Excerpt from "The Chickasaw nation : a short sketch of a noble people (1922)"   by James H. Malone  (Sequoyah - page 358)
California Digital Library

Inventing the Syllabic Alphabet

About the year 1809, without knowing any language except that of the Cherokee, and never having gone to school a day in his life, and, of course, without any education whatever, or any knowledge of the arts of the white man, he set to work to invent an alphabet for the Cherokees, and, retiring to the woods, and listening to all sounds, and comparing them with the words of the Cherokee language, after twelve years he put forth, in 1821, his alphabet, consisting of eighty-five characters.

In the meantime he was ridiculed and laughed at; but nothing could dampen his ardor or check his labors. Not only many of his Indian friends, but the agents of the United States government residing among the Cherokees believed that his mind was affected, being unable to comprehend the nature of his labors.

The first plan of Sequoyah was recognizing sounds in nature which corresponded to tones in the Cherokee language, and then to represent this sound by drawing a picture of some natural object which made the sound; but he found that these pictures and characters so multiplied that no one could remember them, and after long labors along these lines, in which he had the assistance of his wife and children, he was finally compelled to abandon the plan.

The philosophy underlying the final plan upon which Sequoyah created his syllabic alphabet was to have one letter to represent each and every sound the human throat can utter. One letter would represent in this way parts of different words, with the result that the number of characters would be comparatively small.

Foster (p. 102) quotes Phillips in Harpers Magazine of September, 1870, as explaining more in detail the principles upon which the alphabet was constructed as follows: " Sequoyah discovered that the language possessed certain musical sounds, such as we call vowels, and dividing sounds, called by us consonants. In determining his vowels he varied, during the progress of discoveries, but finally settled on the six, a, e, i, o, u, and a guttural vowel sounding like « in ung. These had long and short sounds, with the exception of the guttural. He next considered his consonants, or dividing sounds, and estimated the number of combinations of these that would give all the sounds required to make words in their language. He first adopted fifteen for the dividing sounds, but settled on twelve primary, the g and k being one and sounding more like k than g, and d like t. These may be represented in English as g, h, I, m, n, qu, t, dl or //, ts, w, y, z. It will be seen that if these twelve be multiplied by six vowels, the number of possible combinations or syllables would be seventy-two, and by adding the vowel sounds which may be syllables, the number would be seventy-eight. However, the guttural M, or sound of u in ung, does not appear among the combinations, making seventy- seven. "

Still his work was not complete. The hissing sound of s entered into the ramification of so many sounds, as in sta, stu, spa, spe, that it would have required a large addition to his alphabet to meet this demand. This he simplified by using a distinct character for the s (oo) to be used in such combinations. To provide for the varying sounds g and k, he added a symbol, which has been written in English ka. As the syllable na is liable to be aspirated, he added symbols written nah and kna. To have distinct representatives for the combinations rising out of the different sounds of d and t, he added symbols for ta, te, ti and another for dla, thus tla. These completed the eighty-five characters of his alphabet of syllables and not of letters."

At the time Sequoyah completed his alphabet, he was living in a log cabin in Georgia in comparative poverty; and as he had spent so many years in working out his theory in poverty, the general opinion was that he was at least partially demented; hence he was unable to convince any one of the practical utility of his marvelous alphabet.