Lexicon Valley on Sequoyah, a Native American who invented an alphabet for his Cherokee language.

Lexicon Valley Discusses Sequoyah, the Man Who Invented Written Cherokee

Lexicon Valley Discusses Sequoyah, the Man Who Invented Written Cherokee

A show about the mysteries of English.
Dec. 4 2012 2:39 PM

Talking Leaves and Lightning Paper

The illiterate Cherokee man who invented the alphabet for his language.

Lexicon Valley has moved! Find new episodes here.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 22: Talking Leaves and Lightning Paper

Mike Vuolo Mike Vuolo

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

Gmail recently added support for the Native American language Cherokee, complete with a pop-up virtual keyboard containing all of the characters in the Cherokee alphabet (here’s a link to see the Cherokee symbols).


Imagine that. Now you can send and receive email (or, as it’s called in Cherokee, “lightning paper”) in a language that existed in North America long before Europeans ever arrived. But wait, Cherokee has its own alphabet? It sure does, though it’s technically a syllabary and was invented over the course of about a dozen or so years by one illiterate, monolingual and very persistent man named Sequoyah in the early 19th century. In this episode of Lexicon Valley, Bob Garfield and I, with the help of Arizona State University historian April Summitt, discuss the remarkable backstory of written Cherokee.

You can also read the transcript of this episode below.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:

Send your thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

BOB: From Washington, D.C., this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m Bob Garfield with Mike Vuolo and today, episode No. 22, titled “Talking Leaves and Lightning Paper,” wherein we discuss what one man did to help preserve his native tongue.

[Discussion of listener comments and previous episodes]

MIKE: All right, today's episode. As I just mentioned, Lexicon Valley uses Gmail, the Google cloud-based email service, and you and I both use Gmail in our personal lives, Bob. If you've ever tinkered with the settings you might know that you can change the Gmail interface to any of about 50 some odd languages and you can send and receive emails in those languages, even if they don't use the Latin alphabet like Russian or Hebrew. Because what Google has done is create virtual keyboards that pop up on your screen that you can then use to type in Cyrillic or other alphabets. As of just about two weeks ago, Gmail for the first time added this sort of support for a Native American language, Cherokee. Now, the story of how Cherokee became a written language to begin with, with its own alphabet, is unlike any other language's backstory. It's not a story certainly that I learned growing up in the public schools of northern New Jersey, and I suspect not one that most Americans ever learned. And so I wanted to devote this episode to simply telling some of that story.

BOB: Mike, same here. Now we had very different education experiences. You grew up in Jersey and I am from Pennsylvania.

MIKE: [laughing]

BOB: But it's not just us. My guess is that most Native Americans really are unfamiliar with this tale.

MIKE: Yeah, I think you're probably right. Not most Cherokee I would guess, but most Native Americans. To tell this story, I've enlisted the help of April Summitt. She's a historian at Arizona State University who, earlier this year, wrote a book that pulls together much of what we know, or think we know, about a man named Sequoyah, who is the central figure in this story you could say. Just a bit of background: The story takes place in what is now the western part of North Carolina, the easternmost part of Tennessee and the northernmost part of Georgia. The region where all three of those states now meet was where in the 18th century most Cherokee lived. And it was there that Sequoyah was born, most likely in the 1760s. His mother was full Cherokee and his father, whom it seems he didn't know and certainly didn't grow up with, was reputed to be half-Cherokee and half-white or perhaps a quarter-white.


BOB: All right Mike, what I do know about Native American history, American history I guess, is that in those days, in this place, which was pretty much the Western frontier, there was plenty of interaction among Indians and white people, mostly for trade.

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: Which led to, among other things, intermarriage. So the conjecture that Sequoyah is part white is by no means beyond the pale.

