Constructed writing systems

Let’s take a detour and time travel a bit— only about 200 years— to around 1809 in America. We’re going to go over some cool stories in linguistics.

The Cherokee Syllabary

Cherokee at the time had no writing system, like many languages today and throughout all of history. That was until a man named Sequoyah decided to invent one for it. After years of arduous experimentation, originally starting with a pictographic system, Sequoyah created on a syllabary of 85 characters. 

But that’s not the end of the story.

Sequoyah, along with his daughter, began to spread his writing system around the language community. The Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual national press, Christian texts and even laws were written in this syllabary. 

Literacy rates grew quite rapidly thanks to Sequoyah’s invention, and Sequoyah’s efforts have had a lasting impact on the Cherokee community even today. 

from Wikipedia user Kaldari
The original order of the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah. The character in red is now obsolete and does not exist in the modern language.


This event of a single person— Sequoyah in this instance— inventing a writing system is not singular. 367 years earlier in 1440, Sejong the Great created Hangul, the Korean writing system in use today. 

Koreans at the time used something called hanja, which was essentially a borrowing of Chinese characters. However, Korean and Chinese are very different languages, and this made using and learning hanja very difficult. Subsequently, the literacy rates at this time were not high. Some scholars would point out the fact that it is not in the interests of monarchs, kings and autocrats to educate the masses, and that King Sejong was frustrated by the systemic and widespread illiteracy in his kingdom.

As the story goes, Sejong employed a group of scholars who he called the Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeonjeon) to create a new alphabet part with emphasis on accessibility and the concept of duality (specifically vowel harmony and yin and yang).

This image is courtesy of the Bank of Korea. Please do not print.
Today, King Sejong is depicted on South Korea’s ₩10,000 banknote.

The project was a success: Sejong and his Hall of Worthies published and printed the Hunminjeongeum, literally “The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People.” Hangul remains an incredibly accessible writing system that remained mostly intact from its conception.





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