Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet

By April R. Summitt | Go to book overview

FOUR
Reading and Writing Cherokee

Although there are many different ways one might define the word culture, scholars generally agree that it is the combination of unique, but constantly changing human behaviors. Culture is learned behavior, passed down from generation to generation and includes everything from gender roles to law, to clothing styles. It also includes language. Anthropologists and linguists argue that language is one of the most important aspects of culture. It is the way a people expresses shared attitudes and values to each other and those outside the group. To fully comprehend any culture, one must study the associated native language to understand those shared values and philosophies that make up a culture (Wilkinson 2005, 358).

According to recent estimates, nearly 50 percent of the world’s languages have disappeared completely and of those still spoken, (around 6,000); half of those are “at risk” (Wilkinson 2005, 360). In the United States, scholars estimate that most Native Americans spoke their own languages at the beginning of the 20th century. Historian Charles Wilkinson asserts, however, that “by the end of the century, of some 300 original North American languages, just one-half were still spoken” (Wilkinson 2005, 360). Today, Navajo speakers rank highest in number and Cherokee speakers rank fourth. Yet, these languages are still in danger as fewer and fewer young people grow up bilingual. As elders die, so does the language.

The invention of Sequoyah’s syllabary in the early 1800s brought literacy—the ability to read and write—to a majority of Cherokee speakers. The total Cherokee population in the early 1800s is hard to accurately estimate, but some scholars number the general population at around 20,000 (Thornton 1984, 297). That means at least more than 10,000 Cherokee would have been able to read and write their own language with Sequoyah’s syllabary. By the late 20th century, however, very few Cherokee people spoke or could write their native language. The decline happened gradually at first.

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Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Series Foreword vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Chronology xiii
  • One - Growing Up Cherokee 1
  • Two - Sequoyah and the "Talking Leaves" 21
  • Three - The Cherokee Nation after Sequoyah 41
  • Four - Reading and Writing Cherokee 59
  • Five - Sequoyah, Real and Imagined 73
  • Short Biographies of Key Figures 87
  • Primary Documents 95
  • Glossary 139
  • Annotated Bibliography 147
  • Index 157
  • About the Author 165
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