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. And in fact both of Sequoyah's parents were traders. His mom ran what we might think of as a general goods store. Sequoyah himself was reported to be very artistic growing up. He was good at drawing and he carved out a career making things as a silversmith. Now, in the very early 1800s many Cherokee did a stint in the military. Sometimes they were warring against other tribes. Sometimes they were fighting on the side of the United States against the British, like in the War of 1812. And April Summitt told me that it was during his own military service that Sequoyah first got inspired to turn Cherokee into a written language.


APRIL SUMMITT: The story is that somewhere in his military service he had a conversation with a group of soldiers who were standing around one day, talking about an incident that had happened where a prisoner had been captured and a message had been found on this prisoner. Well, what was this piece of paper? What was this document that this soldier had, and how could someone look at it and understand what it was supposed to mean? And the general consensus was they must be magic. These “talking leaves” must be something that special medicine men amongst the white people conjure up to speak. How else could that happen? Sequoyah, as the story goes, Sequoyah said no, no, no, it’s nothing magic at all. It’s pretty easy to figure out. They have symbols. They make a drawing—-like I can draw a horse—to represent a word and they put it together and then the leaves can talk this way but anyone can read them. And of course the debate went on, the story goes, and Sequoyah left the conversation thinking to himself, well, I will prove to them that it’s not magic. In fact that’s a good idea. I could do this for my own language.

MIKE: Keep in mind, Bob, that Sequoyah was monolingual. He spoke only Cherokee so he didn't read or write. You could say, I guess, he was illiterate, although preliterate seems like the more appropriate term. Now, Bob, imagine—and this is hard to do—imagine if you wanted to create a writing system for your spoken language. You know it's possible because you know there's at least one other language out there with such a system but you don't know how it works. Where do you begin? Right? How do you go about creating these talking leaves?

BOB: Hmmm. I would imagine it would start with representation of things, like cave drawings or hieroglyphics or something.

MIKE: Well, we know a bit about Sequoyah's process, which took place over the course of about 10 or 12 years we think, because a journalist later interviewed him. Here's April Summitt.


APRIL SUMMITT: Sequoyah said, well I started out creating symbols that would represent full words but that became impossible. So I looked at other ways to represent sound and try to collect all of the sounds within the Cherokee language —much more like an alphabet, a traditional alphabet. He spent years, actually, working with the idea of one separate symbol for each separate sound.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: Years during which both his wife and his friends did not necessarily look favorably upon this project.

APRIL SUMMITT: Right, they all thought he was a crazy man. What is this crazy Sequoyah doing? First of all, they thought he was shirking his duty as a husband, tending the farm and so forth. He’s leaving this all to his wife. Others thought that perhaps he was trying to conjure some kind of bad medicine, that maybe he was engaging in witchcraft. So he was looked upon at least as a bum who spent all of his time sitting in this little cabin writing strange symbols on paper that wasn’t worth anything, and at worst, then, some kind of a secret black magic man who was trying to create power in some strange and mysterious way for himself.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: And in fact there’s an account that his wife may have even burned his work at some point.


APRIL SUMMITT: [laughing] Right and if you think about it, that’s probably a pretty credible story because if he was working on an alphabet that many years, so many hours of labor, she probably did become very, very frustrated and furious with him. And yes the word is that she burned his papers and he had to start from scratch, that it had slowed down his progress for a couple of years.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: What’s odd though, by all accounts he remained sort of placidly undeterred throughout people making fun of him, throughout his wife’s complaining.


MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: He just was single-minded in this purpose.


APRIL SUMMITT: Yes, it’s pretty amazing. It certainly shows an interesting mind and a determination. I mean he was witnessing the gradual, and then more rapid, loss of territory, of independence and of culture around him. A lot of the Cherokee were becoming more and more like their white neighbors. They were living in log cabins now instead of earlier structures that were made of woven mats covered with mud much like an adobe. Now they’re clearing fields and engaging in agriculture instead of hunting and gathering. Some of his fellow Cherokee were wealthy plantation owners who even owned slaves. So there was a lot of emulation of white culture around him that he would have witnessed, and I think in many ways his interest in creating this written syllabary for his own language was an effort to preserve it, to claim it as Cherokee and to say, hey, this is something that is ours.

