parts, but that is not necessary to our introductory
The pronoun prefix, which is attached just before the verb stem, tells who is involved in the
action of the verb. There are two sets of pronoun prefixes, Set A, which is often used with more
active verbs, and Set B, which is usually used with more passive, or static verbs. Although
you will hear people talk about Set A and Set B verbs, keep in mind that Set A verbs may take
Set B pronoun prefixes in certain circumstances.
Below, you will find a Set A chart, using the sample verbs of gawoniha ‘he or she is speaking’
and ega ‘he or she is going.’ Following that, is a Set B chart, using the sample verbs uha
‘he or she has it (something neutral)’ and uduliha ‘he or she wants it.’
Notice that the prefixes are different according to whether the stem starts with a consonant
or a vowel. Notice also, that the second person double (You two), and second person plural (You all),
is exactly the same for both Set A and Set B. They are highlighted in pale green.
Once you learn those prefixes, you won’t have to worry about whether you need a Set A or
Set B prefix since they are identical.
|gawoniha||‘He or she is speaking’|
|ega||‘He or she is going’|
Set A prefixes are often used with verbs dealing with actions.
|uha||‘He or she has it (neutral)’|
|uduliha||‘He or she wants it’|
Set B prefixes are often used verbs expressing something passive, or a state.
ᏙᏪᎸᎦ tohwelvga Write!
|Looking at the charts above translate the following sentences into Cherokee, and say if the prefix is Set A or Set B. Remember to refer back to the Persons Chart if there is any question about who is involved.|
|You and she want it.|
|You all are going.|
|He has it (something neutral).|
|They and I are speaking.|
|I am going.|
|He and I want it.|
|You have it (something neutral).|
2. Pronominal Prefixes
When studying verbs in Cherokee, it’s important to have a good understanding of the person
or persons involved in the action.
ᏙᏪᎸᎦ tohwelvga Write!
In the spaces below write down what you think these categories mean. Explain them as you remember and understand them, without doing further research. This isn’t to see if you “get it right.” It’s just to start the thinking process, so write down whatever comes to mind.
It’s vitally important to understand which person or persons is talking, and who or what
is being talked about, because each verb will have a pronominal prefix, as discussed above.
On the next page is a chart of first, second and third persons. To help you visualize,
I have included the following symbols:
|he, she, singular they, it|
Study the chart on the next page and compare to what you had previously thought.
Read the following person terms and, using the chart above, identify who is being talked about:
1. Second person dual
2. Third person plural
3. First person plural
4. First person dual exclusive
5. Third person singular
6. First person dual inclusive
7. First person plural exclusive
3. More About Cherokee Verbs and Pronoun Prefixes
As we have seen, all verbs in Cherokee must include the PRONOUN (or Pronominal) PREFIX.
This prefix tells who performs the action of the verb, referred to as the subject. For example,
if you see ᎯᏬᏂᎭ hiwoniha, hi– is the pronoun prefix and shows that YOU are speaking,
so YOU are the subject.
There are also pronoun prefixes which show not only the verb subject, but also the object,
the one to whom the action was done. An example would be ᏥᏯᏛᎩᎠ jiyatvgia/tsiyatvgia ‘I hear him or her.’
The prefix tsiy– shows that I did something to HIM or HER. So a single prefix shows immediately
how many people are included in the action, and specifies who did something to another, or others.
It can be helpful to use pictures to visualize the prefixes, especially as they get more complicated.
You can use similar emojis on your computers and phones.
|he, she, singular they, it|
If you look again at hiwoniha ‘you are speaking’
hi– contains the information that YOU are doing something. There is no object of your action.
‘YOU are speaking’
When we look at jiyatvgia/tsiyatvgia ‘I hear him or her’
|I||HE or SHE|
jiy/tsiy– contains the information in the picture above: ‘I am doing something to HIM or HER‘
‘I hear HIM or HER‘
If I wanted to say ‘YOU hear HIM or HER,’ it would be hiyatvgia
|YOU||HE or SHE|
hiy– contains the information in the picture above: ‘YOU are doing something to HIM or HER‘
‘YOU hear HIM or HER‘
What this tells us about Cherokee is that the pronoun prefixes paint a picture
of everyone involved in the verb’s action, and specifies who is doing what,
and who is doing what to whom.
