Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Cherokee and Vai

I have been reading Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script by Konrad Tuchscherer, History in Africa 29, 2002. As the title suggests this article examines the many references to a connection between the Cherokee and Vai scripts and makes additional evidence available. As Tuchscherer explains, this story has been mentioned before but he provides further evidence.

While it is accepted that the Vai syllabary was invented by Momolu Duwalu Bukele and other elders, without the known direct involvement of any missionary or outsider, the similarity in the structure of the Vai and Cherokee syllabaries has suggested a link between the two. There are variations of this account but all agree that the Vai syllabary had an indigenous Vai origin around 1830-34.

Tuchscherer recounts the details of a certain Cherokee Indian, Austin Curtis, who emigrated from the United States to Liberia in 1823, two years after the invention of the Cherokee syllabary in 1821. He settled in Vai country in 1829, three years before the accepted date for the first appearance of the Vai syllabary in 1832.

This discussion concerns not the forms of the individual letters, which may be attributed to ancient ideographs, but the possible transference of the notion of a syllabary. However, Tuchscherer also puts forward the consideration that missionaries in the 1830's were experimenting with syllabaries, based on the recognized success of the Cherokee syllabary.

He has reproduced this passage from an article called "Cherokee Alphabet" by Samuel Worcester, Cherokee Phoenix (21 February, 1828).

"The circumstances of the alphabet being syllabic, and the number of syllables so small, is the greatest reason why the task of learning to read the Cherokee language is so vastly easier than that of learning to read English. When an English scholar recollects the tedious months occupied in his spelling-book, he regards it as a matter of astonishment, and nearly incredible, that an active Cherokee boy may learn to read his own language in a day, and that not more than two or three days is ordinarily requisite. ...

When an English child has learned the names of his letters, he has but just begun learning to read.- The main thing is to learn the combinations of sounds; unless, indeed, it be a still more difficult task, to divest himself of the idea that he must pronounce the name of each successive letter in order to read. If, for an illustration, ba, were to be pronounced be-a, he would soon learn. But after once learning to pronounce the letter be, then to detach from the consonant sound that of the vowel e, and attach to it that of a in one instance, i in another, and so on, and in the same manner to learn a thousand other, and some of them extremely complicated combinations, is a task indeed.

But the Cherokee boy has not a single combination to learn, except that of s with a succeeding consonant; and the name of each character is the syllable which it represents. To read is only to repeat successively the names of the several letters, When, therefore, he has learned two characters, he can read a word composed of those two; when he has learned three, he can read any wor written with those three, and when he has learned his alphabet, he can read his language. I say he can read, not perfectly, but he can spell out the meaning, and by practice, may become perfect."

Certainly it is recognized that the success of the Cherokee syllabary was an influence on James Evans in his choice of a syllabary as a type of writing system for Cree, even if not for the forms of his system. Is it worth considering whether the Cherokee syllabary was also an influence on the invention of the Vai syllabary? Others have argued that a syllabary is always the first candidate for an invented script - no direct influence is needed.


Blogger Aria Gia Ya'ari said...

Could you please post the ISBN Number for "Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script" by Konrad Tuchscherer? Thank you! I just discovered these cultural connections between Cherokees and Africans in modern times. I find this very interesting in addition to the fact that West Africans, Asians and Natives exchanged cultures centuries ago!

- Aria*

1:06 PM  

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