the invention of cherokee writing -- 11/26/21

Today's selection -- from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond. Cherokee writing was invented in 1820 by a Cherokee Indian named Sequoyah:

"Sequoyah observed that white people made marks on paper, and that they derived great advantage by using those marks to record and repeat lengthy speeches. However, the detailed operations of those marks remained a mystery to him, since (like most Cherokees before 1820) Sequoyah was illiterate and could neither speak nor read English. Because he was a blacksmith, Sequoyah began by devising an accounting system to help him keep track of his customers' debts. He drew a picture of each customer; then he drew circles and lines of various sizes to represent the amount of money owed.

"Around 1810, Sequoyah decided to go on to design a system for writing the Cherokee language. He again began by drawing pictures, but gave them up as too complicated and too artistically demanding. He next started to invent separate signs for each word, and again became dissatis­fied when he had coined thousands of signs and still needed more.

"Finally, Sequoyah realized that words were made up of modest numbers of different sound bites that recurred in many different words -- what we would call syllables. He initially devised 200 syllabic signs and gradually reduced them to 85, most of them for combinations of one consonant and one vowel.

Original Cherokee syllabary order, the Ᏽ in red is now obsolete

"As one source of the signs themselves, Sequoyah practiced copying the letters from an English spelling book given to him by a schoolteacher. About two dozen of his Cherokee syllabic signs were taken directly from those letters, though of course with completely changed meanings, since Sequoyah did not know the English meanings. For example, he chose the shapes D, R, b, h to represent the Cherokee syllables a, e, si, and ni, respec­tively, while the shape of the numeral 4 was borrowed for the syllable se. He coined other signs by modifying English letters, such as designing [signs] to represent the syllables yu, sa, and na...

"Still other signs were entirely of his creation ... Sequoyah's syllabary is widely admired by profes­sional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had Sequoyah's signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers.

"Cherokee writing remains one of the best-attested examples of a script that arose through idea diffusion. We know that Sequoyah received paper and other writing materials, the idea of a writing system, the idea of using separate marks, and the forms of several dozen marks. Since, however, he could neither read nor write English, he acquired no details or even princi­ples from the existing scripts around him. Surrounded by alphabets he could not understand, he instead independently reinvented a syllabary, unaware that the Minoans of Crete had already invented another syllabary 3,500 years previously."


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author:

Jared M. Diamond

title:

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

publisher:

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

date:

Copyright 2005, 2003, 1997 by Jared Diamond

pages:

228-230
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