Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Deeper Meaning of "OSIYO"


One of the question I frequently get is "What does Osiyo actually mean?"

The word is an emphatic variant of "Osiquu," the positive response to the question "Ositsu?"
"Is it well?" / "It is well."

The variant was popular in the 19th century as a closing to written letters. It was an equivalent to "We're all doing well." At a time when a letter from afar often brought bad news, such as a death, it gradually shifted to a salutation. "Don't worry, all's well, relax and enjoy the letter."

As time progressed, it became a spoken greeting, replacing the older "He!" and "Ka!" except in old prayers where the Holy Ones are being addressed. The late language instructor Sam Hider used to say that osiyo was the only proper greeting in Cherokee. In recent years, those whose first language is English have sought and created other greetings, such as "Osda sunalei" for good morning. However, that is really a statement of condition, and could equally be translated "The morning is good."

My own pet peeve is the practice of placing an unnecessary apostrophe in the word: O'siyo. An apostrophe indicates a place where letter had been dropped. In can't, the apostrophe shows where the letters n-o in cannot have been dropped. Yet in osiyo, nothing has been dropped. I could understand someone who speak with the Kituwa "sh" sound using os'iyo to replace the missing h.
What I think happened is that when the first widely-distributed book on the language, Holmes & Smith's Beginning Cherokee was published in the early Seventies, the font used the same character for apostrophe and accent, making Ósiyo look identical to O'siyo. I don't recall seeing it before that, and haven't found it in any earlier written resource.

A language is a living thing, so changes occur frequently. Perhaps "Osda sunalei" will gradually gain acceptance, and "O'siyo" will look less annoying.

Thought you'd like to know some of the background of one of the most common expressions!

Brian Wilkes

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