Sequoyah Creates a New Language

by Tanya Travis

The Cherokee, pronounced "CHAIR-uh-kee", are a Native American tribe.  They originally lived in the American southeast region in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Sequoyah was born around 1770. No one knows the exact date.  He was born in the state of Tennessee.  His mother was Cherokee and his father was a white man who sold furs

Sequoyah learned many things from the Cherokee people growing up.  He learned to hunt, how to use plants and roots to help sick people, and how to make knives and jewelry from silver.

When he was a young man Sequoyah traded items he made, or furs from animals he trapped, with the white people.  He gave his items to these people and they gave him other items back. 

While he was trading he watched white people put marks on paper.  He learned that white people used marks to share their ideas.  We know these marks as letters and words.  The Cherokee people called the paper and its marks "talking leaves."

Sequoyah was a silversmith, a person who makes things with silver.  Sequoyah wanted to write his name on his work but did not know how to write English.  The Cherokee people had no way to write their language.

Sequoyah visited a farmer named Charles Hicks who taught him how to write his name in English.  Then Sequoyah had an idea.  He wanted to make a written language for Cherokee words.  Around 1809, Sequoyah started this important work.  He started to make symbols, or pictures, that stood for all the Cherokee words.

Sequoyah had to stop his work in 1812 because war had broken out in the country.  He went to fight in the War of 1812 for the United States.  He saw that American Indian soldiers could not read English and could not write letters home.  They also could not get letters from their families.  Sequoyah saw that his people needed a way to write their language.

After the war, Sequoyah went home, got married, and had a daughter.  Sequoyah continued to work on his written language for the Cherokee people.  He needed a lot of symbols.  There were too many Cherokee words!  Who would remember all these symbols?

After a fire Sequoyah lost all of his papers and had to start his work again.

One day, Sequoyah was walking through the woods with his daughter.  They listened to the birds singing in the forest and Sequoyah told his daughter when birds sing they talk to each other.  Every sound the birds made has meaning.  Suddenly, Sequoyah had a good idea.

Sequoyah knew that symbols could not show all the Cherokee words.  He needed thousands of symbols to show all of the Cherokee words!  In English, we have 26 letters.  We put the letters together to make different words.  Sequoyah didn't want to make a Cherokee alphabet.  He thought that it took people too long to learn words from an alphabet.   Could the sounds of the singing birds help Sequoyah write the Cherokee language?

Sequoyah decided to make symbols that stood for syllables in his language.  Each symbol stands for a group of sounds.  For example, the word frozen has six letters but only two syllables, fro- and -zen.  He could use two symbols to write those sounds.

To make his written language, he had to study all of the sounds in the Cherokee language.  Then he had to make symbols for every sound.  He had a long, hard job.

In 1821, Sequoyah finished his written language.  He had 85 symbols for the 85 sounds in the Cherokee language.  He taught the sounds to his daughter and she learned to read and write the Cherokee language.  Sequoyah helped other children learn the Cherokee language and they quickly learned how to use it.  They liked reading and writing in their own language.

Sequoyah was ready to show the leaders of his people his symbols.   At first, the leaders did not believe Sequoyah.  They thought he was tricking them.  Then Sequoyah told the chiefs to say the words to his daughter when he was not there.  The leaders said some words and she wrote the words down.  Then Sequoyah came back into the room and read the words. 

The Cherokee people learned to read and write their language in a short time.  Soon, many Cherokee could read and write.  They made books and started a newspaper.  The newspaper was called the Cherokee Phoenix.

Now the Cherokee people could send letters to each other and read important papers.  They could read laws and treaties. The Cherokee people got stronger.  Indian leaders gave Sequoyah a special medal for writing their language.  Sequoyah was the first person in history to create a written language alone.  The giant sequoia trees in California are named in his honor.  People will remember Sequoyah for his important gift to the Cherokee people. 

Learn more about Sequoyah at the link below:

Learn more about the Cherokee nation at the link below: