the birth of Cherokee syllabary

Word may trickle through about an invention made somewhere far away, but the details may not get transmitted. Perhaps only the basic idea is known: someone has succeeded, somehow, in achieving a certain final result. That knowledge may nevertheless inspire others, by idea diffusion, to devise their own routes to such a result.

A striking example from the history of writing is the origin of the syllabary devised in Arkansas around 1820 by a Cherokee Indian named Sequoyah, for writing the Cherokee language. 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.

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 the signs Ᏻ, Ꮜ, and Ꮎ to represent the syllables yu, sa, and na, respectively. Still other signs were entirely of his creation, such as Ꮀ, Ꮅ, and Ꮔ for ho, li, and nu, respectively. 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.


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