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Cherokee instructor discusses possible evolution of word “Cullowhee”

Some have suggested the word “Cullowhee” comes from Cherokee words that mean “locust tree place,” or from words associated with an unidentified but edible spring plant eaten as a salad. Others believe the word Cullowhee is associated with a kind of white lily that was plentiful at the time of European settlement.

Below, Western Carolina University’s Cherokee language program coordinator and instructor, Thomas N. Belt, shares his thoughts about the possible origin of the word “Cullowhee” in the Cherokee language.

Tom Belt

Tom Belt

“First, many of the modern place names in the areas of traditional Cherokee lands are almost indecipherable to native speakers due to the Anglicization of these terms. It is essential, at times, to consider contextual evidence to arrive at a plausible definition for the terms in question. In this case and according to Cherokee legend, the Cullowhee area was referred to as the home of a giant whose responsibility was keeping vigilance over the animals and plants of the area before and during the emergence of the Cherokee people as a tribe.  This entity’s name was, in the phonetic style of the Cherokee syllabary,  Tsu-tla-ka-la.  In a simpler phonetic form this would be pronounced “joolth-cullah.”  The Cherokee will place a -wi, or –i locative marker, pronounced “wee” or “ee,” at the end of nouns denoting geographic place. This would have been done to the name of the giant’s home and the surrounding area. In this case, the term would have become “joolth-cullah-wee.” The unaccented first syllable has been dropped and the result is “cullah-wee.”

The non-Cherokee speaking population of this region would have, in all probability, adhered to the latter pronunciation and over a period of time and due to the accent and linguistic affectations of the area the name would have evolved into the current form, “Cullo-whee.”  This is the most plausible explanation for the meaning of this term.”

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