In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond details the case for unequal development of societies for other-than-biological reasons. Beyond the big three factors the title implies, he details many other characteristics of an advancing society. I found the discussion of written language particularly interesting.

When seeking to define categories for the transfer of technology, there are three that typically emerge: blueprint copying, modification, and idea diffusion. Blueprint copying is as simple as bringing technology over in its complete form, as the name implies, and modification would be by beginning with some extant design, and modifiying it as desired or required. Idea diffusion is when a technology is observed, but recreating it is done from scratch. When the technology in question is written language, there’s no better illustration than the Cherokee’s development of script.

A striking example from the history of writing is the origin of the syllabary1 devised in Arkansas around 1820 by a Cherokee Indian named Sequoyah, for writing the Cherokee language. Sequoyah observed that white people made marks on paper, and that they derived great advantage by using those marks to record and repeat lengthy speeches. However, the detailed operations of those marks remained a mystery to him, since (like most Cherokees before 1820) Sequoyah was illiterate and could neither speak nor read English. Because he was a blacksmith, Sequoyah began by devising an accounting system to help him keep track of his customers’ debts. He drew a picture of each customer; then he drew circles and lines of various sizes to represent the amount of money owed.2

Around 1810, Sequoyah decided to go on to design a system for writing the Cherokee language. He again began by drawing pictures, but gave them up as too complicated and too artistically demanding. He next started to invent separate signs for each word, and again became dissatisfied when he had coined thousands of signs and still needed more.3

Finally, Sequoyah realized that words were made up of modest numbers of different sound bites that recurred in many different words—what we would call syllables. He initially devised 200 syllabic signs and gradually reduced them to 85, most of them for combinations of one consonant and one vowel.4

As one source of the signs themselves, Sequoyah practiced copying the letters from an English spelling book given to him by a schoolteacher. About two dozen of his Cherokee syllabic signs were taken directly from those letters, though of course with completely changed meanings, since Sequoyah did not know the English meanings…Sequoyah’s syllabary is widely admired by professional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had Sequoyah’s signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers.5

From a modern perspective, it’s tempting to believe ancient societies were filled with credulous dullards, but Sequoyah’s accomplishment was amazing, in this generation or his own. It’s foolish to assume we have an intellectual superiority now. We start out with so many first-order combinations already made, putting a lot of innovations in our adjacent possible.

  1. A syllabary is a written system represents a syllable with a written sign. The other two major methods use a sign to capture a whole word or a single basic sound. The English alphabet is an example of the latter, and it is the most common system worldwide. Kindle link ↩︎

  2. Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 2011. Kindle link ↩︎

  3. Kindle link ↩︎

  4. Kindle link ↩︎

  5. Kindle link ↩︎