Eastern Band and Cherokee Nation translate words into Cherokee

By Will Chavez Staff Writer


CHEROKEE, N.C. – What should be the Cherokee words for helicopter and purse? These are some words citizens from the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians worked on during the annual Language Revitalization Symposium.

The symposium, held June 18-20, brought together Cherokee speakers and linguists from both tribes to discuss and debate what Cherokee words could be used for a list of English words the groups need translation for.

For example, it was decided tsi-yu a-di-quo-lv-de-yo or “plane that spins” or “a plane that has something on it that spins,” would be used for helicopter and a-de-la di-ga-l(o)-do-di or “where money is put ” would be used for purse.

Gil Jackson, EBCI Language Development supervisor, said the groups meet quarterly to translate English words into Cherokee. In some instances, the tribes use different Cherokee words or sounds for English words, but most of the time they use one translation.

“We decided the languages are different now. You guys (CN speakers) use sounds and words that are different,” Jackson said. “We decided, at least with the new words, we would be as close together as we can. With some of those words the only difference may be the last vowel.”

If the two consortiums agree to pronounce a word differently the word is written out both ways and an “E” is placed next to the Eastern Band preference and a “W” (for Western) next to the CN preference.

Jackson said the consortiums don’t always create Cherokee words for English words because an old Cherokee word that isn’t being used is sometimes rediscovered by the group.

“It may just be words we have not heard or forgotten. When you bring this many strong speakers together oftentimes there’s already a word. We might have known it and never pronounced or said it,” he said.

During the meeting, about 25 men and women told stories of how their parents or grandparents described objects, plants, places, events and people. They also shared how they pronounce words.

All consortium members are fluent speakers and can read and write the Cherokee syllabary.

Jackson said many words translated are used or will be used by both tribes’ immersion schools. He said he keeps that in mind when a translated word gets too long.

CN Language Consortium member Kathy Sierra said the meetings’ purpose is to find more words for immersion children and keep the language “alive and going.”

“Every time we are thinking of a word we always say ‘are the kids going to understand?” she said.

Sierra said the consortiums accomplished a lot during the June meeting despite slow progress.

“It is slow because sometimes you really have to think about a word and how you use it. Our language is descriptive. I don’t think we’re going to be able to find just one word for every (Cherokee) word. We’re going to have to describe it,” she said.

Sierra said as the consortiums continue to translate words, it’s necessary to reuse translations for some Cherokee words and that it’s up to immersion school teachers to explain why the word is being used again.

As immersion schools for both tribes add more grades, she said it may become more difficult for the consortiums to translate some words such as those used for science. The speakers have already translated the words chromosome, chlorophyll, pollination and photosynthesis.

Marie Junaluska, an EBCI Language Consortium member and EBCI Tribal Councilor, said the group also focuses to “revitalize and recapture” words the tribe may have lost and to “bring back to the surface” Cherokee words that are known but not being used.

“I think we can do a whole lot more. It’s not enough that we sit down and do that all day long. I think we need to add more things like singing. We don’t really sing. In our songs a lot of those (unused) words will come out,” she said. “And then tell a story in our language. We can mix that in, too. It won’t take five or 10 minutes. Or read a poem.”

The fact that some Cherokee translations can be long does not concern Junaluska. She said if a longer translation is used daily, the immersion students are going to “absorb it.” She said not enough credit is given to how smart and adaptive immersion children can be.

“They just soak up things. Their mind is so open that they absorb more than we think,” she said. “I think if we try to cut some words down, we are defeating the purpose. If a Cherokee word was pronounced a certain way then so be it.”

Back To Native Americans Today