BOB: Mike, I gotta say this so reminds me of something. Many, many years ago, in excess of 20, I did a piece on All Things Considered about this guy who believed to the core of his being that the song American Pie by Don McLean, that it was a biblical prophecy of some sort of nuclear Armageddon, if I recall correctly involving Russians carrying backpack nukes. But he devoted years of his life to annotating every word, every syllable, every breath in this very long song. His wife never burned his series of 12 audio tapes that he published on the project but she did leave him, and he was there in his double-wide doing God's work.

MIKE: Well, I think we'll agree that Sequoyah's project was a bit more fruitful in the end. And if you noticed, April Summitt referred, at the very end of that clip, to what Sequoyah ultimately created as a syllabary. He tried creating separate characters for each individual word, sort of like the way traditionally that Chinese works. But he scrapped that idea. He tried creating separate characters for each individual sound, or phoneme, sort of like the way our alphabet works. But finally he found that it was most useful to create individual characters for each syllable in Cherokee, which is more or less the way Japanese writing works.

BOB: So in the space of a few years he experimented with all of the basic alphabet systems that man had toyed with for millennia until he came up with the solution. Completely independent of all of mankind's previous learning.

MIKE: Yeah.

BOB: And what do these characters look like? I mean did they look anything like Roman letters, did they look like hieroglyphics, did they look like Chinese or Japanese or Korean, what?

MIKE: If you go into your Gmail settings, you can actually activate the Cherokee virtual keyboard and see for yourself what these characters look like. More about this in just a minute. I wanna take a break and talk about our sponsor Audible.com


BOB: We were discussing the Cherokee alphabet. While you were doing the ad I looked at the characters and to me they look like some sort of cross between Cyrillic, you know like the Russian alphabet and Serbian and Croatian and so forth, and Hebrew.

MIKE: [laughing] OK, so where did Sequoyah get the inspiration for the characters he created, of which there are about 85. Here's April Summitt again.

APRIL SUMMITT: The story is that he used an old spelling book that he had found along the side of the road somewhere—an English spelling book—and he, not being able to read it, used some of the letters in that spelling book as a pattern for his own characters. Turned some of them sideways, upside down, backward as we would say.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: Some of them look like Greek characters even.

APRIL SUMMITT: Yeah, there’s some characters that look very Greek, indeed.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: So now he has an alphabet, basically, a syllabary that represents the language in written form, but he has to prove it. He’s the only one who knows it.

APRIL SUMMITT: [laughing] Right.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: So what does he do?

APRIL SUMMITT: He teaches it to his 6-year-old daughter and then uses her to demonstrate his syllabary. He sets up a public meeting in the council house. Everybody comes to see what the crazy Sequoyah has been up to. We know he’s the crazy man. Oh yes, he’s been working on this secret formula for all of these years. He’s going to demonstrate it. Let’s all go see. His daughter then left the room, and Sequoyah asks from the audience as a magician might do, OK so tell me a word or a phrase, whatever you want, then he writes it down with his new syllabary. Then his daughter comes into the room and reads it back to the audience.


APRIL SUMMITT: Right, and of course as we might all be skeptical sometimes of magicians, a lot of them said: It’s a trick. It’s a trick. What is the trick? How did he do it? She couldn’t really have done that. Surely she knew. He gave her some kind of sign. There was lots of skepticism, so much so that Sequoyah realized, well, no one’s really taking me up on this idea. So he said OK, all right, we’re going to do another test. You give me a couple of young men that you choose and I will teach them my syllabary and then you can decide what you think. A couple months later, after he had taken these young men and trained them in his new alphabet, they did another similar demonstration where phrases were spoken and Sequoyah writes them down and the young men come into the room and they read them, and back and forth for a good little spell of time perhaps, until finally his audience is won over and believes that these “talking leaves” were perhaps not so magical, And then he proceeded to teach everybody he could how to read it.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: And people were eager to learn.

