Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

I’ll let Diamond tell most of the story. First, a step back. The Cherokee syllabary is an example of what he calls ‘idea diffusion’, as opposed to other, more direct means of transmission:

While blueprint copying and modification are the most straightforward option for transmitting technology, that option is sometimes unavailable. Blueprints may be kept secret, or they may be unreadable to someone not already steeped in the technology. 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.

The Cherokee syllabary, in Diamond’s view, exemplifies this. It was devised in Arkansas in the early 1800s by a Cherokee named Sequoyah:

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.

Sequoyah saw the potential for a Cherokee writing system, and began this ambitious project in a similar vein to his accounting system. Pictures, however, he found ‘too complicated and too artistically demanding’. Next he tried inventing a sign for each word, but he abandoned that approach when their quantity became unwieldy.

Then he had a breakthrough:

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…

Other signs resulted from Sequoyah modifying English (or other) letters or inventing entirely new symbols – initially cursive, then more type-friendly. Here’s a chart showing his syllabograms and their common transliterations as arranged by the missionary Samuel Worcester (via Wikipedia; click to embiggen):

Sequoyah’s syllabary, Jared Diamond writes,

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.

He concludes:

Cherokee writing remains one of the best-attested examples of a script that arose through idea diffusion. We know that Sequoyah received paper and other writing materials, the idea of a writing system, the idea of using separate marks, and the forms of several dozen marks. Since, however, he could neither read nor write English, he acquired no details or even principles from the existing scripts around him. Surrounded by alphabets he could not understand, he instead independently reinvented a syllabary, unaware that the Minoans of Crete had already invented another syllabary 3,500 years previously.

Wikipedia has what seem to be solid, well-referenced pages on the Cherokee language and Cherokee syllabary, while Omniglot has additional resources, including maps and video. The Wikipedia page on Sequoyah himself contains a memorable account of how the syllabary caught on among the Cherokee:

Lithograph of Sequoyah by George Lehman & Peter Duval, based on a painting by Charles Bird King

Sequoyah first taught the syllabary to his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh (also spelled Ayoka), because he could not find adults willing to learn it. He traveled to the Indian Reserves in the Arkansaw Territory where some Cherokee had settled. When he tried to convince the local leaders of the syllabary’s usefulness, they doubted him.

Sequoyah asked each leader to say a word, which he wrote down, and then called his daughter in to read the words back. This demonstration convinced the leaders to let him teach the syllabary to a few more people. This took several months, during which it was rumored that he might be using the students for sorcery. After completing the lessons, Sequoyah wrote a dictated letter to each student, and read a dictated response. This test convinced the western Cherokee that he had created a practical writing system.

When Sequoyah returned east, he brought a sealed envelope containing a written speech from one of the Arkansas Cherokee leaders. By reading this speech, he convinced the eastern Cherokee also to learn the system, after which it spread rapidly.

Diamond’s discussion is in the context of writing systems being invented in many societies around the Mediterranean and Near East over the course of a few centuries, after many millennia of human existence without them. He suggests that idea diffusion of one type or another may lie behind their rapid spread. This in turn is embedded in broader questions of why only some societies – and which ones – developed writing, given the great power it confers.

And how has the Cherokee syllabary fared since? I’m happy to see that it’s moving with the times (video via Language Hat):


4 Responses to Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

  1. John Cooper says:

    Unless Cherokee is sometimes written from right to left, the typist at 2:37 is using a non-Cherokee typewriter. Maybe Arabic or Hebrew?

    I know, I know, it’s just a cartoon! I was familiar with Sequoyah’s magnificent invention of the Cherokee syllabary, but I didn’t know how independent his invention was, or the hurdles he had to leap to get it accepted by other Cherokee speakers. Most informative. Thanks!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it was a tremendous, inspiring achievement.

      Cherokee is written left to right. I noticed the typewriter movement but thought it too trivial to mention. Your avatar suggests a particular interest, though!

  2. Irene Taylor says:

    I am full of admiration for anyone who can invent a written language – alphabet or syllabary.

    But 85/86 characters are a lot to remember. Economy of symbols is to be desired as far as I’m concerned. The big breakthroughs in mathematics became possible once a place-value system, a zero, and a decimal point were thought up, because this meant that new symbols didn’t have to be invented for ‘new’ numbers. In the same way, a writing system that has separate symbols for all vowel sounds and all consonants can put together anything necessary for any word. The limited numbers of vowels and consonants (apparently) in Cherokee, would require an alphabet of fewer than 25 symbols, and could cater for ‘foreign’ combinations (TWA for example) as a matter of course.

    Good on Sequoyah all the same. It’s easy for me to criticise from a position that takes literacy for granted. But no way could I ever match his achievement!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wondered about this too. The languages I’ve learned all use some version of the Roman alphabet, with or without diacritics. I’ve never learned one that uses logograms or syllabograms, so I can’t assess how relatively difficult they might be, how just how much the quantity of signs matters. Economy of symbols is crucial, as you say, but only up to a certain point. Certainly the Cherokee seemed to adopt Sequoyah’s system swiftly.

      (Re: zero in mathematics, Robert Kaplan’s book The Nothing That Is is an enjoyable book on its invention.)

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