Syllabary Study

Written by Mary ᎺᎵ Rae, Art by Miriam Rae-Silver

1. Introduction

Learning to read and write syllabary is part of becoming well-rounded in the Cherokee
language. It also opens the door to understanding old documents, and is thus a window into the
past. Every document here is a treasury of Cherokee words and their usage as well as culture.
Being able to read and interpret documents is crucial to the survival of the language.

When doing the exercises, also write them out by hand. Typing in syllabary is fun and a great
way to use Cherokee across social media. It’s also important to be comfortable with typing up
documents or lessons to share. But writing Cherokee words by hand is one of the best ways to
help you learn and retain them. Researchers have found that writing by hand uses several
different parts of the brain together, which helps to cement new material in your memory. When
you write, you feel the paper, you feel the pen or pencil, and you call up the shape of the
syllabary character from memory, or use a chart to follow. Your mind directs your hand and
your fingers to create the shape. You are involved directly, and your writing is personal and
unique to you. When you type a syllabary character, on the other hand, all you have to do is
recognize the correct key and press it. The image is made without any involvement or thought.
Anyone could press the same key and make the identical character show up on the screen or
paper. It is completely impersonal, and much less likely to be retained in your memory.

Don’t rush, but instead write the words out carefully and keep them in a notebook or
portfolio for future reference. You will be improving your syllabary and vocabulary at the same


2. Recognizing Intrusive H

Walter Duncan, an inmate at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, sent a letter on March 11, 1951 to his mother,
Dollie Duncan. Open the Story view, and read the first line:

March 11, 1951

Looking at the very first word ᎠᏅᏱ, how would you expect it to be spelled phonetically?
Write out the word in syllabary with the phonetics below. For example, the word ᎣᏍᏓ would
be written like this:


Next, open the pronunciation tab and notice the phonetics. Write ᎠᏅᏱ again, with the correct
phonetics and the meaning, as in the example above.

You will have noticed an “h” sound that wasn’t written in the syllabary word. It is called an
“intrusive h,” sometimes referred to just as “unole,” or air. You can’t see an intrusive h when looking
at syllabary characters, but you will learn where they belong by listening to speakers, and by paying
attention to phonetics.

Whether a word has in intrusive h or not can affect its meaning. For example, ᎪᏪᎵᎠ can be spelled phonetically:

go-hwe-li-a         ‘He or she is writing it,’ or
go-we-li-a            ‘I am writing it’


3. Write and Reflect

ᏙᏪᎸᎦ tohwelvga Write!

Which of the following words in this first letter have an intrusive h? Read through the letter using the pronunciation tab to find the answers. Write all the words in the list in both syllabary and phonetic along with their meanings using the method above.
2. ᎪᏪᎵ
3. ᎠᏎᏃ
4. ᎠᏋᎭ
5. ᎯᎠ
7. ᎨᎵᎭ
8. ᎭᎭ
10. ᎠᏴᏋ

Which of the words in the list could you use everyday? Write or type them in the box below using
syllabary and phonetic.

It would be a good idea to write the words on note cards and keep them handy. Using colored
pens or crayons can help make them more memorable. Practice saying the words throughout the


4. Reading

ᏘᎪᎵᏯ tigoliya Read!

The following quote from a man who visited among the Cherokees in 1828, recounts how Cherokees worked together to learn the syllabary.

‘When I travelled through the Cherokee Nation, during the months of January and
February, 1828, before the press was set up, or any printing had been executed in the
alphabet of Guess, I was informed in many parts of the nation, that almost all the young
and middle aged men could read in that alphabet, with many of the old men, and of the
women, and of the children. One very old Cherokee man came to a place where I spent a
night, to obtain a sheet of paper, for the purpose of writing a letter to a friend, residing
among that portion of the tribe west of the Mississippi. When asked if he could write, he
replied that he could not, but that his son had learned the new letters and could write what
he told him. A small full-Cherokee boy, who had been received into one of the schools
from a very ignorant part of the nation, totally unacquainted with the English language,
except that he was beginning to learn the alphabet, was requested to read a few lines in
the characters of Guess, that were printed in Boston merely as a specimen of the
language. He read it correctly, and without hesitation.

‘I frequently saw, as I rode from place to place, Cherokee letters painted or cut on
the trees by the road side, on fences, houses, and often on pieces of bark or board, lying
about the houses. The alphabet of Guess had never been taught in schools. The people
have learned it from one another; and that too without books, or paper, or any of the
common facilities for writing or teaching. They cut the letters, or drew them with a piece of coal, or
with paint. Bark, trees, fences, the walls of houses &c. answered the purpose
of paper or slates.’

‘That the mass of a people, without schools or books, should by mutual assistance,
without extraneous impulse or aid, acquire the art of reading, and that in a character
wholly original, is, I believe, a phenomenon unexampled in modern times.’

Boudinot, E. “ART. V.–INVENTION OF A NEW ALPHABET.” American Annals of
Education (1830-1839) 2 (1832): 174. ProQuest. Web. 19 Apr. 2021.


5. Thinking


How does the reading selection change how you think about learning syllabary?

If you like, you can write or type your thoughts below.