Previously, we have covered the various writing systems in Africa, to much interest, as not many are aware about the scripts used in the continent. From Ge’ez to Nsibidi, we have discussed the features and successes of these writing systems. This series of posts have certainly shown that writing systems in Africa are not just limited to the Latin and Arabic scripts.
Across the Atlantic, there is a continent many associate with the Latin alphabet, while not much attention is shown to the various writing systems this continent has. North America, as it is known, is home to a diverse set of languages, but we are only recently discovering the writing systems that represent some of these languages. This is what this series of posts is going to discuss. Behind the curtains of English, French and Spanish, lies a whole suite of languages and writing that need to be known.
Perhaps the most famous ones are the Mayan hieroglyphs, carved into stone pyramids and printed on codices. Stretching across the Yucatán Peninsula, the Mayans built an astounding civilisation, where many records remain, and their history still amazes people to this day. People have talked about discovering lost cities in the jungles, once inhabited by a glorious civilisation, much fantasised by pop culture, as in literature and film. However, the Maya peoples still live on, speaking various Mayan languages, most commonly in Guatemala and Belize, but the art of the hieroglyphs was long replaced by the Latin alphabet. From Tzotzil to Q’eqchi’, more than six million people speak one or more of these Mayan languages.
Among the writing systems largely in use today, or have gained digitalisation status, one of the more prominent examples is the Cherokee syllabary. Cherokee, or Tsalagi Gawonihisdi (ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ) is an endangered-moribund language in the United States, with most speakers in Oklahoma and North Carolina. While there are 376,000 Cherokee, according to an Ethnologue estimate in 2018, only less than 2,000 are speakers of Cherokee. Nonetheless, this language is taught in some universities, as an effort to preserve the language, and to hopefully revitalise it.
Cherokee was an oral language. That was until the early 19th century, when Sequoyah (ᏎᏉᏯ, or signed as ᏍᏏᏉᏯ), a Cherokee polymath, developed what is now the Cherokee syllabary. This development was significant not just for the people, but it also represented one of the few occasions in recorded history when pre-literate people created an effective, original and successful writing system, still used to this very day. On some road signs in Oklahoma and North Carolina, you could see the syllabary in use. The syllabary was not Sequoyah’s first idea when he set about trying to invent a writing system for Cherokee. He tried making it a logogram system, where characters represented each word in the language, or a symbol for every idea. He eventually gave up, realising how cumbersome this method was, as many symbols and characters had to be created. If there were new words invented and ported into Cherokee, who knew what the new characters would look like.
What about a letter for each syllable, Sequoyah thought. A system of 86 letters was soon birthed, with influences from the Latin alphabet he took from a spelling book. Some letters resembled Cyrillic or Greek alphabets, although he did not come across these scripts. Now what was left was to teach the writing system to the Cherokee speakers. It took months to convince the people he had a writing system developed for the language, but the Cherokee Nation adopted the syllabary as the official writing system in 1825. From then, development was quite swift. Laws of the Cherokee Nation in Cherokee were soon translated and printed in the new syllabary, and American missionaries assisted the development of type characters to print the Cherokee Phoenix, or Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ), the first newspaper published by the Cherokee, in Cherokee, in 1828. It ran until 1834, but was revived in the late 20th century, and now has both print and Internet forms.
The syllabary did not represent several characteristics of the Cherokee language, however. Aspiration, tones, long vowels and syllables ending in a vowel, /h/, or a glottal stop were not differentiated. To add on, consonant clusters had no regular rule in representation. Speakers can differentiate words by context despite these under-specifications. Handwritten Cherokee syllabary looked almost nothing like the printed forms, requiring a bit more elbow grease to master this cursive form.
Printed Cherokee syllabary, as shown on the Omniglot page for it. The ‘v’ row represents the nasal schwa vowel.
What was more little known about this writing system was, Sequoyah did come up with a set of numerals designed with the syllabary, but the council eventually voted not to adopt his creation, and went along with Arabic numerals we use today. A minor reform was made in 1834, when the /do/ character was inverted to prevent confusion with /go/, but the system remained unchanged.
The successes of the Cherokee syllabary reached far beyond state borders. News about Sequoyah’s invention spread quickly throughout the US, and missionaries in northern Alaska created a syllabary known as Cree syllabics. This inspired the adaptation of Cree syllabics in various languages in Canada, such as Inuinnaqtun and Ojibwe. It also inspired the creation of the Great Lakes Algonquian Syllabics used in Ottawa and Potawatomi. In North America alone, Sequoyah’s writing system had downstream influences on four scripts, in 31 languages spoken in three countries.
These influences stretched to the African continent, inspiring the creation of various West African syllabaries to represent different African languages. Among these were Vai and Bassa Vah, both devised in the 1830s. Secondary influences spread, leading to the creation of 16 writing systems representing 21 languages in more than seven countries in Africa, encompassing some we have discussed in earlier posts, like N’Ko and Mandombe.
In the early 20th century, the influence of Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary spread to China and Southeast Asia, with the development of the Miao and Fraser scripts, representing a further 13 languages, including Lisu and Hmong Daw. This eventually put the tally, according to Unseth (2016), at 65 languages being represented by writing systems directly or secondarily influenced by the Cherokee syllabary.
With the addition to the Unicode in 1999, the Cherokee syllabary was digitised, making its mark in the Internet with sites like the Cherokee Phoenix. Cherokee language classes still teach the syllabary, and some immersion programs continue to teach the language to children to this day. These preservation efforts aim to improve the use of the Cherokee language at home and in the community, and beyond. The influence of Sequoyah’s syllabary truly far surpassed what many had suspected.
Unseth, P. (2016) The international impact of Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary. Written Language & Literacy, 19(1), 75-93. Available from: doi:10.1075/wll.19.1.03uns.
This marks the beginning of a series of posts dedicated to North American writing systems, beyond the Latin alphabet we are so familiar with today. Subsequent posts will discuss the other writing systems which may or may not have taken inspiration by the Cherokee syllabary, with topics like the Great Lakes Algonquian syllabary and the Osage syllabary. So stay tuned for these posts arriving in the coming weeks.