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Sequoyah: Power through the Pen and Press
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/.