On a December evening in 1840, the writer John Howard Payne—known to Americans today, if at all, for his song “Home, Sweet Home”—was invited to a meeting in Park Hill, Oklahoma, about seventy miles southeast of Tulsa. Payne was excited. The meeting was to be held at a cabin owned by John Ross, chief of the Cherokee tribe, and he would have the honor of meeting the tribe’s most distinguished citizen, perhaps the most celebrated Native American in history: the linguist and diplomat, Sequoyah.1
The fifty-year-old dignitary did not disappoint. Wearing a long, dark blue robe and the traditional Cherokee turban, he seated himself by the fire and lit a pipe. “His air was altogether what we picture to ourselves of an old Greek philosopher,” Payne thought.2 Sequoyah was asked to recite some Cherokee legends, and Payne waited, quill in hand, to preserve his words for posterity. But the older man began speaking in his native language—he either did not know, or refused to speak, English—and Ross and a young interpreter present were so enraptured by his words that they failed to translate. “He talked and gesticulated very gracefully,” the author recalled afterward. “His voice alternately swelling,—and then sinking to a whisper,—and his eye firing up and then its wild flashes subsiding.” But Payne understood nothing. The next morning, when he asked Sequoyah to repeat the story so he could write it down, the older man refused—and his words have been forever lost.
The irony is that this anecdote so perfectly illustrates the fleeting nature of oral communication—and the degree to which Sequoyah’s invention, the Cherokee syllabary, revolutionized his tribe’s culture. In the 1820s, he became the only person to invent a form of writing without already knowing another one, or so it is believed.
The skill of language is so precious that philosophers since Aristotle have seen it as the dividing line between humans and animals. But valuable as it is, language evaporates the moment it is uttered—unless it can be preserved in written form. Countless civilizations have risen and fallen with only spoken languages, leaving few clues about their cultures. The Inca deserted Machu Picchu, for example, only a few decades after building it—but due to the lack of written language, no one knows why. The Sinagua peoples of ancient Arizona left behind the ruins of whole towns, but virtually nothing is known of them, or about what archaeologists call The Mississippi Culture, which thrived in an immense territory stretching from the Great Lakes to Florida as recently as the year 1500. Knowledge of these and other societies has been obliterated by time because they left no written record.Philosophers since Aristotle have seen language as the dividing line between humans and animals. But valuable as it is, language evaporates the moment it is uttered—unless it can be preserved in written form. Click To Tweet
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