No one invented the English language. Exempting a few modern creations, like Esperanto, languages aren’t invented; they grow organically as people communicate, each adding gradually to a tapestry of human discourse.
Similarly, no one invented the English alphabet. If they had, they’d have done a bad job. None of this makes sense. Instead, while the language grew naturally from its Germanic relatives in mainland Europe, being influenced by the Celtic languages that already existed in Great Britain, the script that we now use to write the English language grew separately in the Roman Empire. That script, the Latin alphabet, was itself a descendant of the Greek alphabet, which has its origin in other (some super mysterious) ancient alphabets. In other words, it’s a (nearly) never-ending chain of alphabets delivering consonants and vowels to other alphabets.
The beautiful pedants of the world may be quick to point out that someone had to have been the original creator of these visual representations of words, and they’re right, but most writing systems are so old and complex that tracking down their broad collections of creators is effectively impossible. They didn’t do it for the fame, they did it for the money – namely the insane shekel earnings to be had in the grain market. Was that five or five hundred you owe me? I can’t remember – I didn’t write it down. Even if we could, English language speakers still wouldn’t be able to identify one core inventor of the English language. Korean is a different story.
Much of Korea’s linguistic past is similar to that of Japan, it’s neighbor and historical frenemy across the sea. Both Korea and Japan are close neighbors to the geographic behemoth that is China, and both spent a considerable portion of their histories under the Chinese cultural thumb, inheriting a hearty stock of tradition and knowledge from the dragon to the west. Today, while Japan has its own language and its own writing system, many of the characters in that system come straight from early Chinese.
Until the 15th century, the situation in Korea was similar. Koreans spoke their own language, but they wrote it by Chinese rules. If Koreans wanted to write in their native tongue, they had to learn how to write Korean words with Chinese characters, which was tough, because Korean is not Chinese. To solve this problem, a Korean King, Sejong the Great, took it upon himself to invent an alphabet. His alphabet, Hangul, used simple shapes that mimicked the human mouth and tongue. Sejong’s alphabet was designed for the Korean language, so it was significantly easier to learn.
Unfortunately for the King, designing an alphabet to be simple and easy to learn meant that it wouldn’t be sufficiently fancy for his country’s elite. Scholars who had spent years studying the existing complex writing system and members of the upper class who liked that the filthy commoners couldn’t read stuck to the old way of writing things. Luckily, they came around. (hundreds of years later, in 1945).
Today, people in both halves of the Korean peninsula read and write in the simple, easy-to-learn Hangul alphabet. They seem to like it quite a bit — in South Korea, there’s a whole day celebrating it (though, as a paid holiday, it was canceled from 1991 to 2013 so Koreans could do more business). Officially, the story is that Sejong invented the language by himself – he may have had help from his personal academy of scholars, but he says he didn’t. Either way, Sejong was the most powerful man in Korea who had access to a team of local smartfolk, even if he didn’t need them. A few hundred years later, another man would do for his people what Sejong did for his, but the similarities stop there.
Sequoyah was born around 1770 in Eastern Tennessee, then part of British North America, to a Cherokee mother and a (probably) European father. Sequoyah grew up among the Cherokee, an illiterate people increasingly surrounded by white English speakers to the East. Trained as a blacksmith, Sequoyah saw the value of writing, but, with no reliable means of learning how to write in English, resolved to create his own method.
The blacksmith’s first efforts were limited to those that furthered his trade, small shapes, symbols, and lines used to keep track of sales and debts. In 1810, though, he took on a more ambitious goal: designing a script for the yet-unwritten Cherokee language.
The endeavor was interrupted two years later when Sequoyah volunteered to fight in the War of 1812. His time among both white and Cherokee soldiers underscored the divide between the literate and illiterate and, after his return home, he resumed steadfast work on the project.
While most written languages evolved slowly over time and grew from pictographic representations similar to Sequoyah’s sales figures, Sequoyah’s Cherokee script would be designed by him alone. Unlike Sejong before him, though, Sequoyah himself was still illiterate, and while he had seen English letters and writing, he wasn’t able to understand any of what he’d seen.
So he picked up first where he had started, by identifying individual Cherokee words and assigning them their own pictorial representations. Regardless of your experience with language, it doesn’t take long to realize that physically drawing a cow every time you want to convey the word “cow” is unnecessarily taxing. Depending on your artistic skill, an order for four cows can quickly become a request for three goats and a horse. He scrapped that idea and started again.
This time, Sequoyah tried using simpler unique symbols for each word, but found it similarly difficult to remember each of them. Having eliminated that plan too, he eventually recognized that his language could be broken down into smaller sound components which could each be represented by their own symbols.
