The study of word origins, etymology, can lead to some fascinating insights into the story behind the word for, or name of, something. Sometimes knowing a word’s origin makes it easier to remember what the word means and sometimes it adds a depth of meaning we would have otherwise missed.

Traditional Native American names are rich and colorful with meaning. Perhaps the absence of a written language put an extra dimension of significance to each and every word spoken. This concept of valuing every word to its fullest measure might be ripe for revival in today’s conversation.

A brief visit to the Cherokee language provides some interesting information on the background of some Native American names and their evolution through translation from one language to the next.

The Cherokee language is derived from the language of the Iroquois, of the Great Lakes Region of the Northeastern United States. The Cherokee, however, are from the Carolinas and northern Georgia. Most Cherokees today live in Oklahoma, where they were forced to go during the great American tragedy of the 1830s that we know as the Trail of Tears.

The word Cherokee itself is a good illustration of the evolution of Native American names. The original word is believed to be spelled as “Tsalagi” but Portuguese explorer Hernando de Soto probably tried to write it phonetically in his language as “Chalaque.” The Portuguese word became the French word “Cheraqui” which became the English “Cherokee.”

Native American names for neighboring tribes may have given us Tsalagi. In the Choctaw language, Cha-la-kee means “those who live in the mountains” and Chi-luk-ik-bi means “those who live in the caves,” either of which applies to the Cherokee tribe of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain Ranges.

In almost all cases, the Native American names a tribe uses to define itself includes a reference to people, human, or humanity as a whole. The word the Cherokee used long ago (and many still do so today) to identify themselves is Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya, meaning “Principle People,” or ”these are all the human people.”

For those of us fascinated with words and their origins, it seems that the best way to understand a culture, any culture, is to understand where the words and names came from. Why they were chosen and how they are used now.

The study of Native America and Native American names is certainly no exception.

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