Sequoyah and the Almost-Forgotten History of Cherokee Numerals

By 1828, Sequoyah was at the peak of his renown. His syllabary had been accepted by the Cherokee National Council at its national capital in New Echota, Georgia, in 1825. The laws of the Cherokee nation were printed using the syllabary in 1826, while the bilingual, biscriptal newspaper the Cherokee Phoenix began printing in 1828 in New Echota using a newly designed typeface. In that same year, Sequoyah traveled to Washington as part of a delegation to advocate against the removal of those Cherokee still living east of the Mississippi to the Indian Territory (now eastern Oklahoma), an effort that would ultimately prove unsuccessful in light of President Andrew Jackson’s policies against Native Americans.

By this time, Sequoyah was becoming widely recognized by the American intelligentsia for his invention of the Cherokee script, the first and at the time only indigenously invented script for any people north of Mexico, but also as a public, American intellectual whose accomplishments demonstrated that Europe had no monopoly on inventive genius. This counternarrative to the myth of the indigenous primitive was never predominant, but at times, when Euro-Americans saw their interests in terms of distinguishing themselves from Europe, some might coopt Native American accomplishments by claiming them as generically American.

Shortly after his return from Washington, Sequoyah presented this next invention to the Cherokee National Council: a set of numeral signs. Unlike the Hindu-Arabic, or Western numerals 0123456789, Sequoyah’s numerals had principally a ciphered-additive structure. That is, instead of place value and a zero, there are separate signs for each decade and unit, which combine together, so that 67 would be the sign for 60 followed by 7, rather than 6 followed by 7 as in Western numerals. Beyond 100, the system became multiplicative-additive — instead of developing nine new signs for 100 through 900, Sequoyah invented only one, which combined with the signs for 1 through 19.

Read More: The MIT Press Reader

‘Anumeric’ people: What happens when a language has no words for numbers?

Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.”

In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem.

But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.

Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.

Read more: The Conversation

How number words may have changed us from zeroes to heroes

Imagine a world without numbers. Time and space would lose their meaning: telling time and counting the passing days, months and years would become impossible. Our ability to use numbers is essential for functioning in our quotidian here and now, from scheduling meetings to reading timetables and paying for groceries at the supermarket.

But in a fascinating new book, Numbers and the Making of Us, linguistic anthropologist Caleb Everett argues that number is a recent cultural invention, deeply tied to our linguistic smarts. Moreover, he likens it to a “flint stone that ignited the human timeline”. Not only does number make it possible to perceive quantities in the world, it has, he claims, “led to the advent of agriculture and writing, and indirectly to the technologies that flowed from the latter two”.

While on the face of it this is bold, heady stuff, the claim seems counterintuitive. After all, numbers are all around us. An octopus has eight legs, while you and I have two. Surely, that’s just an objective fact? And language reflects the reality of numbered quantities. We have a broad array of words for numbers: I can count from zero to 10, and beyond, using number words, and there are other quantifiers such as “few”, “several”, “many”, “a couple”, and so on. Moreover, the grammatical system of English is numerical through and through, with plural words like “coats” denoting a distinction between one versus more than one.

English is by no means unusual, with other languages making more sophisticated grammatical distinctions. In the Austronesian language Moluccan, for example, there is a grammatical tier intermediate between one and more than one: a so-called “trial” category denoting exactly three items.

But there are enough languages that lack number. These range from unrelated spoken languages, such as Pirahã and Mundurukú – both indigenous to different remote parts of Amazonia – to non-spoken languages, such as Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Read more: New Scientist

Concepts of numbers in Indigenous Australian languages changed over time

While English speakers may talk of infinite possibilities, ancient Australian Aboriginal languages very rarely stretched past number five.

However, a study published today shows that far from being simple, Aboriginal numeral systems “lost and gained” numbers over time.

The study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests ancient Australian languages were not “static” as commonly believed and instead responded to the need to create new words.

Read more: ABC Science