And Speaking Of Literacy…

June 23rd, 2009at 11:37am Posted by Eli

Can any of those English Firsters say that they’ve created a written language all by themselves?

The illiterate Cherokee known as Sequoyah watched in awe as white settlers made marks on paper, convinced that these “talking leaves” were the source of white power and success. This inspired the consuming ambition of his life: to create a Cherokee written language.

Born around 1770 near present-day Knoxville, Tenn., he was given the name George Gist (or Guess) by his father, an English fur trader, and his mother, a daughter of a prominent Cherokee family. But it was as Sequoyah that around 1809 he started devising a writing system for the spoken Cherokee language.

Ten years later, despite the ridicule of friends who thought him crazed, he completed the script, in which each of the 85 characters represented a distinct sound in the spoken tongue, and combinations of these syllables spelled words. Within a few years, most Cherokees had adopted this syllabary, and Sequoyah became a folk hero as the inventor of the first Native American script in North America.

It may be, as is often noted, that his achievement is the only known instance of an individual’s single-handedly creating an entirely new system of writing.


By some accounts, Sequoyah was a kind of Professor Henry Higgins who enlisted family members who had sharper ears for discriminating distinct sounds. They helped him divide spoken words into their constituent sounds, and to each sound he assigned a symbol drawn mostly, it is said, from an English spelling book….


While working on his invention, Sequoyah the silversmith, teacher and soldier traveled widely from North Carolina and Tennessee into Georgia and Alabama. In 1821, after he reached Arkansas, he and his daughter Ayoka demonstrated the writing to Cherokee leaders, who encouraged its instruction.

A Cherokee Baptist minister translated the New Testament using the syllabary, Dr. Tankersley said, and Sequoyah was asked to use the translation to teach Cherokee boys to write at the Choctaw Academy near Georgetown, Ky., which was run by a Baptist missionary society. Other missionaries in Oklahoma embraced the script in Bible and other book translations.

Within five years, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, “thousands of Cherokees were literate — far surpassing the literacy rates of their white neighbors.”

It really is quite amazing – perhaps Sequoyah didn’t realize that he was trying to do something impossible.

Entry Filed under: Coolness

Contact Eli



Most Recent Posts




June 2009
« May   Jul »

Thinking Blogger

Pittsburgh Webloggers

Site Meter

View My Stats *