The development and adoption of Cherokee are two hugely impressive accomplishments. Chief Sequoyah, who was illiterate himself, single-handedly created a script for his language, and within eleven years, 90% of Cherokee were literate in their language. Stop and marvel about that for a minute.
Sequoyah was impressed by the white folks’ “talking leaves” and spent about twelve years coming up with a writing system. At first, he tried one glyph per word, but realized that would be a boatload of characters. He then tried a syllabary, and apparently worked hard at figuring out which sounds there were, enlisting friends to help him tease out fine distinctions.
He spent twelve years on the task, but the script was extremely well-done when he finished. Aside from some minor changes in the shapes of the glyphs to make it easier to use with a printing press, there have been almost no changes. Stop and marvel again, I can wait.
Sequoyah owned a Bible, which he was unable to read, but he derived many of the shapes of the letters from the shapes he saw there; in his 86 characters, about 20 have glyphs that look just like a Latin character. However, there is no correspondence between the meaning of the Latin letter and the similar Cherokee letter. The symbol that looks like Latin “A” is the syllable “go”; “B” is the syllable “yv”, and “4” is the syllable “se”. (The other characters tend to be curvier than Latin.)
Part of the immediate spread of literacy among the Cherokee was probably due to the technology for writing being readily available. Sumerian cuneiform would have spread much more quickly if paper, pencils, a postal service, and printing industry were available from the moment they developed writing. However, Sumerian cuneiform was very complicated and would have been very difficult to learn. Even if the Cherokees’ push for literacy was boosted by national pride, even given the technology availability, there is no way that they could have become so literate so quickly if Sequoyah had not done such a fine job developing his writing system.