In Cherokee, the pronouns immediately picture the people involved.
In English we need a sentence to talk about this picture:
He hears it.
In Cherokee, you just say:
|ᎠᏛᎩᎠ||atvgia||‘He hears it.’|
4. Verb Stems
The verb stem, sometimes called the aspect stem, is not the same as the root, which is
part of the stem. You don’t need to know the root, and you don’t even need to know
the word “stem” to learn Cherokee, but it’s good to be familiar with stems because you will
come across the term in other materials. As mentioned before, different linguists and writers
may have different ways of dividing up the stem. Below is a simple way of looking at the
main parts of the verb:
|who is involved in the action of the verb||the base of the verb to which the prefixes and suffixes are attached; it contains the meaning of the verb, for example, ‘run,’ ‘walk,’ ‘want,’ ‘speak’||when the action of the verb takes place|
Below is the verb jiwoniha/tsiwoniha ‘I am speaking.’
You are already familiar with the prefixes and suffixes from previous lessons. It would be easy
if the stem was always the same, but for each verb, there are five distinct stems, sometimes
called Aspect Stems. Please note again that this is only one way to divide up the verb.
Other authors may differ.
The stems are the bases on which different tenses are built. As you can see from the chart below,
several tenses may be formed on one stem. The Present Aspect Stem is used for actions
which are occurring in the present time. The Immediate Aspect Stem is used for actions that have
very recently taken place. It is also used for commands to be acted upon immediately.
The Incompletive Aspect Stem is used for actions that have not yet been complete.
The Completive Aspect Stem is used for actions which have been completed in the past,
or which will be completed in the future. Finally, the Infinitive Aspect Stem is most often used
to express obligation or possibility.
ᏙᏪᎸᎦ tohwelvga Write!
|Using what you learned from the exercise above, translate the following sentences into Cherokee|
(phonetics or syllabary). Review the Days of the Week and use the Set A & B chart to find the correct prefixes if needed.
A sentence might be:
‘I am going to speak tomorrow.’
1. ‘I will be speaking on Monday.’
2. ‘I am going to speak on Friday.’
3. ‘He will be speaking on Saturday.’
4. ‘They will be speaking tomorrow.’
5. ‘Who will be speaking?’
5. Tense Suffixes
All Cherokee verbs need a tense suffix, to tell when the verbs action takes place.
These tense suffixes are attached at the end of the verb stem. However, it’s important
to understand that there are other suffixes which may be attached to the tense suffix,
adding additional meaning. For example, if the suffix –gwu, is attached to the verb tsiwoniha
‘I am speaking,’ the result is tsiwonihagwu ‘I am just speaking, I am only speaking.’
So, when you are looking at a verb and thinking about its tense, remember that the tense suffix doesn’t always
Here is a list of basic tense endings:
|-a, -i||present tense||gawoniha||‘He or she is speaking’|
|aktosdi||‘He or she is looking at him/it’|
|recent past||hiwonihi||‘You spoke, just now, recently’|
|-vʔi||remote past||uwonisvʔi||‘He or she spoke’|
|future imperative, imperative, or command, to act in the future||hiwonisvʔi||‘Speak! (At a later time, not now)’|
|-eʔi||non-experienced past (the speaker was not there)||uwoniseʔi||‘He or she spoke ( I was told)’|
|-esdi||future progressive (ongoing in the future)||gawonisgesdi||‘He or she will be speaking’|
|-di||infinitive||uwonihisdi||‘He or she to speak’|
|-oi||habitual||gawonisgoʔi||‘He or she always, or usually speaks’|
In the following words taken from WILLIE JUMPER MANUSCRIPTS: Story of the Old Man Willie Pigeon,
write the tense you think it is, for example, present tense, infinitive, etc. Then look up
the words in the story and write the meaning.
1. sdaduliha, Set B
2. ijega/itsega, Set A
3. uha, Set B
4. ojiwoniha/otsiwoniha, Set A
5. gega, Set A
6. oginaduliha, Set B
7. jaha/tsaha, Set B
1. unadodagwohnvi/unadodaquohnvi jiwonisgesdi/tsiwonisgesi
2. jungilosdi/tsungilosdi datjiwonisi/datsiwonisi
3. unadodagwidena/unadodaquidena gawonsigesdi
4. sanale uniwonisgesdi
5. gago gawonisgesdi