Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Really exciting philology: Cherokee alphabet

The NYT's Science Times can go weeks without anything very interesting for linguists and then have a few pieces at once. I was happy to see the piece yesterday on human audition, with some attention to the role that hearing may have played in the evolution of language. It's actually far more important for linguistics, as the comments from Shihab Shamma reflect. (Yes, you need to read the piece.)

But I was pleased to see a big piece on the history of the Cherokee alphabet, by John Noble Wilford. The story has been out for a while (if not in the big media that I know of) about the discovery of remarkably old carvings in a cave in Kentucky in the syllabary developed by Sequoyah for Cherokee. The best thing about the article is the on-line image by Fred Coy and Andras Nagy.

The real news is that there's a date with the carving that reads either '1808' or '1818'. Some sources, like Campbell's Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets, give a date of 1819-1820 for the script's invention, so that's been pushed back. Particularly exciting of course is the possibility that Sequoyah himself wrote this and the article lays out his connections to the area, to visiting caves while working on the syllabary, etc.

Here's a really intriguing comment from the archaeologist who made the discovery, Kenneth B. Tankersley:
He said that he was investigating possible links between the traditional glyphs and a few of the symbols in Sequoyah’s script. If a link can be established, he added, the inscription may be “our Rosetta stone, enabling us to see where prehistory meets history.”
Now, there's some exciting philology.


Ben said...


Anonymous said...

OK, I know that we immigrants should be learning the local language(s), but any help on this for those of us who haven't made progress yet?

Ben said...

Oh, sure thing!
udohiyudi - "really/truly"
usquanik(a)ti - "interesting"
digoweli - "paper/book" (here used to mean "article"

Also, here's a link to a handwritten version of the syllabary:

I thought it might be interesting to compare the handwritten version with the carvings. It looks like by the time of the carvings, he's leaning toward the print ligatures rather than the steel-nib-generated glyphs.

Anonymous said...

TWO really interesting articles. Thanks for pointing out both of them.