“Talking Leaves”–The Cherokee Alphabet

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The story behind the Cherokee alphabet is one of the most amazing to be found in the history of the written word, one that underscores the importance of writing and the preservation of language in protecting minority cultures.

Let’s begin with a single fact: the Cherokee alphabet is the only instance of an illiterate people creating its own writing system without help or encouragement from an outside culture. The creator of this alphabet (actually, a syllabary) for the Cherokees was himself a Cherokee acting on his own initiative. His name was Sequoyah, and at the time he began his great work, he was illiterate. Wow!!

And before moving on, let’s note another fact: Cherokee is the only Southern Iroquoian language that is still spoken.

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Sequoyah

Here is Sequoyah’s story, which is mostly the story of how he created his syllabary. Born around 1770 near present-day Knoxville, Tennessee, Sequoyah was the son of a Cherokee mother, Wut-teh, and a white father, Nathaniel Gist, who was a commissioned officer in the Continental Army. He had an English name, George Gist, and was a silversmith by trade, which he practiced in Willstown, Alabama. He fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend as part of the Cherokee Regiment.

As was common among the Cherokee, Sequoyah had multiple wives.

Up to his middle years, Sequoyah seems to have lived a typical life for a Cherokee of his time and place; in 1809, partly out of frustration that he could not write or read letters, partly out of admiration for the English alphabet (which the Cherokees called “talking leaves”), Sequoyah began the mammoth work of creating a writing system for the Cherokee language.

At first, he tried to create a set of ideograms to represent the language; but after a year, he realized that this was not practicable. He next turned to the creation of a syllabary, and by around 1820 had completed his writing system, which contained 86 characters. During this time, as is not uncommon with the obsessed inventor, he neglected his duties, leaving his fields unplanted, and endured the destruction of his early work by one of his wives.

Initial efforts at persuading the Cherokees to adopt his system were met with suspicion and accusations of sorcery, but Sequoyah persevered (the first person to learn the new writing system was his daughter), and by 1825, the Cherokee Nation had officially adopted the syllabary. The results were impressive: a Cherokee, Atsee, translated the Gospel of John into Cherokee; a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, adopted the script in 1828; and before long, the literacy rate among the Cherokee exceeded that of the surrounding white population. In 1828, Sequoyah himself received a silver medal from the Cherokee Nation in honor of his work.

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Though the the syllabary has clearly been critical to the survival of the Cherokee language through the many adversities that the Cherokees have endured since its invention (most notably, the Trail of Tears), what may be most remarkable about the Cherokee writing system is the detailed information we have about its creator. The talents behind the Native American craft tradition, to my eye, are evident in the beauty of the Cherokee characters; if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the sign for “wo,” an elegant and compact letterform. We should also not overlook the contribution of the English and Greek letters that Sequoyah adopted for his script. Their angular, geometric form creates an interesting tension when juxtaposed against the sinuous forms that Sequoyah seemed to prefer. Here we have something strange and unparalleled: an American alphabet, one that reflects our roots in both European and Native American history. We can only be thankful that Sequoyah’s syllabary is still in use today; we can only hope that his script’s survival portends new fusions and creations as our culture continues to evolve.

RT

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RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Mystery of Vowels

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Bottom Image: Author, Kaldari; All images: WikiCommons, Public Domain.

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  1. December 11, 2012 at 7:51 pm

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