Monday, November 14, 2011

What Does Kemal Ataturk Have To Do With Sequoyah?

I’m sure you recognize the name Sequoyah… he created the writing system that allowed a great body of Cherokee knowledge and history to be committed to paper, and to survive for future generations.

You may not recognize Mustafa Kemal Ataurk, the father of the modern republic of Turkey. Each, in his own way, is responsible for the literacy of his people, but through almost opposite means.

Seeing the advantage that written communication gave the US military during the 1813-14 Creek War, Sequoyah set about creating a writing system for Cherokee. With an exceptionally sharp ear, he identified the separate sounds of the language, and created 144 characters, 85 of which are used today. For those who spoke Cherokee, it was a simple matter of listening to the syllables and memorizing the characters. Osiyo is spelled o-si-yo.

Kemal Ataturk, on the other hand, grew up surrounded by literacy. A career military officer, he came to lead Turkey from empire to republic, and realized that democracy required education and literacy. He decided that Turkey’s future would be better linked to Europe than to Asia, and remade his country accordingly. While Turkish had been written and printed for centuries with the beautiful but complex Arabic script, he required it to be written with a modified Latin alphabet, as used in all the major European powers except Russia. At the same time, he began a campaign of mandatory public education, including girls, and a literacy program.

Both men succeeded in bringing widespread literacy in a short time. Sequoyah’s was to create a distinct and separate written language to accommodate what he foresaw as the separation of the Cherokee people AWAY from American society. Ataturk sought to integrate his people INTO Europe by creating a system that would not only make Turks literate in their own language, but would lower the barriers to Europeans learning Turkish and doing business with the next republic.

In my years of learning and teaching the language, I’ve come to see Sequoyah’s syllabary as a shining example of the unique Cherokee identity. Like Russian or Korean, it’s immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen it. “Don’t know what it says, but I know it’s Cherokee, and it means we're still here!” Unfortunately, for most students, it becomes an obstacle rather than an aid. many are sidetracked into learning the syllabary, only to realize that they still can’t speak very much. The real way we learn languages is by hearing them over and over. Later, after we already speak as much as we speak of a language, learning to write is comparatively easy.

The Speak Cherokee language course is audio and video based for that reason. Spoken words are matched with images. Listen again and again. It is not another wordlist or set of written lessons. On the web pages of Speak Cherokee, you will find very little syllabary. However, It is being made available in PDF form as a back-up for those who want to learn syllabary as well, because different people prefer different learning styles.

Psychologically, there is no longer “foreign” script acting as a deterrent or roadblock.

Time will tell whether this approach is more efficient, but the initial response has been positive.

Brian Wilkes

PS: Native American History Month Special - save $140 on a full year of Speak Cherokee!