There are less than 250 native Cherokee speakers left.
Just a few years ago, that number was at 500. The decline is happening so fast, it would be easy for Cherokee linguists to despair, but they haven’t. They won’t.
Instead, they have been working tirelessly to reclaim the Cherokee language. Language and culture are one and the same, and many members of the community are worried that the Cherokee will lose a vital part of their culture if Cherokee is no longer spoken.
When the Eastern and Western band Cherokee sat down a few decades ago to decide what they should call a car, a word that didn’t exist in the Cherokee language at that time, they decided to call it a word that roughly translates to “big round eyes.” referring to the headlights on a car. Shirley Oswalt, a leading voice in the movement to revitalize the Cherokee language, explained in a talk that the language is influenced more by what an object looks like than almost anything else.
Although there are tenses in the traditional sense, what’s often more important in Cherokee is how an object appears. For example, objects are conjugated based on whether they are hard and inflexible, soft and flexible, and so on.
Individual Cherokee from both the Eastern and Western coasts meet around four times a year to tackle the ever-increasing number of words that the Cherokee need to add to their vocabulary, including words relating to biology and medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and – of course – technology. Sometimes they’ve been forced, for lack of a better option, to simply adopt the English word for objects, such as CD and DVD.
Meanwhile, Oswalt, in small-town North Carolina, and her counterparts on the Western and Eastern coasts have been running language immersion camps and instituting Cherokee classes in local elementary, middle, and high schools. Western Carolina University has become a pioneer by instituting college-level language learning classes and collaborating with Cherokee leaders on how best to rejuvenate the language.
A lot of people are working to encourage a new generation of Cherokee to speak their native tongue. Already if you go to the local community center in North Carolina and ask the kids there if they know any Cherokee, the words that come out of their mouths will not be in English.
And that is beautiful.