Sequoyah, The Illiterate Man Who Created A Language

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” —Francis Bacon, Essays

In A Nutshell

Sequoyah was a member of the Cherokee Native American tribe. An illiterate silversmith, he needed a way to track his clients and do other paperwork. So over several years, this man who couldn’t read or write any language developed an entire new writing system for the spoken language of the Cherokee people.

The Whole Bushel

Through conquest, cultural absorption, and colonial assimilation, the world’s writing systems have been reduced from hundreds to a handful. Today, the Europe-based Latin alphabet is in use throughout the Western Hemisphere, replacing native languages like Mayan Aztec; similarly, Arabic has replaced the ancient writing systems of the Middle East and beyond. Yet a small island smack dab in the center of America remains: the syllabic Cherokee language. The language is all the more amazing considering it was created around 1820 by a man named Sequoyah (or as he was known in the European community, “George Gist”). A member of the Cherokee First Nation, Sequoyah couldn’t read or write any language yet managed to develop a functional new language that has stood the test of time and is still in use by the Cherokee today.

In the early 1800s, George Gist was a silversmith with many clients, but as he was illiterate, he had no way of keeping track of customer orders or writing to suppliers. While living among the Europeans, he was always amazed by the English written language and thought that what he called “talking leaves” were the source of white power and success. Initially, he tried to create a logographic language (where every symbol is a word or an idea, similar to the Chinese written language). Having a symbol for each word soon became hard to memorize each character and cumbersome to read, write, and learn. Instead, his family and friends helped him decipher the Cherokee language into a group of phonetic sounds to which he then assigned a unique symbol, often borrowing from the English alphabet. However, because he still couldn’t read English there is little connection between the sound of an English letter and the Cherokee syllable.

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The language was quickly adopted by both the leaders of the Cherokee Nation and the Europeans who dealt with the Cherokee people. In a moment of clarity and forward thinking not often seen among other Christian leaders, missionaries printed up bibles in the Cherokee language and the Baptist missionary society had the language adopted in their missionary Cherokee schools. With a written language based on their spoken language, literacy rates of the Cherokee were soon much higher than the surrounding European communities. (This is in direct contrast to the heartbreaking stories of the Canadian First Nation residential school system whose missionaries banned all use of native languages and only allowed French or English in their schools.)

Many North American tribes did not have such progressive European leaders, and their children were usually forbidden from using their own native languages. This created a disconnect from their native communities and oral history that in turn led to a loss of identity. These negative feelings affected the native notions about the education system, creating multiple generations of native peoples who, due to depression from the time spent in the residential schools, plummeted into cycles of abuse and poverty.

A writing system wasn’t a magic bullet for the Cherokee people; they too were betrayed by the American government which famously ripped up treaty after treaty whenever resources were discovered on tribal land. The horrific forced march of the Trail of Tears killed thousands and left the native people uprooted from their traditional land. Later, they backed the losing side during the American Civil War and lost their government structure when the Curtis Act of 1898 dissolved all Cherokee government institutions. Through all this, they were able to keep their language alive and remain a literate people.

Show Me The Proof

Cherokee Syllabary
Sequoyah: Inventor of Written Cherokee, by Roberta Basel
NY Times: Carvings From Cherokee Script’s Dawn
Writing Systems of the World
Featured image via Library of Congress