The English language: we all know our writing system isn’t perfect because, if it were, I wouldn’t have to spell “rhythm” so many different ways before spellcheck finally tells me it’s right. It takes a child years to learn to read and write English for this very reason. And all of this effort, wasted on the young, is because the English alphabet was borrowed from the Romans, and the Romans never toyed with the foolish idea of an alphabet for anything other than Latin (for which their alphabet was pretty much perfect).
That’s right. No English person invented their own writing system. We just stole a different system that was very much imperfect for a language with a ton of different vowel sounds. Then we proceeded to invent things like “dumb” with a b on the end because… just because we needed to make it worse.
Very few pre-literate societies are able to come up with their own writing systems, and those that do often rely on logograms (where one symbol is one word). Foreigners, usually missionaries, have invented writing systems for previously illiterate societies.
And one of the main inspirations for missionaries to invent writing systems for other languages is the efforts of one Cherokee silversmith: Sequoyah.
Sequoyah was born in the 1770’s (though some believe it was earlier) to a Cherokee woman and a white father, theoretically Nathaniel Gist, a fur trader. His name, Sequoya, means “pig’s foot,” which led some historians to believe he had a physical disability, perhaps a club foot. As a result, he learned to be a silversmith, which wouldn’t require him to leave his native town of Tuskigi.
Sequoyah sold his silver to people of many diverse backgrounds, and one day a white man admired his work and said, “I’d like you to sign this.”
But Sequoyah didn’t know how. He went on a journey to get someone to show him a way to spell his name, and he thought the “talking leaves” of the white Americans were interesting. He didn’t understand how the Latin alphabet worked, and he couldn’t read – he just knew it was interesting.
Then, when he participated in the War of 1812 for the Americans, he noticed that the white men could send and receive letters from home. His people, unable to do so, were missing a vital element that boosted the morale of the English-speakers. He wanted to communicate with those back home.
And so he set his mind to inventing a Cherokee writing system despite being completely illiterate, no one having ever studied the nuances of Cherokee speech, and not understanding the basics of how different alphabets, logographic systems, or syllabaries worked. He experimented with logograms, but quickly realized that a one-symbol-one-word system would take him forever to invent, learn, and teach, and it would likely never be complete.
Then – and remember, he couldn’t read, didn’t even know that English writing was based on sounds – he invented a script based off the sounds in his language. By himself, and against people burning his work because they thought it was witchcraft, he created a complete system by which his language could be written. After proving the system wasn’t witchcraft (and that his young daughter, Ayoka, wasn’t a witch for being able to read), Sequoyah then proved the usefulness of a writing system to the tribal council.
And boy did they pick it up.
Unlike English, the Cherokee syllabary actually matched their language and did not need to be slaved at for years in order to understand the mind-boggling mess of spelling. It took Cherokee mere weeks to learn to read their language rather than the years it takes us. Before long, the Cherokee literacy rate matched and surpassed that of the white Americans. They established the first Indian* writing system on their own, without foreign intervention, from scratch.
Because American missionaries saw the use of a written language and translations of the bible into a people’s native tongue, many people went to foreign lands or started making syllabaries and alphabets for other people. Though Sequoyah probably isn’t well known outside of America, his genius reaches to the far corners of the earth and has made the world a better place.
So, take a moment, today, to think about your English writing system. Even though it’s not perfect, it’s yours, and you put in the effort to learn and use it. We can be thankful for our form of communication and appreciate the struggle of creating a written system at all.
For more information on the Cherokee Syllabary, there’s plenty of online resources. Several travel and museum sites have detailed information (Northern Georgia travel site, Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Cherokee NC museum) in addition to those sites mentioned in the image blocks.
I discovered a book during my research (Seqoyah: The Cherokee Genius), but I’ll admit it was very expensive and I didn’t want to purchase it because I didn’t have $70 lying around to buy a copy from a reliable seller.
Wikipedia is very helpful for white people who want to know how the syllabary works.
*I use the term Indian here because many – if not most – native works indicate that Indian is the preferred term for their people. The term “Native American” or “Native” seems to have been invented by whites and implemented as PC without consulting the people they’re referring to. Check out this article and this YouTube video to learn more about why I made this choice.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, H’s greatest passions are writing and history (especially the Age of Jackson – which, coincidentally, is relevant to this article). If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.
