Fort Payne, Alabama & the Creation of the Cherokee Syllabary
Fort Payne is a smaller town located in northeast Alabama. To locals in the county, it’s the big city — it’s the place to go for all your goods. In its prime it was known as the “Sock Capital of the World”, until work began to be outsourced. There is a dark side to Fort Payne — the Trail of Tears passed through the city, destroying lives, languages, and cultures. In the midst of it all, there is a small meritorious story: this town, nestled in the valley of Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain, is where Sequoyah created the Cherokee orthography — giving the Cherokee Nation, which once held a large amount of dispersed territory, the ability to stay interconnected.
Sequoyah, pronounced “S-si-qua-ya”, was born in the late 1700s in Tennessee, not far away from the Cherokee Nation’s capital. His mother, Wu-te-he, was a Cherokee from the Red Paint Clan and his father is thought to have been Nathaniel Gist, who was half Cherokee and a friend of George Washington. Sequoyah became a blacksmith, then found himself fighting in the Creek War of 1813. The Creek Wars primarily took place in Alabama, between members of the Creek Confederation, but white militia quickly became involved. The war ended the following year in 1814 when Andrew Jackson forced the Treaty of Fort Jackson upon the Creeks, effectively securing 20 million acres of Creek Confederation territory for the United States government. (In northern Alabama and the surrounding areas, the Creeks and Cherokees were sworn enemies, yet they banded together to fight for their territory).
Following his time in the army, Sequoyah began to think more about the necessity of an orthography. He had discussed it with his friends prior to his enlisting and the Treaty of Fort Jackson only strengthened his belief that the Cherokee nation needed a way to communicate expeditiously. Sequoyah was illiterate, as many people of the Cherokee Nation believed that writing was a form of witchcraft. His first attempt at devising a script began by him drawing a symbol for every word in Cherokee (this type of script is known as a logogram; the most famous examples are Chinese characters and some of the Egyptian hieroglyphs), but that became overwhelming before long. After this initial approach, he listened carefully to spoken Cherokee and organized a letter for every syllable in the language — 86 in total (this has now been reduced to 85). This type of script is known as a syllabary.
As Sequoyah was illiterate, this process took him 12 full years. Most of his work was done under a large tree in this northern Alabama town, where he would teach classes and in his free time sit under the shade, browsing through Bibles (many symbols in the Cherokee script resemble Latin letters, as he took notice of the simplicity of some of them). After a long 12 years, Sequoyah felt like he had created an adept writing system which would help quicken communication between Cherokee territory and assist in strengthening the Nation. The first person to learn to read and write his script was his daughter, A-Yo-Ka. When they jointly announced the new way of communication, they were both charged with witchcraft. Luckily for the father-daughter duo, it had recently been made illegal to not have a trial before an execution, so they were tried before the town chief and a jury of warriors. To prove they really could communicate via these symbols, the chief had them detained in separate areas and write messages to each other until their claim was proven.
Teaching of the new script (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᎪᏪᎶᏙᏗ in Cherokee; Tsalagi Gawonihisdi in the Latin alphabet) quickly spread through the Cherokee Nation, in much part because Seqouyah had the warriors of the jury, who were well respected and looked up to, on his side. Within just a few months the entire nation had achieved literacy. Since the Cherokee script is a syllabary, with each letter being pronounced the same way every time, it’s a much faster writing system for children to pick up.
In Cherokee, a single word can convey ideas/statements that would require, in English, multiple words to express. The complexity of Cherokee is highlighted in its verbs: verbs compromise around 75% of the language (as opposed to 25% in English) and they must contain a pronominal prefix, a verb root, an aspect suffix, and a modal suffix, at minimum. Cherokee verbs contain information about the speaker, action, and the object of the action — who is doing what to whom, in what action, how many, which gender, when, and how — making the language classified as a polysynthetic language.
A polysynthetic language is a language in which words tend to consist of several meaningful units of grammar. There are two kinds of polysynthetic languages: agglutinative and fusional. (Many Native American languages are agglutinative).
For example, in Cherokee, datsigowhtisgv’i means “I was seeing something facing me.” The prefix da- means the object is facing the speaker, the following -tsi- is the conjugation of the first person subject, -gowhti- is the root for the verb “to see”, -sg- means the verb has progressive action (it is ongoing), and the final -v’i puts it into the past tense.
Nowadays, Cherokee is spoken by a mere 12,000 people, out of the 140,000 who comprise the Cherokee population. The language is recognized as a threatened language, with some of the dialects being endangered — or even near extinction. In areas of Oklahoma, where the Cherokee nation was forced to relocate during the Trail of Tears, the Tsalagi Gawonihisdi script is used on signs, but in the southeastern part of the US, it is only used for historical signs relating to the Trail of Tears.
A decade ago, the Cherokee Nation initiated a ten year language preservation plan and eight years ago a Cherokee syllabary keyboard was created. Hopefully with the recent push for preservation efforts, the Cherokee language will thrive once again.