I really hope I can capture how interesting this topic is to me.
First off, the Cherokee syllabary that we know of today is rubbish. Even people who speak Cherokee don’t use it unless they want to be fancy. Who can blame them. The characters are difficult to write. In more than one instance the only difference between two characters is whether or not the character has serifs or some other minor detail.
The answer is… I think I got them both wrong. Could you imagine writing a grocery list like this?
Note that I am not criticizing the Cherokee language. Anyone who has every learned even a little bit about the Cherokee language knows that it’s so different from how you would expect a language to work that it will change the way you think. For instance in Cherokee transitive verbs conjugate by subject and object. The example that immediately jumps to mind is the word for “we love each other”, “gungeyu”. These verb conjugation tables are so ornate that they take forever to learn, but once you learn them you think differently, you see things that you are unable to express in English, simple things, goofy things, like how in English you say, “We’re leaving”, but you mean you and the dude you arrived with, not the person you’re talking to. Once you know the conjugation of the Cherokee verb that means “to go” you will know a word that means, “We’re leaving, in that I am going with someone else, but not you who I am talking to.”
My only criticism of the Cherokee language is that it is too interesting, too much fun, to be so useless in actually communicating with anyone. Nobody speaks Cherokee as their first language anymore. Unless you are taking a Cherokee class, with people, then you probably know absolutely nobody to practice with.
This lack of people using the language also hurts the educational materials. Cherokee educational materials always present Cherokee in English terms, nouns, adverbs, verb, adjectives, etc. Arabic text books don’t do this. They present Arabic on Arabic terms, ism, fe’el, harf, that’s it. In Cherokee there are nouns, but then there are nouns that conjugate. So you can hold “a shell”, but you cannot talk to “a grandmother”. There is no Cherokee word for “a grandmother”. She’s someone’s grandmother, and you therefore have to conjugate the word “-lisi” based on whose grandmother she is. I only remember the vocative conjugation, off the top of my head, “Elisi”, meaning, “you who are my grandmother”. Nouns and conjugating nouns should be presented as two different parts of speech, but since everyone who speaks Cherokee also speaks English first (and usually only English), the idea that Cherokee should have it’s own parts of speech isn’t reflected in the teaching materials.
So Cherokee language, awesome, fun, fascinating. I guarantee, everyone who knows it even a little wishes there were some way to present it that made it easier to learn and more people that would learn and use it with them. Cherokee syllabary, not awesome, annoying. But it seems like it shouldn’t suck. Japanese uses two syllabaries that function in almost exactly the same way as Cherokee. Why is Cherokee such an annoying, unused, unloved script?
There’s actually a bit of a mystery to that.
The Cherokee script seems to have been invented by a Cherokee guy named George Gist, who signed his name as Ssiquoya. Today we write the name Sequoyah. None of those are Cherokee names.
Sequoyah was interviewed by the press for his remarkable accomplishment, devising a syllabary even though he could not read or write previously. His picture was drawn for the press. There are rumors that Sequoyah suffered violent persecution by ignorant people afraid of his new invention, but the pictures that were drawn of Sequoyah show none of the scars he was rumored to have, so either the artist didn’t really meet Sequoyah, or the rumors of scars were lies, or he did meet Sequoyah and the man was disfigured but the artist drew him without scars, out of concern for Sequoyah’s image.
There are even those who claim that Sequoyah didn’t invent the Cherokee syllabary, but that it existed in some form for the past 500 years or so.
Why they might be right: European diseases absolutely wrecked the populations of the Americas. After the De Soto Expedition, it was several decades before more Europeans were able to visit North America again. These explorers reported entire towns deserted, the populations wiped out by disease. Less than a hundred years after Hernando de Soto, and the explorers that followed him already understood what had been lost.
But the Cherokee seemed to weather the spread of European diseases better than surrounding communities. If the Cherokee had a scribe society that was able to communicate between villages and organize a community response to the plagues, that would certainly explain Cherokee towns being less devastated by plague. Even something as simple as knowing to hold off on accepting refugees until after most harvests were in would make a huge difference. If you get a written communication that tells you accepting one sick person will make the whole town sick then you know to do that after you have food saved up and before it gets too cold.
Why they are probably wrong: The scan of “The Original Ninety-Two Symbol Cherokee Syllabary” is a scribbly collection of symbols. It isn’t a collection of symbols that mimic painted glyphs. I know Chinese Ren-style characters so I know what your writing looks like if you mostly write the characters with paint-like ink. This isn’t a collection of symbols that mimics cuneiform. This is a collection of symbols written with pen on paper. So back in the 1500s, the Cherokee people didn’t have paper or pen, so how did they write these symbols?
Even if we allow the highly improbable assumption that members of this scribe society had writing and never painted the symbols on any pieces of wood or stone or leather or anything that archeologists have found, and never scratched the symbols into any clay items that survived for scientists to find, that still leaves us with too many questions. How did they practice writing in order to write legibly for others to be able to read their writing? Since no monumental inscriptions were found, what was the writing even for? Writing doesn’t just pop into existence from nowhere. Were there pictoglyphs or heiroglyphs, clay tablets with shaped scratches into them or pressed into them, metal items with symbols beaten into them?