Very interesting article H. I had wondered what that alphabet looked like, especially after reading (who knows when) that it was created. As a child I tried to invent ‘codes’ using sort of Asian symbols to represent common words, combination of common letters (like TH) as well as individual letters.
The TH and the & were once part of the English language alphabet. …though I couldn’t find a chart that shows what they look like I did find:
“There are four letters which we don’t use any more (‘thorn’, ‘eth’, ‘ash’ and ‘wynn’) and two letters which we use but which the Anglo-Saxons didn’t (‘j’ and ‘v’). Until the late Old and early Middle English period, they also rarely used the letters ‘k’, ‘q’ and ‘z’.” Which is one reason reading older English is tricky.
Ah…”The letter æ ‘ash’ is an amalgamated letter roughly representing a sound between ‘a’ and ‘e’. Two letters were borrowed from the runic alphabet: þ ‘thorn’, and ƿ ‘wynn’, and one was adapted from the Latin alphabet ð ‘eth’. Eth and thorn both represent the th sound, and wynn represents w. Because wynn has exactly the same sound as our modern w, a lot of editors just use w to represent wynn, and we are building in a facility to enable you to replace the wynn with a w in the edited texts.”
I still believe somewhere that the & was also part of the alphabet. …
I did find this though: “The word ampersand is a corruption of the phrase “and per se & (and)”, meaning “and by itself and (represented by the symbol &)”. … This last phrase was routinely slurred to “ampersand” and the term had entered common English usage by 1837.”
Often those from the states identify themselves as say; I’m John Smith, from Town, USA. Then they add things like family heritage, maybe even job and status. Ex: I’m John Smith from Town, USA; I’m Irish, and English (heritage since if they were born here they are really ‘Native Americans’), I’m an airline pilot, married and belong to this faith.
I remember going to a lecture a few years back and the question was how do you describe yourself. Most folks the commentator proved did not put their faith first.
Thanks for this information. Cheers, Jules
Very cool info about English’s forgotten letters! I actually wonder about the “w” – in Latin, the “w” sound was made with “v” and there was no “v” as we know it (so “veni vidi vici” actually sounds like “weni widi wici”). I wonder if the invention of the “w” – for any language – was made before or after the wynn?
Learn something new everyday! 😀
Good question. I never heard of the Wynn either. Ans was there a special name for double f’s and s’s as in old English they were rather decorative doubles. 😉
That’s so cool!
Ans was supposed to be And… not the name of anything…
Here’s something I didn’t know: “Why in old English text was an ‘s’ written as an ‘f’? It wasn’t; it was just written differently according to its position in the word. The f-like s (like an f without the crossbar) was a tall variant used at the start or in the middle of a word, which the modern s was used at the end or after a tall s.”
And here’s some more about the ‘Thorn’ :
“Thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) is a letter in the Old English, Gothic, Old Norse, Old Swedish, and modern Icelandic alphabets, as well as some dialects of Middle English. It was also used in medieval Scandinavia, but was later replaced with the digraph th, except in Iceland, where it survives.”
And here’s more about the & : it was a letter of the alphabet! : Until fairly recently (until 1835), the 27th letter of the alphabet (right after “z”) was the ampersand (&). The English Alphabet is based on the Latin script, which is the basic set of letters common to the various alphabets originating from the classical Latin alphabet.
Really interesting and informative article, thank you for sharing! I have to admit to my ignorance about all of this. (Ouch.) Sadly it doesn’t surprise me because we white folks have a way of leaving out key tales of the successes (especially those greater than ours) of other peoples and cultures. I think it’s sad that history is filled with stories of white culture taking over the language of other cultures.
Also thank you for including that bit about using the word “indian”. I often think I should use Native American thinking it more respectful but perhaps I am wrong.
Thanks for reading! I think Native American history is far, far too often glanced over, especially considering the peoples have accomplished *so much* in the name of America. But, then again, perhaps I’m too much the patriot to temper this adequately. 😉
I genuinely try to be PC, and what research I’ve done indicates Indian (or American Indian, if you need context) is popular among Indians, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes in the coming years or if individual Indians disagree. I still think it’s best to use tribal names, but sometimes you just don’t know and white people tend to lump great swaths of skin tones and facial features into large groups.
