CCR 633: The Cherokee Syllabary and Writing Technologies

If I could summarize my main takeaway from Ellen Cushman’s Cherokee Syllabary, it would be the way it showcases–through a particular case study–how people, technology, language, and writing interact with one another and the values or worldviews of  a given context. Tracing the formation of the writing  system as a written syllabary, to typefaces, to unicode and other digital materialities, the linguistic history also aligns with nation forming through newspapers and other technological, rhetorical interventions.

Similar to other readings, Cushman’s Cherokee Syllabary shows how language doesn’t inhabit a vacuum. Like Rickert’s contention, Sequoyan and the Cherokee language feels somewhat ambient, fitting into a broader context of identity and material. As Cushman writes, describing digital teaching materials, “Students hear, see, and experience the Cherokee language and writing system as complimentary and mutually sustaining. The also learn something of the Cherokee worldview implicit in each word and phrase written in the language” (215).

And objects do play a potentially political role. For example, the question of the keyboard shows one of the material implications imposed by objects. Trying to map the syllabary on a keyboard has proven difficult. For example, in one approach, a converter from English transliterations into syllabary characters allows one to avoid having to make a Sequoyan keyboard, but retains the alphabetic lens of English.

In another approach, “The Cherokee syllabary was mapped onto the QWERTY keyboard in ways that divorced it from the instrumental and visual qualities that may have made it so learnable in the first place” (211).  This helps English speakers but also distances the language from its original system, as it removes the mnemonic  qualities of the characters and associations and Sequoya’s original.

Even the question of font or unicode became significant, as programs couldn’t read the graphics of the font unless they had it downloaded, while unicode has proven to be a more flexible materiality to move the once-written syllabary into the digital.

At the more political and social levels, the syllabary became an important force for national identity under the Cherokee Phoenix, even as it was speaking toward an audience that included non-natives. And later, in the 1840s, the Cherokee Nation bought its own printing materials “to be a mouthpiece for the nation, in no uncertain terms” (139). The production and circulation of texts, itself material, tied itself to the political, cultural climate of the Cherokee nation, while at more localized levels the syllabary informed both daily tasks and the recording of events.

And when the political, cultural climate became dismantled under the Dawes act, closing this centralized printer, the syllabary helped shape “the terms of existence and resistance in the face of national policies and missionary practices” (153). It also persisted, at an “inconspicuous” level afterward in the daily lives of its citizens (167). But, as Cushman writes, “The children raised in Cherokee-speaking households had increasingly felt the ways in which the white publics stigmatized the Cherokee language” (176).  And elders, who may have spoken the language, likely downplayed their fluency due to the stigma.

In this way, in order to each the language, people had to change the larger systems and stigmas associated with the language. Teaching a system of writing wasn’t enough. One also had to structure the social and political, the perceptual and the material. As Cushman notes, “The Cherokee Nation Bilingual Education program began providing materials and opportunities and stressing positives values attached to the Cherokee language” (181). And in turn, “This positive valuation of Cherokee also contributed to the development of new technologies and educational resources” (181).

Thus, the social, political, material, linguistic–the human and the nonhuman–all played a role in the larger literacy narrative of the syllabary, its users, and its avenues of circulation. While this could connect to other readings, I’m drawn to one of Cushman’s early quotes:

An indigenous epistemology provides the necessary posture toward an ideal object to reveal its meaningful properties: its structure, place, and particular elements. Technologies were used in ways that honored the relationship of living things to each other, so a writing system, as a tool, would have to represent a holistic understanding of the world, our relationships to it, and our relationships to each other.

I’m not quite sure how to integrate this epistemology and narrative into some of the other claims from the readings, except in the rather general claim that writing as technology and technologies of writing bring in and require a whole lot more than a semiotic system.

I think Ong has some insight in the way he ascribes the potential “distance” that writing allows, particularly as it can capture, store, and reproduce speech. And I could see how this characterizes how we think, particularly in how we present thinking or do thinking in material ways. For example, I love how Medieval scripts are highly intertexual, drawing from swaths of texts to convey authority. This would be hard to do without writing, just as large databases would be hard to do without computation.

Returning to Langdon Winner, however, I think it’s important to distinguish between the proclivities and possibilities created by technology and determinism: “It is still true that, in a world in which human beings make and maintain artificial systems, nothing is ‘required’ in an absolute sense. Nevertheless, once a course of action is underway . . . the kinds of reasoning that justify the adaptation of social life to technical requirements pop up as spontaneously as flowers in the spring” (134).  Technologies, including writing, influence our habitus, permeating our worldview, societies, and actions. Schmandt-Besserat, for example, showcases the alignment of writing and bureaucracy. Or, in his case study, Rickert highlight’s the socio-material systems linked with the technology of cars.

But it is never just technology. Or just social. Or just linguistic. Or just material. It’s some messy emergence, some entangled complexity, that is both chronotopic and Platonic, I feel. Conceptual and material, enacted in the rhetorical, with the rhetorical dependent on the conceptual and material in turn. But this is still something I’m thinking through.


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