I recently learned of the death of linguistic anthropologist Willard Walker, who specialized in Native American languages and cultures. Here‘s his obit in the newsletter of Wesleyan University, where he taught for many years, but I particularly liked Stephen Christomalis’s memorial post at his blog Glossographia:
One of the more remarkable facts about literacy in colonial and pre-modern North America is the extreme paucity of independently developed writing systems and numerical notations. In contrast to West Africa, where there are dozens of examples of individuals creating indigenous scripts after being exposed to the Roman or Arabic scripts, there are relatively few indigenous North American scripts, and of these, the Cherokee syllabary (in which each sign encodes a syllable rather than a single phoneme) has been one of the most successful. Walker’s work was an effort to explain the development of Cherokee writing that was respectful to Sequoyah (George Guest), the script’s inventor, while steering clear of ‘great man’ fallacies and attempting to understand the sociocultural context of the script’s invention and acceptance…. A major part of his life’s work was comparative, showing the ways in which Cherokee interest in literacy contrasted with grave ambivalence about the practice of encoding oral traditions in written texts among many other peoples of the Americas.
He has a fascinating discussion of the Cherokee numerals, which were created by Sequoyah but rejected by the Cherokee: “they display a remarkable structural resemblance to the system of numerals used by the Jurchin of northeastern China, who developed a script in the 12th century, and who were later known (famously) as the Manchu when they ruled China…. If I were to make the case for cognitive constraints interacting with cultural and linguistic variability to produce remarkable and unexpected parallels, this would be a good example. Theoretically, then, the Cherokee numerals are extremely important even though no one actually used them, as far as we can tell.” (Via Savage Minds.)