It’s about time we white people spend more time asking the people what they prefer. I hope we stand up more in support of the cultures we’ve suppressed in name and language and in so many other ways for so long. Good work in your steps to do so. I remember a while back reading about children being killed in South Africa when they stood up in protest for language. Language is a very important part of one’s identity and culture.
It’s definitely something we can all get better at. I hadn’t heard about the children in South Africa – but that sounds not just sad, but a source of righteous anger. Thanks for sharing with us!
Loved this, found it very interesting. Yep, as someone who has had to teach spelling and reading (encoding/decoding) as well as work through those mysteries myself, the English language, a mongrel really, is a tricky one. And that is why I enjoy it- so many stories and histories in its etymology. But I am relatively adept. What a nightmare for ESLs and so fair play to Sequoyah for his common sense approach to making written language accessible to his people.
I agree with wondering how learning English as a second language would be! I’ve attempted to learn Chinese (and I know some – wouldn’t say I’m great!), so I do realize it’s hard to learn a second language, but English does have its sticky wickets.
I also somewhat lament that I’ll never know what English sounds like to a person who doesn’t understand it. I don’t know Japanese or Korean, for example, but I can tell when someone’s using those sorts of sounds. So how does someone identify English? I’d love to know…
A very interesting article, H. I recently read a book about the origins of English which was fascinating but I hadn’t really thought about the development of writing in other cultures. I recall that the missionaries were instrumental in converting Zulu and Xhosa to written languages.
Xhosa is a really interesting language! Can you do those click consonants? Because I certainly have had a hard time even understanding *how*!
Yes, I can do the clicks but I have lived in South Africa all my life and interacted with African people. You get used to it and learn how to do it. I am not fluent in any African languages as I studied Afrikaans at school, but I can understand the basics [and the clicks]. One of my trainees was a Xhosa lady and she told me a lot I didn’t know about Xhosa culture. Our domestic helper is a Pedi and our gardener is a Zulu man who comes from Natal.
Wonderful and informative essay. Loved it! Thank you for sharing this with us. I had no idea how languages moved from verbal to written. C
Thanks for reading! Language and its use is so fascinating to me. How the Romans got to the Latin alphabet is a story for another day, but every journey from a set of sounds to *permanence* in ink, stone, or digital typeset is an incredible one. Glad you enjoyed reading about the Cherokee journey!
Very interesting H. I’d never heard of this or the concept. Fascinating character he must have been
If I could speak Cherokee, I’d love to have talked to him back in his day! Of course, I get the feeling he was pretty humble, since he never sought power after making his greatest invention.
Not only is English complex to spell, so is our use of words — so full of connotation and history. My hat’s off to anyone who can learn English as a second language. Such interesting history, H. and I appreciate how you put Sequoya’s story into context with languages and history. I struggle with labeling groups of people culturally until I know how that group prefers to be called and sometimes it’s not obvious. I have Anishinaabe down because of my relationships. Thank you for linking to the article to explain your use of the word Indian rather than Native American.
I think the preference, of course, would be to use tribe names like “Cherokee” or “Anishinaabe” – but when you’re talking about multiple tribes, do you use “Indian” or “Native American”? So I did as much research as I could and tried to find resources written by Indians, but I still have to sit behind my computer screen and just hope I’ve done ok!
The article you shared noted that no one asked. I’m going to ask my one of my Anishinaabe friends. We informally call their reservation K-Bic which is to pronounce the initials of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. So, I’m thinking they would prefer Indian. Great research!
When you hear from them, let me know. I’d be interested to find out!
I really enjoyed this article. Thanks, H. I had no idea of syllabaries or of Seqoyah. It’s a fascinating story.
Thanks for the compliments! I enjoy Sequoyah’s story, and I thought the wide audience at the Ranch might also enjoy learning about him.
I certainly did. Thank you.
Thanks for sharing this story. A fascinating read.
Thanks for the compliment! I try to keep things interesting. 😛
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What a fascinating article of some amazing history! 🙂
Thank you! So much history, so little time – so we might as well look for some good parts!