It is my understanding that the Cherokee, prior to the Trail of Tears were bilingual, being educated in both Cherokee and English. Is it possible that a Cherokee man in his late twenties would have the same accent as a fifteen-year-old Caucasian male? Both characters were Christian, educated in schools, and lived in villages of log houses.

  • Hi John, and welcome! Please check out the site tour and help center (click the ? menu icon). This is an interesting question. I can see why you asked it in the Writing SE, but the content of the question requires very specific knowledge of history or historical linguistics to answer it with precision and certainty. If you want general reasoning based on linguistics I can help, but if you want hard facts based on the historical record you may have better luck in the History SE.
    – wordsworth
    Aug 11, 2019 at 6:42
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    Here are the links to our tour and help center pages, for your convenience. :) @wordsworth, You can do inline links in comments, and there are some magic links. Aug 11, 2019 at 9:01
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    With regards to this specific question, it isn't quite on topic for us. While (presumably) you're doing this research for the purpose of writing, your question isn't itself about the process of writing. It would fare better on History, I believe, though you might have to modify it somewhat to fit their requirements. Aug 11, 2019 at 9:07
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    John: coming at this from a writing perspective, what are you trying to accomplish by asking this? Normally, characters in a story either are able to understand each other (in which case it's normal to present all dialog in the language you're writing in, for the reader's convenience), or they can't, in which case there are a few different approaches, though it eventually comes down to the reader following along in the story (full disclosure: my own question). In neither case does what you're asking seem relevant to the story-telling per se.
    – user
    Aug 11, 2019 at 10:11
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    Welcome and please stick around here. This particular question, while good, is not about writing so isn't right for here, but feel free to ask other questions that are, answer questions, and read.
    – Cyn
    Aug 11, 2019 at 14:00

3 Answers 3


Understand that part of the clash of cultures between native societies and european-based colonial societies was how identity was registered. Europeans think in terms of "blood", but most tribal societies prior to their modern cultural assimilation did not. They were more like gaming clans, or recreational sporting teams. If you want to join, and you'd be an asset to the clan, you're in. So it wasn't at all uncommon for there to be Cherokee (or any other tribal) citizens whose native language was not Cherokee.

The Cherokee's Scotts-Irish neighbors themselves came from an unusually clannish society (by European standards), so there was a lot more intermixing than most modern people picture. For example, Chief John Ross who lived 1790-1866 and led the tribe on the Trail of Tears, was by white-man's reckoning 7/8ths Scotts-Irish. His first language was English, and he reportedly had red hair. Sam Houston ran away from home at 16 to become a Cherokee, and lived with them off and on for many years. His second wife, during one of his periods living as a Cherokee was also Cherokee, and half Scotts-Irish through her trader father.

So if you're interested in writing this right I'd suggest investing some time in research. It is quite possible for a Cherokee child to be speaking essentially the same English as their (likely Scotts-Irish) neighbors. But its also quite possible for that same child to be a redheaded descendant of immigrants from the British Isles.

  • Oh, a great work of fiction by novelist with a strong history background covering these people and this period is Eric Flint's 1812: The River's of War. Its a criminally overlooked title.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 11, 2019 at 14:09
  • I am thrilled to be a part of this intelligent discourse. Thank you for the effort of your response. As a writer, any kind of related stimulation to the story is welcome. I am already fond of the StackExchange site. I am currently revising a work of mine published in a private journal in 2003. I am finding considerable joy in revisiting a story based on action, a story that in its revision is now exploring the mid-nineteenth century in depth, specifically the summer of 1864. My question for the group: what is the definition of close reason? Aug 14, 2019 at 4:26

Basically, what you want to know, is whether a non-native speaker who grew up in a linguistically foreign culture can achieve native fluency. The answer to that is yes, of course.

Today, many children of immigrants who grow up in a family speaking a foreign language and learn their new home country's language in school and from their peers do learn to speak that second language without any discernible accent – and some don't.

And sometimes the native speakers partially take on the accent of the immigrants, as is the case with the youth in big cities in Germany who use some of the grammatical mistakes that their peers if Turkish origin make (e.g. "I go train station" instead of "I go to the train station" has become common German usage among lower class native speakers).


T.E.D.'s answer is a very useful one on the historical side. I'd suggest also reasoning through the probability that they would have the same accent. To do that we need to consider the upbringing and skills of both of characters. You say:

It is my understanding that the Cherokee, prior to the Trail of Tears were bilingual, being educated in both Cherokee and English. Is it possible that a Cherokee man in his late twenties would have the same accent as a fifteen-year-old Caucasian male? Both characters were Christian, educated in schools, and lived in villages of log houses.

and that this is set

east of the Mississippi in the 1860s.

This is not enough information to determine some crucial details, so please answer for yourself the following questions:

  • Were they raised in the same village with the same school and schoolmaster, same church, same public figures? Neighboring villages? 100 miles apart?
  • Do your characters speak different first languages?
  • What languages are spoken around their houses? Are they constantly being exposed to their native tongue and only learning about the other language in a specific setting (e.g., school, church, trading)?
  • Is the Cherokee man being exposed to English speakers from a certain part of the U.K? Does the white kid's family come from that same very specific part of the U.K.? Or did all the English speakers come from the same neighborhood of Baltimore after a couple of generations of living there? If not, what have their journeys been?

Accents in the U.K., historically and still today, are extremely regionally specific and can vary from town to town because it was much harder to travel and communicate accents through regular dialogue. I would bet it was the same among Native American villages. Mass immigration and displacement would have had dramatic effects on the transmission of accents in both European immigrants to North America and also to the native populations, but they would not have become homogenized across the entire eastern half of the U.S., nor even between villages more than a day's journey apart.

  • If they did not grow up in the same villages or around people with the same accent, are your characters sensitive to register, i.e., do they pick up on and have the ability to switch between different modes of speaking (different dialect, accent, syntax, vocabulary) for different audiences, even in their second language? (This is also known as code switching.)

If so, your characters may be able to adjust to speaking the same way the other one does in either language. But then the way they speak may not be consistent throughout your book, because they might speak differently at home or with other strangers than they do with each other.

Also bear in mind that, even with the same cultural background, language evolves surprisingly fast, and teenagers are always tweaking it for communication with their peers. Even if they speak with exactly the same accent there might be some slight variation in slang, idiom, or other speech differences, particularly if they are in two different villages or they hang out with groups with different first languages or otherwise limited social interactions with each other.

In sum, I think it is possible, but not likely, for your characters to have the same accent, depending on a number of critical factors coming together.

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