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- Se-quo-yah - 2/3 -


Before he reached his thirty-fifth year he became addicted to convivial habits to an extent that injured his business, and began to cripple his resources. Unlike most of his race, however, he did not become wildly excited when under the influence of liquor.

Se-quo-yah, who never saw his father, and never could utter a word of the German tongue, still carried, deep in his nature, an odd compound of Indian and German transcendentalism; essentially Indian in opinion and prejudice, but German in instinct and thought. A little liquor only mellowed him--it thawed away the last remnant of Indian reticence. He talked with his associates upon all the knotty questions of law, art, and religion. Indian Theism and Pantheism were measured against the Gospel as taught by the land-seeking, fur-buying adventurers. A good class of missionaries had, indeed, entered the Cherokee Nation; but the shrewd Se-quo-yah, and the disciples this stoic taught among his mountains, had just sense enough to weigh the good and the bad together, and strike an impartial balance as the footing up for this new proselyting race.

It has been erroneously alleged that Se-quo-yah was a believer in, or practiced, the old Indian religious rites. Christianity had, indeed, done little more for him than to unsettle the pagan idea, but it had done that.

It was some years after Se-quo-yah had learned to present the bottle to his friends before he degenerated into a toper. His natural industry shielded him, and would have saved him altogether but for the vicious hospitality by which he was surrounded. With the acuteness that came of his foreign stock, he learned to buy his liquor by the keg. This species of economy is as dangerous to the red as to the white race. The auditors who flocked to see and hear him were not likely to diminish while the philosopher furnished both the dogmas and the whisky. Long and deep debauches were often the consequence. Still it was not in the nature of George Gist to be a wild, shouting drunkard. His mild, philosophic face was kindled to deeper thought and warmer enthusiasm as they talked about the problem of their race. All the great social questions were closely analyzed by men who were fast becoming insensible to them. When he was too far gone to play the mild, sedate philosopher, he began that monotonous singing whose music carried him back to the days when the shadow of the white man never darkened the forests, and the Indian canoe alone rippled the tranquil waters.

Should this man be thus lost? He was aroused to his danger by the relative to whom he owed so much. His temper was eminently philosophic. He was, as he proved, capable of great effort and great endurance. By an effort which few red or white men can or do make, he shook off the habit, and his old nerve and old prosperity came back to him. It was during the first few years of this century that he applied to Charles Hicks, a half-breed, afterward principal chief of the nation, to write his English name. Hicks, although educated after a fashion, made a mistake in a very natural way. The real name of Se-quo-yah's father was George Gist. It is now written by the family as it has long been pronounced in the tribe when his English name is used--"Guest." Hicks, remembering a word that sounded like it, wrote it--George Guess. It was a "rough guess," but answered the purpose. The silversmith was as ignorant of English as he was of any written language. Being a fine workman, he made a steel die, a facsimile of the name written by Hicks. With this he put his "trade mark" on his silver-ware, and it is borne to this day on many of these ancient pieces in the Cherokee nation.

Between 1809 and 1821, which latter was his fifty-second year, the great work of his life was accomplished. The die, which was cut before the former date, probably turned his active mind in the proper direction. Schools and missions were being established. The power by which the white man could talk on paper had been carefully noted and wondered at by many savages, and was far too important a matter to have been overlooked by such a man as Se- quo-yah. The rude hieroglyphics or pictoriographs of the Indians were essentially different from all written language. These were rude representations of events, the symbols being chiefly the totemic devices of the tribes. A few general signs for war, death, travel, or other common incidents, and strokes for numerals, represented days or events as they were perpendicular or horizontal. Even the wampum belts were little more than helps to memory, for while they undoubtedly tied up the knots for years, like the ancient inhabitants of China and Japan, still the meagre record could only be read by the initiated, for the Indians only intrusted their history and religion to their best and ablest men. The general theory with many Indians was, that the written speech of the white man was one of the mysterious gifts of the Great Spirit. Se-quo-yah boldly avowed it to be a mere ingenious contrivance that the red man could master, if he would try.

Repeated discussion on this point at length fully turned his thoughts in this new channel. He seems to have disdained the acquirement of the English language. Perhaps he suspected first what he was bound to know before he completed his task, that the Cherokee language has certain necessities and peculiarities of its own. It is almost impossible to write Indian words and names correctly in English. The English alphabet has not capacity for its expression. If ten white men sat down to write the word an Indian uttered, the probabilities are that one half of them would write them differently from the other half. It is this which has led to such endless confusion in Indian dictionaries. For instance, we write the word for the tribe Cherokee, and the letter R, or its sound, is scarcely used in their language. Today a Cherokee always pronounces it Chalaque, the pronunciation being between that and Shalakke. On these peculiarities it is not the purpose of this article to enter, but hasten to George Gist, brooding over a written language for his people.

