Take the “start” button on the Motorola interface, which features a Cherokee word that translates into English as “just start.” That’s a clever nod to the casual way Cherokee elders might use the phrase, said Benjamin Frey, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It could have said ‘let’s get started’ in many different ways,” Frey said. “But it said halenagwu — just start. And that’s very Cherokee. I can kind of see an elder kind of shrugging and saying, ‘Well, I guess let’s do it.’ … It reminds me very fondly of how the elders talk, which is pretty exciting.”
When Motorola thought of incorporating Cherokee into its phones, Frey was one of the people who was contacted. The company was looking to incorporate a language that the U.N.’s culture agency, UNESCO, had designated as among the world’s most endangered but also one that had an active community of language scholars it could consult.
“We work with the people, not about the people,” said Juliana Rebelatto, who holds the role of head linguist and globalization for Motorola’s mobile division. “We didn’t want to work on the language without them.”
Motorola modeled its Cherokee project on a similar Indigenous language revitalization project a company called Rebelatto helped work on in Brazil, where the brand — part of China-based parent company Lenovo — has a higher market share than it does in the U.S. The company last year introduced phone interfaces serving the Kaingang community of southern Brazil, and the Nheengatu community of the Amazonian regions of Brazil and neighboring countries.