The Amazing Case of the Illiterate Man Who Created a Writing System to Prove Writing Wasn’t Magic

You are illiterate. You cannot write anything in any language. You speak a language – and only this language – that has never been written. You know writing exists, some nearby foreigners have it. However, most of your friends think it’s magic, witchcraft, and not the Good Witch kind. The bad, warty stuff. These foreigners are making leaves talk to them and that’s not safe for children or adults.

You think otherwise. You think it’s just a representation of language. But how are you going to convince your pals of this?

Naturally you decide to make a writing system for your language. You know, just to show ’em. Hey, you share a name with the tallest trees on Earth, so why not?

Sure, everything thinks you are crazy at the very least; a slacker who makes his wife tend the farm while you attempt what might be black magic in the back room.

You try the one symbol per word thing. A logography worked for the Egyptians. It works for the Chinese. (Never mind that you are not even aware these languages exist.)

Your wife burns your work for being witchcraft, so you lose a year or so of time.

Finally though, you give up on the logographic system. Too many symbols (tens of thousands!) are needed.  You imagined trying to get your pre-literate countrymen to learn that and came to your senses.

You try one symbol per sound, an alphabetic system. Hey, this works for the majority of the languages in the world that have writing systems including the one you’ve encountered, English. Of course you don’t know even that much, you crazy illiterate.

You decide that route is not going to work either though.

So, you try making a syllabary.

A dozen or so years after you started all this, you produce a syllabic writing system for Cherokee. (

Yeah, you, who has only seen a little writing, never wrote a thing, don’t even speak a written language, sat down and completely independently came up with ideas for and experimented with all three basic writing system for your language.

Sure, you might be a little crazy, but you are not a witch. You are most definitely as full of win as Lost Monarch doing something, as near as we can tell, no one’s done for thousands of years.

Now, how to convince folks you did it and that it’s not magic.

You teach your daughter and go on tour, but people are suspecting it’s a trick. Secret hand signals or prearranged stuff. So you ask for volunteers from the audience and teach them. That does the trick and no one had to learn black magic.

You not just showed your pals that whitey’s not making leaves talk, but you are set to show whitey that you are just a bunch of bumpkins. Your people can read and write their language, and you did yourselves. You aren’t standing on the backs of six thousand year dead Bronze age dudes (at least not beyond guessing that what they invented wasn’t leaf/clay/stone/whatever magic).

Your people start a newspaper, the first one by Native Americans and it’s still, after a hiatus, in production today.

Your language becomes so cool its word for email is lighting paper.

You have hit the big time. People make podcasts about you.


One response to “The Amazing Case of the Illiterate Man Who Created a Writing System to Prove Writing Wasn’t Magic

  1. What an interesting story, one I never heard until now (not surprising, seeing as how the culture I was raised in tends to minimize, dismiss and/or outright ignore the achievements of other cultures that don’t fit neatly into the current prevailing paradigm).

    I was born in Matinecoc territories (Huntington, Long Island, NY) and now live in Cherokee territories (Woodstock, Georgia). I try to never forget this.

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