In the modern world, written language seems self-evident. Of course we would scratch symbols into paper that visually represent the noises humans make! But, like with many things that are self-evident today, written language was never a given.
Pretty much every modern writing system can be traced back to a select few civilizations. Almost all alphabets, for example, come from a Proto-Sinaitic written language, which itself is a descendant of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. So while the majority of languages today have a writing system, it was perfectly possible for that to never have been the case. And for a long time among the indigenous people of North America, there was indeed no writing system.
While some people of the Americas did have writing systems before European contact — the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Zapotecs, for example — there were no recorded written languages in North America until the colonists arrived. In a number of cases, Europeans were the ones that created the written languages for the indigenous people.
There is one famous exception, however: Sequoyah, a Cherokee who became the first person to single-handedly create a written language without already being literate in another language. That may sound like a very specific case, but it made Sequoyah one of the most important Native Americans to have ever lived.
Who Are The Cherokee People?
The Cherokee tribe was one of the largest groups of indigenous people who lived in North America when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century. When the Spanish explorers first encountered the Cherokee, the tribe was spread out over a large portion of the southeast, including what is now Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas.
What the Cherokee people are best known for today, however, is the Trail of Tears, when 20,000 Cherokee were forced to leave their land in 1838 and were relocated to northeastern Oklahoma. Despite the huge number of deaths that occurred during this horrible moment in American history, the Cherokee nation survived. Today, there are now 260,000 tribal citizens.
Also worth noting is that the word “Cherokee” is actually a Creek word for “people with another language.” The original name of the tribe was Aniyunwiya. Today, the Cherokee refer to themselves as Tsaliga because it’s a more accurate representation of how “Cherokee” should be pronounced.
Who Was Sequoyah?
Sequoyah was born sometime in the 1760s or ‘70s in what is now Monroe County, Tennessee. His mother was a full-blooded Cherokee and the only thing known about his father is that he was biracial, because Sequoyah’s grandfather was a white man. That’s why Sequoyah is sometimes referred to by an English name, George Gist or George Guess. Despite being a huge figure in Native American history, not a huge amount is known about him. We do know that in his early life, he served in the War of 1812 to help the Americans fight the British under the command of general Andrew Jackson. There is, of course, a bitter irony in him serving the man who would later enact the Trail of Tears.
Sequoyah’s greatest achievement was in the world of language. While the Cherokee people certainly had some exposure to written language because of the influx of Europeans, Sequoyah was the first to recognize how useful it can be. Many of the other Cherokee believed that written language was actually a form of witchcraft. In 1809, he set to work creating a writing system for the Cherokee language, or Tsalagi Gawonihisdi, and the process took him 12 years. In the end, he had created a written language that was simple to learn and write.
After Sequoyah created written Cherokee and taught it to his daughter, he was accused of witchcraft and put on trial. Fortunately, he was able to prove that written language was not magic and that anyone can learn it. While it took effort, Sequoyah was eventually able to teach the language to others, and it soon became widespread.
After the spread of his written language, Sequoyah became an important figure for the Cherokee. He was awarded a silver medal for his work, and he served his people as a diplomat for years to come. He spent the rest of his life traveling around the United States, both because he was introducing his language and because he was being forced to move by the American Government. He died in 1845 while traveling with his son and seven others.
How Does The Cherokee Written Language Work?
If you are reading this in English, you are likely used to reading an alphabet. An alphabet describes a set of symbols in which each letter is meant to represent a single sound. This is sometimes considered the “simplest” of writing systems because it tends to have a small number of symbols. English, for example, has only 26. On the other end of the spectrum is a logographic system, in which each symbol represents a word or phrase. Because languages have so very many words, logographic systems have a huge number of symbols.
When Sequoyah set out to create written Cherokee, he started by trying to make a logographic system. As he started creating a symbol for each word, however, he quickly realized that it would be very difficult to create and then memorize the thousands of symbols needed to capture the full language.
To remedy this, Sequoyah began a study of the language to identify the sounds that make up Cherokee. This is perhaps the most ingenious part of Sequoyah’s project, because breaking down language into parts is very hard to do without visual aids. After years of work, he recorded 85 distinct syllables that make up the whole language, and created a symbol for each one of them. In the end, he had developed a syllabary, a type of writing system that is also used by the Japanese written language. This is different from an alphabet because alphabets break down a language even further, but syllabaries are a very useful, easy-to-learn system.
When word of Sequoyah’s syllabary spread across the United States, it inspired a number of people to create their own writing systems. Linguist Peter Unseth has estimated that Sequoyah’s work spurred the creation of 21 scripts for at least 65 different languages. The power of the written word is easy to overlook when we’re inundated with text, but the ability to write messages is a truly massive innovation.
Sequoyah’s work to create a written language from scratch gave the Cherokee the ability to preserve their identity and culture. While it’s certainly not witchcraft, written language is pretty much as close to magic as you can get.