His first essay was natural enough. He tried to invent symbols to represent words. These he sometimes cut out of bark with his knife, but generally wrote, or rather drew. With these symbols he would carry on a conversation with a person in another apartment. As may be supposed, his symbols multiplied fearfully and wonderfully. The Indian languages are rich in their creative power. By using pieces of well-known words that contain the prominent idea, double or compound words are freely made. This has been called by writers treating this subject, the polysynthetic. It is, in fact, a jumbling of sentences into words, by abbreviation, the omitted parts of words being implied or understood. There is one important fact which I will merely note here that is generally overlooked. These compounded words, to a large extent, represent the intrusive or European idea. The names the Indians gave many of the European things were mere DEFINITIONS. Such as "Big Knives," etc. Occasionally they made a dash at the French or English sounds, as in the word "Yengees" for English, which has finally been corrupted in our language to Yankees.

Of course an attempt at fixed symbols for words was an unhappy experiment in a language one prominent element of which is, the facility of making words out of pieces of words, or compounded words. Besides this difficulty, no language can be taught successfully by means of a dictionary, until the human memory acquires more power. Three years of hopeless struggle with the mighty debris of his symbols left him, although in the main reticent, a mighty man of words. But his labors were not lost. Through that heroic, unaided struggle he gained the first true glimpses into the elements of language. It is a startling fact, that an uneducated man, of a race we are pleased to call barbarians, attained in a few years, without books or tutors, what was developed through several ages of Phoenician, Egyptian, and Greek wisdom.

Se-quo-yah discovered that the language possessed certain musical sounds, such as we call vowels, and dividing sounds, styled by us consonants. In determining his vowels he varied during the progress of his discoveries, but finally settled on the six--A, E, I, O, U, and a guttural vowel sounding like U in UNG.

These had long and short sounds, with the exception of the guttural. He next considered his consonant, or dividing sounds, and estimated the number of combinations of these that would give all the sounds required to make words in their language. He first adopted fifteen for the dividing sounds, but settled on twelve primary, the G and K being one, and sounding more like K than G, and D like T. These may be represented in English as G, H, L, M, N, QU, T, DL or TL, TS, W, Y, Z.

It will be seen that if these twelve be multiplied by the six vowels, the number of possible combinations or syllables would be seventy-two, and by adding the vowel sounds, which maybe syllables, the number would be seventy-eight. However, the guttural V, or sound of U in UNG, does not appear as among the combinations, which make seventy-seven.

Still his work was not complete. The hissing sound of S entered into the ramifications of so many sounds, as in STA, STU, SPA, SPE, that it would have required a large addition to his alphabet to meet this demand. This he simplified by using a distinct character for the S (OO), to be used in such combinations. To provide for the varying sound G, K, he added a symbol which has been written in English KA. As the syllable NA is liable to be aspirated, he added symbols written NAH, and KNA. To have distinct representatives for the combinations rising out of the different sounds of D and T, he added symbols for TA, TE, TI, and another for DLA, thus TLA. These completed the eighty-five characters of his alphabet, which was thus an alphabet of syllables, and not of letters.

It was a subject of astonishment to scientific men that a language so copious only embraced eighty-five syllables. This is chiefly accounted for by the fact that every Cherokee syllable ends in a vocal or nasal sound, and that there are no double consonants but those provided for the TL or DL, and TS, and combinations of the hissing S, with a few consonants.

The fact is, that many of our combinations of consonants in the English written language are artificial, and worse than worthless. To indicate by a familiar illustration the syllabic character of the alphabet of Se-quo-yah, I will take the name of William H. Seward, which was appended to the Emancipation Proclamation of Mr. Lincoln, printed in Cherokee. It was written thus: "O [wi] P[li] 4 [se] G [wa] 6 [te]," and might be anglicized Will Sewate. As has been observed, there is no R in the Cherokee language, written or spoken, and as for the middle initial of Mr. Seward's name, H., there being, of course, no initial in a syllabic alphabet, the translator, who probably did not know what it stood for, was compelled to omit it. It was in the year 1821 that the American Cadmus completed his alphabet.

Se-quo-yah - 2/3

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