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  • The Cherokee syllabary: Writing the people’s perseverance by Ellen Cushman
  • Brad Montgomery-Anderson
The Cherokee syllabary: Writing the people’s perseverance. By Ellen Cushman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. Pp. 256. ISBN 9780806142203. $34.95 (Hb).

In the 1820s Sequoyah devised a syllabic writing system for his native Cherokee language. The creation of this script, commonly referred to as the Cherokee syllabary, is one of the most famous episodes in Native American history. The syllabary has become iconic of the Cherokee people, the largest Native American community in the United States. In recent years this writing system has undergone both a popular and scholarly revival. Language revitalization initiatives among the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes have promoted syllabary usage in immersion and college classrooms, and they have increased its presence in the linguistic landscape of northeastern Oklahoma and western North Carolina. New scholarly interest has also heightened awareness of this two-hundred-year-old writing system. Bender (2002a,b, 2007) has written extensively on its use among the Eastern Cherokees in North Carolina, while Peter and Hirata-Edds (2009) have studied its use in the Cherokee Nation immersion school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Ellen Cushman has previously explored issues related to the origin and use of the syllabary (2011a, b, 2012), and I discuss and use it throughout my own grammar of the language (Montgomery-Anderson 2014). Unlike Bender, C focuses in this work on Oklahoma Cherokee. C is a professor of writing, rhetoric, and American cultures at Michigan State University, and she is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a federally recognized tribe that is headquartered in Tahlequah.

In the first chapter (‘Sequoyah and the politics of language’), C provides the historical context of the creation of the syllabary. She opens with a claim that is at odds with the traditional portrait of Sequoyah, who has historically been described as illiterate in English. C presents an English letter signed by Sequoyah that she found at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. C’s assertion that Sequoyah was already fluent and literate in English is an important part of her claim that Sequoyah’s design of the syllabary—or Sequoyan, as she terms it—was part of a conscious and deliberate effort to maintain a distinctive Cherokee identity in the face of an encroaching white society that threatened to overwhelm and assimilate it. The term ‘perseverance’ in the subtitle of this work is an important theme throughout. With the adoption of Sequoyan, the Cherokee acquired a powerful technology for recording traditional knowledge and communicating among themselves; at the same time, this unique writing system helped them to resist the assimilative pressures of which alphabetic literacy was a part. The story of Sequoyah’s process of invention is absorbing reading, and C makes good use of contemporary sources in her narrative. She underlines that this period was characterized by ‘self-imposed isolation from the influence of the Roman alphabet’ (38).

In Ch. 2 C discusses the syllabary as a writing system, focusing specifically on the organization of the complete set of characters. She contrasts the initial arrangement with the second, print-oriented arrangement; this latter set, as C points out, is organized to make sense to those already literate in English. For example, the vowel characters on the horizontal axis of the chart are ordered as /a/, /e/, /i /, /o/, /u/, and /v/ (this last character represents a nasalized mid-central vowel), while the consonants on the vertical axis also follow the same sequence as that of the English alphabet. C comments that this arrangement has often been seen as an added obstacle to learning the syllabary as it ‘inserts alphabetic sound systems and orthographies as intermediary steps that learners must go through to locate the correct character’ (45). This observation is part of another important theme in the book: that is, that the syllabary has been misunderstood and underappreciated by those who insist on seeing it through an alphabetic bias rather than on its own terms. In this chapter C claims that Sequoyan not only matches characters to sounds but also ‘at times can also match meaningful units (morphemes) to glyphs’ (49). This is a novel claim that...


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