Gmail announced recently that it has integrated the Cherokee language into its system, a first for any of Indian languages indigenous to the U.S. They worked with the Cherokee Nation to make it a reality.
“We are constantly trying to find ways to ensure our Cherokee language lives on and thrives, and being able to converse via email is a vital part of that,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker.
In the 19th century, Cherokee became the first Native American language to be developed into a syllabary, which is a list of symbols, each representing a syllable. This is different from an alphabet, in which each symbol represents a particular sound. The Japanese language is syllabary-based, while English and other Indo-European languages are alphabet-based. The ancient Mayans developed a syllabary-style written language in central México, starting around 600 B.C.; the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The Iroquois had something similar; a pictograph arrangement in which they carved images into large wooden cylinders called “Condolence Canes.”
The 19th Cherokee syllabary was created primarily by Sequoyah, who was born of a Cherokee mother and a White father in Tennessee in the 1770s. Sequoyah was also known by the name George Gist, a legacy of his father. He grew up with his mother, however, and acquired the traditional Cherokee ways and customs. He was a hunter, fur trader and skilled silver craftsman who never learned to speak, read, or write English. But, he was still fascinated by the ability of some Whites to read written words. His obsession led him to begin work on a written Cherokee language, which often earned him the ire and mockery of his Indian contemporaries; some of whom accused him of practicing witchcraft.
Sequoyah persisted, however, and eventually developed 85 characters that represent all the combination of vowel and consonant sounds that form the Cherokee language. In 1812, he first demonstrated his system before a group of Cherokee tribal elders. Despite previous trepidation, the elders approved of Sequoyah’s results and formally authorized the syllabary.
In 1827, the Cherokee Council appropriated funding for the establishment of a national newspaper. Early the following year, the hand press and syllabary characters in type were shipped to the capital of the Cherokee Nation, New Echota. The inaugural issue of the newspaper, “Tsa la gi Tsu lehisanunhi,” or “Cherokee Phoenix,” printed in parallel columns in Cherokee and English appeared on February 21, 1828. It was the first Indian newspaper published in the United States.
One of the challenges of integrating Cherokee into Gmail was translating more modern words that did not exist when the Cherokee Syllabary was composed.
“When Google decides to support a language, it’s not just about which ones have the largest number of speakers,” said Craig Cornelius, a Google software engineer. “In order to do business around the world, we need to support languages with millions of speakers, such as Japanese, French or Arabic.”
This is a significant advancement, considering that – less than 100 years ago – many Native American children were taken from their birth homes and forbidden to speak their native languages in a futile attempt to “civilize,” or as I call it, “Europeanize” them. Many Indigenous American languages either have gone extinct or are in danger of being obliterated. Linguists estimate that 155 indigenous languages are still spoken in the United States, but that nearly 90% are moribund.