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.)


  1. marie-lucie says

    Thank you for letting us know of this fascinating source.
    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.
    I am not very familiar with the history of native literacy, but it seems to me that it might depend on the context in which literacy was introduced. Sequoyah is supposed to have got the idea from seeing people read and write, perhaps in the context of trading (accounts, letters, newspapers), while other peoples might have encountered literacy through missionaries toting the Bible. It is possible to associate reading and writing with strictly practical purposes without jumping to the conclusion that writing is for putting one’s traditions and sacred stories on paper. From what I have learned about the Cherokees, they used their new writing system for writing letters and newspapers. Their rejection of the numerals probably stems from the fact that the symbols for numerals are not bound up with a particular language, and they already knew the Western symbols and pronounced them in their own language. Sequoyah’s system is very ingenious though.
    I am reminded of the Gauls versus the Romans: the Gauls were quite aware that other people knew how to write, but the Druids apparently were leery of putting their traditional lore in writing, which would put their sacred or esoteric knowledge within the reach of persons who had not gone through the arduous training required to learn and appreciate it. But some of the Gauls learned to write, first with Greek characters in the area close to the Mediterranean, later with Latin characters, and the Gaulish language is therefore attested in writing (not just from isolated words adopted into Latin) mostly by short inscriptions on mundane things like drinking cups and tombstones, and also a rare religious calendar (which is basically a list, not a long stretch of text).

  2. Yes, that whole topic of resistance to writing is fascinating to me. I have a huge bias in favor of writing, so it’s a useful spiritual exercise for me to push it aside and try to understand the point of view of those who have rejected it.

  3. I rememebr reading in an old country study of India (the State Depratment puts these out) in the section where they were discussing the caste sytem, they mentioned that the sub-caste that scribes belonged to rose in the social hierarchy after the various Muslim invasions. Previous to that there had been little regard for the craft, despite the voluminous Hindu and Buddhist literature. This chimes with the emphasis on the spoken word – a text is not considered transmitted tot he student until he hears it.
    “I have a huge bias in favor of writing, …”
    Yeah, we know – especially printing! (Well at least it’s solid, I mean tangible, rather than circumstantial evidence.

  4. Another aspect of the Cherokee development that Walker pointed out was that Sequoyah’s six year old daughter, Ahyokeh, was actually crucial to the successful end-result, and not just the well known demonstration: she found inconsistencies and omissions by applying the (often annoying) perspective that all kids of that age have. The evidence (IIRC) was that someone was said to have collaborated in fixing it, and she was the only other person who knew it at all at the time. Wikipedia doesn’t mention this, so maybe experts don’t really believe it; I’m certainly not one.

  5. marie-lucie says

    I have heard of Sequoyah’s daughter helping him, but I did not know she had started that young. It makes a lot of sense though.

  6. I am reminded of the story from ancient Egypt: when Thoth invented writing and gave it to humans, Set said that he had made a big mistake, people would now stop developing their memories and minds. The Druids and their counterparts in other cultures put about a dozen years into mental storage, which is why they were so important in their culture, and why they resisted writing.
    Set was right, in that writing became a crutch.

  7. marie-lucie says

    The story is told of other cultures too, who knew writing as done by other peoples but were wary of adopting it for themselves. Around the Mediterranean writing spread through trade, not religion (since gods were local). Elsewhere it eventually spread through proletyzing religions which transcended ethnic boundaries.

  8. clodhopper says

    Humans by nature are lazy, ’tis why they invent tools. Thank goodness for the exceptions.
    If only Nixon had been exposed to this culture and then realising that recording ones thoughts in a medium that can be hard copied then gets thee bounced, History would have been different.
    A liar better have a good memory
    Quintilian IV,2,21 Institutio Oratoria

  9. The Koran uses the phrase “clear proofs” over and over. As far as I can make out, this means a written Book, the writing itself, which was unusual in the Prophet’s time, being the proof of its truth, since the Prophet did not heal or do other miracles. I am also reminded of Hermes Trimegistus and the gospel of John (in the beginning was the Word…)
    A sample (meaning of the) Koran passage from Sura An-Nahl, Aya 44:

    With clear proofs and writings; and We have revealed unto thee the Remembrance that thou mayst explain to mankind that which hath been revealed for them, and that haply they may reflect.