And where are the numbers? I can believe that most people in a pre-printing press society would be illiterate even if they had writing, but no reasonable person could believe that they wouldn’t use numbers. In the early 1500s they still didn’t have horses. Their networks of trade and resource distribution must have been outrageously complicated. Given how often goods would have to change hands to make it work, they would put numbers on things if they had writing.
I’m not saying I know for certain, but I’m pretty sure that in the early 1800s, the guy who we call Sequoya sat down with pen and paper and thought, “If French, English, and Spanish people can use these to record their words, then I should be able to as well.” And then he figured something out, on his own. Most scripts were made up by someone who could already read and write. When St. Cyril made up Cyrillic, he used his knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Sejong The Great was quite literate, and had a team of scholars to help him invent Hangul, the Korean writing. (And it shows. It’s one of the best scripts on the planet.)
But totally illiterate people who invented a system of writing? Well there was probably a few people in the Mediterranean, maybe some Semitic or Phoenician person. Whoever invented Ogham, probably. At least one person in India. A Chinese person. A Mayan. For the entire existence of the human race, there were maybe a dozen people who’ve done this, and the only one whom history has recorded is Sequoyah.
Sequoyah wasted a bunch of time trying to come up with ideograms, but Cherokee just has too much grammar for that. When his ideogram notes were destroyed he started over again with a syllabary idea.
Then history gets sketchy again.
Some people say that he got a Bible, some that he got a school book on the English language, and that he copied some of the symbols out of those books. None of the people in his own area took him seriously, so he went out west and showed the Cherokee people there, and they gave him students and he started the Cherokee literacy movement. In the 1820s they had their first newspaper.
But I did find this interesting scan.
I was shown this scan with the assurance that it was Sequoyah’s own handwriting. Really? So he took notes equating the modern Cherokee symbols with an earlier script that doesn’t have any of the problems of the modern Cherokee syllabary? Each symbol is unique, can be written sloppily and still be read, and is easy to write, requiring at most four pen strokes?
This is outrageous! Why did they ever abandon the good syllabary?
This is what I’ve been able to piece together.
Sequoyah developed a syllabary. He taught his daughter to read and write it. Together they used it, which would have made it even better, simpler, easier to read. But nobody else would take it seriously. Sequoyah went out west to try to get some respect, and they also had no respect for the invention. Why should they use writing if they could just tell someone who could deliver a message?
But if they had writing they could say something once and record it and everyone could read it. It could be a tool for political unity and community action. Those were big priorities back then. Cherokees had laws protecting corn farmers from competition with wheat farmers. Farming wheat was easier and produced more food, but farming corn was time tested and an important cultural institution. Plus, many of the people who continued to farm corn were elderly and set in their ways, and the elders of all the Cherokee clans were keen on making sure that other old people who continued to follow old ways should be cherished and protected.
The only thing Sequoyah had to do was go to a print shop that had a printing press and work out a deal so that Cherokee people could have printed materials. So Sequoyah showed the print shop owner his script and the guy said, “No way. When we print a page of text we typeset it. We stack up these dies in the tray. Each die has a letter on it. Then we put ink on it and press the paper onto it. And I don’t have dies with all these sqiggly shapes on them.”
So Sequoyah went to the metal smith and asked him to make dies that had Cherokee symbols on them, and that guy told Sequoyah how much it would cost. It was a lot of money. Alright… how about start by making a few dies for symbols that don’t come up much. Sequoyah quickly jotted down less flowery versions of the symbols for “ma”, “qui”, “wo”, stuff like that.
Then he went back to the print shop. “I can’t afford dies for all these symbols. What else can we do?”
“Could you make do with what I already have in the shop? Here’s all the dies I already own.”
“There’s a a whole drawer of this symbol (E). If we use this to mean the sound gun, I could save myself a lot of money. Alright this is starting to be possible again. We could actually have a Cherokee newspaper. Give me pen and paper. I’m going to take some notes.”
And that is the scan that you saw up there. Apparently Sequoyah thought that people would learn both syllabaries, the one that’s easy to read and write with pen and paper, and the one that he had to use in printed material. But that proved to be too much for most people, so the handwritten form died out quickly.
But the typeset syllabary continued to this day. As soon as it was developed, Sequoyah trained a group of students to be Cherokee typesetters, and the Cherokee Phoenix was born.
I thought, what a tragedy. The syllabary that Sequoyah wanted to use at first was so much better. Well we have true type fonts now, so using Sequoyah’s own handwriting from that scan up there I made the true type font in the Box widget over on the right there. I have no illusions about Sequoya’s original syllabary ever catching on. As I said before. This is nobody’s first language anymore. If I wrote my grocery list in Sequoyah’s syllabary, I would have to pick up the groceries myself, since I don’t know anyone else who is into it.
“What is this?” – “It says ‘sal’. We need to pick up sal.” – “Salt?” – “No, persimmons, alright. I ate the last dried persimmon. For some reason when I wrote it I thought it would save me effort if I wrote the two characters that form the Cherokee word for persimmon but now that I’ve taken all this effort to explain it, I should have just written persimmon.”
But I’m apparently not the only one who thinks it’s cool. Over at Ani-Kutani.com they also have a font based on Sequoyah’s early syllabary. Theirs is prettier than mine, but I didn’t work to make mine calligraphy, just as an exercise in making something interesting for posterity.
So that is my theory of why the Cherokee Syllabary sucks, because they didn’t have enough money to make the good syllabary into something that could be used to print a newspaper.