Having come to possess an English-language Bible he couldn’t read, Sequoyah was in the unique position of having access to the end product of language without an understanding of its mechanics. Sequoyah knew that these symbols could work well in a writing system because they were already being used in one, so he built much of his Cherokee script with letters from the English alphabet, either as they were printed in the Bible or slightly modified.
As a result, the Cherokee script designed by Sequoyah was one that looked remarkably similar to a European language but that could not be read by a native speaker of English, German, or French. Cherokee letters that look exactly like our “D” and “B” instead represent the sounds “a” and “yv” respectively. 4, a number in most languages, makes the “se” sound in Cherokee.
Moreover, while the Cherokee script was inspired by an alphabet, it itself isn’t one, because of how its letters work. In an alphabet, each letter represents one sound. In the Cherokee script, each letter instead represents a syllable, a combination of sounds.
Other syllabaries include Japanese hiragana and katakana and the ancient Mycenaean Greek language known as Linear B. Having no means of learning about these languages, Sequoyah’s creation is effectively an independent reinvention of the syllabary technology that had been in use elsewhere for thousands of years.
His writing system complete, Sequoyah set out to share it with his people, who took one look at it and arrested him under suspicion of witchcraft. From our perspective, the accusation that writing is witchcraft is, at best, a ridiculous hail-mary attempt to get out of an English final. Remember, though, that the Cherokee up until now haven’t used writing, and the only people they know who do write are the white people currently busy fucking everything up. Some skepticism may be warranted.
To prove his syllables weren’t witchcraft, Sequoyah and his daughter, A-Yo-Ka, who probably deserves more credit for the creation of the language than most sources give her, were separated and allowed to communicate only through writing. When the two were able to read each other’s messages without having spoken their content, the local warrior-judges were sufficiently convinced; Sequoyah and his daughter were freed, and the same authorities asked to be taught the script.
Within a decade, dedicated Cherokee translators had published the bible and several hymns, and had begun the publication of a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, the first bilingual newspaper in the United States.
Two years after the Cherokee Phoenix printed its first issue, life changed dramatically for the Cherokee people. The United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which mandated the forced migration of the Cherokee and other Native American tribes to lands west of the Mississippi river.
Most of the surviving Cherokee settled in northeastern Oklahoma, then set aside as “Indian Territory”. Forcibly separated from their homes and belongings, it was their shared language and culture that kept the Cherokee united through their displacement.
Today, the Cherokee language, written with Sequoyah’s syllabary, enjoys co-official status in northeastern Oklahoma; it can be found on street signs, municipal buildings, and the pages of the Cherokee Phoenix, still available in print and online.
Cave carvings made using the syllabary offer a rare window into the cultural traditions of the Cherokee before the tribe had been subject to forced removal.
As a script, the Cherokee syllabary has won the praise of linguists for its relative simplicity and the ease with which it can be learned by native speakers. Its survival despite the efforts of assimilation and integration is a testament to its staying power and usefulness.
But the power of an invention against the will of a government is only so potent. Today, the Cherokee language survives, but only barely. Sequoyah’s syllables remain on stop signs and the pages of the Cherokee Phoenix, but fewer than three thousand people are able to read them. Despite calls for action from tribal leadership, that number shrinks every year as old speakers die and new speakers fail to take their place.
The threatened disappearance of a native language isn’t unfamiliar to the indigenous people of the United States. According to the Census Bureau, throughout the country, only 370,000 indigenous language speakers remain. Of those, 170,000 are Navajo speakers, leaving 200,000 for all of the others. At least 50 languages spoken at the time of colonization have completely disappeared. Many more are on the brink.
Cherokee isn’t dead yet, and local efforts to maintain the language have been bolstered through the creation and recent growth of a Cherokee immersion school in northeastern Oklahoma. A general increase in attention to fading languages from groups like the National Geographic Society and Wikitongues may also support their continued existence and potential growth.
As an invention, Sequoyah’s syllabary served to educate and unite the Cherokee people, but a single invention can only do so much against the overwhelming force of compulsory migration, integrationist policies, and a government generally disinterested in the welfare of the continent’s indigenous people. Worldwide, thousands of once-spoken languages have disappeared. Some die naturally, their populations dried up independently of outside influence. Others are wounded beyond repair.
- Carvings From Cherokee Script’s Dawn by John Noble Wilford for The New York Times
- Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
- Hangul from Encyclopedia Britannica
- How was Hangul invented? for The Economist
- Sequoyah from Encyclopedia Britannica
- Sequoyah: A Man of Letters by Kristi Finefield for the Library of Congress
- Sequoyah and the Creation of the Cherokee Syllabary from the National Geographic Resource Library
- Sequoyah’s Syllabary from the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum
- Title Image:
- The statue of King Sejong the Great 3 by Wikipedia user Mannaa mohamed (unedited)