Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Contractions and Elongations

Osiyo, 'ginali!


One thing that confuses students is the Cherokee practice of contracting words.The contracted version, the way people really speak, is sometimes called "conversational" Cherokee, while pronouncing all the syllables is called "formal" Cherokee.

The late instructor Sam Hider used to say that the practice of speaking only contracted or conversational Cherokee verges on laziness, and erodes the language.

I try to use formal Cherokee to start, sometimes using the elegant Cherokee of the New Testament, and then give several examples of how a word may sound when actually spoken to you. This confuses some students who ask me "You gave it several different ways - which is correct?" The answer is, ALL of them are correct.

What's not as well know is the opposite effect: elongation. In some parts of Elizabethan Britain, the practice developed of adding or elongating syllables to raise the "status" of the word. Today, the most common survival of this in America is the Southern preacher who says "Je-sus-suh" or "Holy Ghost-tuh."Listen to a few backwoods preachers when they get a good preach goin' on, and you'll hear many syllables that are not there in the written language.

It also occurs in proper names. As a person grows older, their name may sprout extra syllables, and even more as they crossed the threshold into Elder status. One friend grew up thinking her father's name was Ira, two syllables. After years away from home, she noticed people were now calling him "I-yeh-rah," and eventually "I-yer-rah-huh" before he passed.

It appears this English practice carried over into spoken Cherokee in some parts of Southern hill country. I've spotted it in East Tennessee, East Kentucky, and West Virginia. I've heard very little of it in Oklahoma, but it just may be a question of whom I've spoken with.

The point is, as I've told you here before, there are not just two dialects of Cherokee, Eastern and Western. There are at least nine recognized sub-dialects, and there are "family versions" of the language as well.

Sometimes "family versions" develop from the tradition of not speaking the name of the deceased. In more extreme cases, if the name was a common word, that word must be replaced in everyday conversation. For example, if the deceased was named Crow, the bird now becomes a "dark-wing" or a "corn-thief." In a few generations, a wide variety of new words and usages developed. Like any living thing, a language grows and changes.


The Cherokee used for the New Testament is the most elegant form of the language known in the early 19th century. I think it's a great practice to do a few minutes of songs and recitation each day. The key to learning any language is joyful (not grudging) repetition.

As we mentioned last time, Eastern Band Elder and teacher Walker Calhoun advises that you listen to a new word or phrase 21 times before trying to say it. I've recorded a series of nine videos showing the lyrics as I pronounce the words very slowly. This is part of Lesson Four.

Some have complained, and some newsletter subscribers have actually canceled because I make references to the Bible.

First, there's a long-standing tradition that we treat others and what they consider sacred with respect, even if we don't think much of it.

There's the famous story of the Eagle of Eufala. When the Creek people came into the area of Eufala, Alabama, they found long-deserted towns. In one, they found a carved golden eagle. They didn't know who made it or exactly what it represen
ted, but from the way it was stored, they could tell if was a sacred item. They kept it with the respect it had been given before they found it, preserved it, and took it with them when they were removed to Oklahoma. The "Eagle of Eufala" is still being kept in case one day, the descendants of its creators arrive and ask to have it back.

Second, it's a simple fact that the great majority of Cherokee people are at least nominally Christian, and have been for generations. If you aren't, that's fine with me. If you're upset because I present Christian hymns and prayers rather than Stomp Dance songs, my reply is that maybe I will, when I know some well enough AND have permission from Stomp Dance leaders to share them (not likely any time soon, sorry). Until then, I will say with Geronimo, "I am not ashamed to be a Christian."

Brian Wilkes

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