I learned some sad news today from the very small field of Native American writing systems and literacy studies. The linguistic anthropologist Willard Walker, whose prominent work on the Cherokee syllabary is the most serious scholarly study on the subject, passed away late last month. Dr. Walker, who was a professor emeritus of anthropology at Wesleyan University and was one of that department’s founders, was 82.
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 (Walker 1969, 1984a, 1984b, 1985; Walker and Sarbaugh 1993). 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.
Over the years I’ve been asked numerous times to name my favourite numerical notation system. At first I thought that was just a bizarre question, but then, I figure that people in film studies must get asked what their favourite movies are all the time, and that people are just looking for a way into my subject area, a hook, if you will. So for the past couple of years, I’ve told them about the Cherokee numerals. My story here, which is one that Walker touched on only briefly, is that where the Cherokee syllabary thrived (and continues to thrive today), the numerals that Sequoyah developed were never accepted. While the syllabary is well-suited for writing the Tsalagi (Cherokee) language, the Western numerals sufficed for writing numbers, so the Cherokee council voted not to adopt them. They survive only in two documents in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the only evidence we have for the creation of an indigenous North American numerical notation. Unfortunately, none of the standard texts on numerical notation currently published (ahem) mention them.
The other really neat thing about the Cherokee numerals is that 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 you follow that link you see that the Jurchin system has special signs for 1-19, then every decade from 20-90, then signs for the higher powers of 10. There is no possibility that Sequoyah knew of this system – really, no one in the Western world did until the 1890s – but the Cherokee system parallels it in nearly every detail – although of course the signs are entirely different. 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.
I always thought that I might contact Dr. Walker to talk to him about the numerals, which he discussed only in passing. Certainly I would have been thrilled if he read the few pages of my book that I devoted to the subject and had anything to say about them. Alas, that will never happen now.
The clock in my office bears Cherokee numerals – some innovative person sells them through Cafepress. It is the only ‘text’ with the numerals readily available to anyone today. Tomorrow, in honour of the work of Dr. Walker, it will be silent.
Walker, W. 1969. Notes on native writing systems and the design of native literacy programs. Anthropological Linguistics: 148-166.
———. 1984a. The Design of Native Literacy Programs and How Literacy Came to the Cherokees. Anthropological Linguistics: 161-169.
———. 1984b. Literacy, Wampums, the Gúdabuk, and How Indians in the Far Northeast Read. Anthropological Linguistics: 42-52.
———. 1985. The Roles of Samuel A. Worcester and Elias Boudinot in the Emergence of a Printed Cherokee Syllabic Literature. International Journal of American Linguistics: 610-612.
Walker, W., and J. Sarbaugh. 1993. The early history of the Cherokee syllabary. Ethnohistory: 70-94.