The Yuchi Language Primer;
a Brief, Introductory Grammar
The Yuchi Language has no alphabet or syllabary for its explicit orthography. In the 1970s James Crawford and Addie George worked out a phonetic transliteration, and it has been honed and polished by Yuchi speakers and linguists, Mary Linn et al, into a suitable written system in the last decade of the Twentieth Century. A simplistic version is used here. While it is terribly late in getting started, an effort to both study the language and to teach and perserve it has been begun just as the last of the fluent speakers could contribute. There are only a couple of elderly, fluent speakers remaining at present, but a number of young people are hard at learning the language. While it may survive its brush with extinction for now, it certainly has lost some of its vibrance in its near demise.
The Yuchi Language is daunting and has a reputation of being difficult to learn. This is in part due to the 49 phonetic sounds -- 38 consonant sounds and 11 vowel sounds. This is twice the number of most other Indigenous languages from the Southeast. By comparison though, English has 44 (24 Consonants and 20 vowels) sounds. About half the consonants are sounded essentially the same as in English, but some of the remaining ones require a good ear and more than a little practice to master. More than a few have failed to hear the phonal difference that make one word into quite different word. Early reports often reputed Yuchi to be tonal, or because of many glottal stops, that it involved clucking or clicks. In reality it just contains a number of quite different consonants from those to which non-Yuchi speakers are accustomed.
The language more than has gender -- in fact it is very nearly two different languages -- a men's speech and a women's speech. The way something is said in these two variations is often quite different. Further, Yuchean not only has tenses, but it varies its structure according to whether a Yuchi is talking or a non-Yuchi is talking, preserving contexts of time and circumstance. All these variations add a number of complicating layers to the grammar and the effort needed to master it.
Basically the language is morpheme agglomerative, with words composed of an assemblage of morphemes strung together to make new words. Morpheme modifiers are generally appended as suffixes, and its word order is subject-object-verb. The word for Dinosaur or Great Lizard, which is a part of the ancient mythic creatures in Yuchi stories and ceremonies, is made up of the morphemes for "lizard," "face," "orifice," "red," and "big" (sothl'an ahsh'ee chahthlah'a) in that order. Prefixes and Suffixes are also often added to the stems and root morphemes. A common prefix alerts one to the word being in the nature of (or having to do with) man/human/being by starting with the morpheme go/co (ko)-- as in Coweta (man-hawk) and Catawba (men-strong). Another is the prefix "tso" (cho) which means "Sun" or "sacred" as in tsotici (medicine = sacred-power-soup) or Echota (tobacco-sacred-fire). Suffixes include "waneo" with the meaning of spirit/dream/shadow (Shawano -- snake-spirit), and "fa" for direction or locative (fafa -west). While this is straight forward enough, the morphemes are often contracted, and phoneme transitions occur making it a bit more difficult at times.
Woktela speaking the Yuchi greeting at the 4th Melungeon Union at Kingsport, Tennessee, June 2002. Listen to the words by clicking here. Translation and additional Yuchi words and phrases are available here.