  10. Nijma: I’m not sure where you get the idea that “clear proofs” refers specifically to written Books. In the example you cite, the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir says that “clear signs” means proof and evidence, whereas “Books [Zubur]” means Scriptures. In any event, writing down the Qur’an is considered to have been done by literate disciples, who had written other things, under dictation – the miracle is considered to lie in the revelation, not the writing it down. But I digress.

  11. Lameen, Funny how digressions keep coming up here.
    This was triggered by Jim’s comment above:

    I rememebr reading in an old country study of India (the State Depratment puts these out) in the section where they were discussing the caste sytem, they mentioned that the sub-caste that scribes belonged to rose in the social hierarchy after the various Muslim invasions.

    …and I was trying to think what about Islam might cause this.
    The “clear proofs” was something I remembered from reading Koran on my own and plugged into the search bar here. Also the “people of the book” phrase from the tafsir (“tafsir” must be a commentary by a Koranic scholar) is something that comes up many times, and to me it emphasized the writings themselves as being sacred. I also remember the story of a battle where the soldiers put copies of Koran on the ends of their lances and won the battle because the opposing army refused to fight them. To me this is a very strong reaction to written words. Also I have seen Moslems take out the family Koran and kiss it and touch it to their forehead before opening it.
    To me, Islam has an unusually strong emphasis on the writings of the Koran, especially written words, compared to my own religious traditions based on biblical *scripture* (not “literalist”) but also on *reason*, *tradition*, and *experience*. But that doesn’t say anything about how it would have been seen by someone in India so many years ago.
    Even in the Tafsir Ibn Kathir in the Lameen’s link, it says

    (ask) the people of the previous Books, were the Messengers that were sent to them humans or angels

    …the emphasis to me is that the people are seen as legitimate because they have previous Books. Also in the commentary is the phrase “people of the Book” which I have seen before. The meaning is Jews and Christians, and I think one other group, but not members of eastern religions like Hindus and Buddhists.
    I understand a scribe was necessary to record the Koran because the prophets of that time could not write while they were in a trance or wrapped in a cloak to receive a revelation.

  12. John Emerson says

    The Indian scribes were probably just copyists and paid letter-writers for illiterates. Such a person plays a key role in Musorgsky’s opera “Khovanshchina” He’s the very image of the powerless intellectual and almost certainy represented Musorgsky himself, at least in part — Musorgsky worked for a considerable period as a very ill-paid copyist in the Czar’s forestry department; if I’m not mistaken, hundreds of pages of his nice handwriting have survived.
    The “Secret History of the Mongols” records the moment when Genghis Khan commanded that some of his Mongols be trained in writing; they had captured a scribe from a different tribe and were very aware of the power of writing.
    One of my theories is that some of the gross chronological discrepancies (dating errors of 12 years) were made by very young scribes, who had not experienced the events in real time, taking down oral reports. Mongols dated only with a 12-year animal cycle, so a 12-year error is actually more likely than a 6-year error.

  13. marie-lucie says

    JE: Mongols dated only with a 12-year animal cycle
    Do you mean like the Chinese “year of the dog”, etc cycle? Any idea where the original cycle came from?

  14. John Emerson says

    M-L, it’s a long and complicated story, I’m sure, with many variants. I believe that it’s mostly astrological and classificational by birth year, with its use for dating events sort of a spinoff, and presumably it long antedates the Mongols and the Chinese versions. It might be ultimately Babylonian.

  15. marie-lucie says

    Very interesting, thanks, JE.

  16. David Marjanović says

    …and I was trying to think what about Islam might cause this.

    Nothing: the upper castes kept writing down, and the invasions removed the upper castes or at least their power.

Speak Your Mind