APRIL SUMMITT: Yes they were. I mean very quickly the people there saw that this could be a really important tool. This was their language and suddenly there was a way to write it and to communicate with someone from a distance. There had been a number of Cherokees who had already moved West to what we now know as Arkansas, so there were letters being written and travelers taking communications back and forth between Cherokees in the West and Cherokees still back in homelands in the East in Sequoyah’s syllabary for a good number of years before the printing press was actually established.

MIKE to APRIL SUMMITT: Yeah, so about six or seven years after he creates this syllabary, the Cherokee Nation acquires a printing press.

APRIL SUMMITT: Right. And a lot of the reason for that was Samuel Worcester, the missionary who came to minister to the Cherokee.

MIKE: Now, more about that printing press in a couple of minutes. But first I just wanna mention that in the early to mid-1800s there were many missionaries of many different denominations trying to convert Native Americans to Christianity. To properly do this, many groups thought, you had to teach them English.

BOB: Well, duh. Mike, as we all know, English is the language of civilized people, not the heathen. And as a practical matter, if the Bible's in English how are you going to teach anybody else the right way of thinking if not in English?

MIKE: But, Samuel Worcester, the missionary that April Summitt mentioned, who became a real champion of the Cherokee and in fact of their right to sovereignty, he said, yes, we wanna convert them to Christianity—we're missionaries after all - but we don't need to force English on them. We can translate the Bible and they can read it in their own language. That's probably even preferable, he said. So his group started transcribing the Bible phonetically into Cherokee using English letters.

BOB: That seems like actually a very good strategy. Rather than having to teach somebody an entirely new language in order to inculcate them with foreign values, why not meet them half way by giving them the foreign values in a language they can understand. But why the transliteration? Why didn't they use full Cherokee?

MIKE: Because they didn't know it existed. Eventually, Worcester found out about this syllabary and was surprised and said, oh, OK, let's just use this. This will be easier.

BOB: Oh! You mean he wasn't aware that there was a written Cherokee language so he did the best he could by doing a transliterated one in English ...

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: Only later to discover that Sequoyah had done his work for him and then some.

MIKE: Right, and so in about 1827, which is just five or six years after Sequoyah is thought to have finished his syllabary, Cherokee appears for the first time in print in Worcester's missionary magazine called The Missionary Herald. It was the first five verses of the book of Genesis.

BOB: Well first of all, that's a kind of a dirty trick because you know you read the five paragraphs and you wanna know how the story's gonna come out.

MIKE: [laughing]

BOB: But seriously, I'm wondering, he printed the first part of Genesis with what typeface? Where did he get a typeface for Cherokee?

MIKE: Worcester asked his missionary group to fund a printing press that would then be owned by the Cherokee. And they did. Worcester himself cast the type. Within a year it began publishing the Cherokee Phoenix, which was the first Native American newspaper and one of the first bilingual newspapers. And in fact the Phoenix, through the 1830s, played a really important role in Cherokee arguing against "removal."

Many of the Indians were being forced to move West because whites wanted the land. They thought that they weren't using it well. And the Cherokee were one of the last holdouts. They held up as evidence that they shouldn't be removed from that sort of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee area the fact that they had assimilated—that they had their own newspaper, that they had their own alphabet for God's sake. That only worked for so long and finally in 1838 there was the infamous Trail of Tears and the Cherokee were forcibly removed west to what is now Oklahoma.

By the way, the Phoenix still exists today. It hasn't been published continuously but it was revived in the 20th century. It's now a monthly online and I think also as a broadsheet. Most of the articles are now in English, although some are also fully in the Cherokee syllabary, this alphabet that is entirely the product of one, aliterate, monolingual man in the 1820s. And, you know we talked about those original written messages being referred to as "talking leaves" by the Cherokee. Two hundred years later, an "email" is translated into Cherokee as "lightning paper."