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Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: Writing Systems

Q: Were Micmac, Cree, or other Amerindian writing systems invented by European missionaries?
A: Yes, but many Native Americans believe that they were based upon indigenous writing traditions. When European missionaries and linguists created writing systems for Native American tribes whose languages were traditionally unwritten, they created alphabets based on the European ones they were used to themselves. For a few tribes, they instead ended up using writing systems that are drastically different from European languages--pictographs in the case of Mi'kmaq, and a syllabary with rotating vowels in the case of Ojibway, Cree, Blackfoot, and Inuktitut. It's possible that those tribes just happened to have been visited by very creative, iconoclastic missionaries, but it's also possible that the missionaries were basing their writings at least partially on existing tribal designs or motifs (particularly the Micmac pictographs and the idea of rotating symbols in the Ojibway family of syllabaries.)

Q: What about Cherokee?
Scholars and most Cherokee believe the Tsalagi syllabary was invented by a Cherokee man named Sequoyah after he noticed Europeans communicating by writing. Some Indians think this syllabary predated European arrival, which is also possible, but the Cherokee do not have a strong tradition claiming so and their neighbors never remarked on this skill before that, so the likeliest thing is that the story of Sequoyah is true. Either way, the Cherokee syllabary was certainly not invented by missionaries.



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