Cherokee Shape Classifiers

Some 20 verbs in Cherokee may be changed in ways that may tell someone something about some physical properties of that verb’s direct object. The result is that there are separate single words for statements like “hand me (something narrow and not flexible)”, “hand me (something flexible, and not dense)”, and “hand me (something dense and solid)”.

Tsalagi, the Cherokee language, includes a set of verbs which contain “shape classifiers”, variations within these words which indicate to which “shape class” the direct object belongs. These verbs include actions such as: “pick up”, “put down”, “wash”, “hide”, “eat”, “have”, and “hold”. The classes are: Live, Flexible, Long, Indefinite, and Liquid.

“Live” seems to indicate shape in the sense, of “in good shape”, as in, still alive, as the direct object is living, and strict physical properties don’t seem to matter. “Flexible” indicates an object which is flexible and not dense, like a rope, clothing, a bendable stick, a piece of paper, or a hose. “Flexible” is the most common class. “Long” indicates an object which is narrow and not flexible, like a heavy stick, or a spoon. “Indefinite” indicates an object which is dense and solid, like a dish, a book, a rock, or a refrigerator. “Liquid” indicates liquid. But a container of liquid counts.

This feature of Cherokee language is thought possibly to derive from ancient times in which speed of description might have been essential.

It may be that this feature is fading, though.

The Cherokee language, is said to have had 16,400 native speakers in the year 2000. It is written in a syllabary developed in the early 19th century through the efforts of just one person, a man known as Sequoyah. And, as of some two hundred years later, this syllabary has been added to Unicode for use on computers and internet capable phones.