Saturday, June 20, 2009

The written word

When we think of the written word we think of literature, or newspapers. We think of little children in one-room school houses learning their alphabet with chalks and slates. We think of universal literacy. But the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that the main function of early writing was "to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings."

Certainly, the use of writing helped white European colonists overwhelm illiterate Native Americans, displacing them from their lands and obliterating their traditions. This was true for the Cherokees as for other tribes. As Jared Diamond has pointed out, words on paper were as important as guns, germs and steel in the colonialist's advantage.

The illiterate Cherokee metalsmith Sequoyah "got it." He didn't have a clue what those scribbles on the white man's paper were all about, or how they worked, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. In 1820, he set about doing the same thing for the Cherokee language.

He started by inventing a pictographic sort of writing, with a different representational image for each word, but gave it up as hopelessly complicated. Then he tried devising a separate arbitrary sign for each word, but again was overwhelmed with thousands of signs.

Now, a light-bulb moment. Sequoyah realized that the many thousands of words in the Cherokee language were made up of a smaller number of sounds, what we call syllables. He whittled these down to 85 -- a few vowels, mostly combinations of a consonant and a vowel. He assigned a simple sign for each syllable, borrowing some signs at random (letters and one number) from an English book, inventing others of his own. Bingo! He had an easily-mastered written language, not an alphabet but a syllabary, something the Minoans of Crete had devised thousands of years earlier.

By 1825, the Cherokees had almost universal literacy in their own language and their own newspapers.

Sequoyah had before him the example of written English, but he knew nothing of its structure or meaning. The analysis of his own language and the invention of the syllabary was entirely his own -- one of the few known examples of the invention of a written language by a single individual.

Sequoyah was not quite a Chattanooga native, but he came from the neighborhood, and Chattanoogans take pride in him today. His most conspicuous monument: The TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Generating Station just north of the city.