Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cherokee and Jurchen numerals

From Stephen Chrisomalis' tribute to the late linguistic anthropologist
Willard Walker:

"Over the years I've been asked numerous times to name my favourite
numerical notation system. At first I thought that was just a bizarre
question, but then, I figure that people in film studies must get
asked what their favourite movies are all the time, and that people
are just looking for a way into my subject area, a hook, if you will.
So for the past couple of years, I've told them about the Cherokee
numerals. My story here, which is one that Walker touched on only
briefly, is that where the Cherokee syllabary thrived (and continues
to thrive today), the numerals that Sequoyah developed were never
accepted. While the syllabary is well-suited for writing the Tsalagi
(Cherokee) language, the Western numerals sufficed for writing
numbers, so the Cherokee council voted not to adopt them. They survive
only in two documents in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the
only evidence we have for the creation of an indigenous North American
numerical notation. Unfortunately, none of the standard texts on
numerical notation currently published (ahem) mention them.

The other really neat thing about the Cherokee numerals is that they
display a remarkable structural resemblance to the system of numerals
used by the Jurchin of northeastern China, who developed a script in
the 12th century, and who were later known (famously) as the Manchu
when they ruled China. If you follow that link you see that the
Jurchin system has special signs for 1-19, then every decade from
20-90, then signs for the higher powers of 10. There is no possibility
that Sequoyah knew of this system – really, no one in the Western
world did until the 1890s – but the Cherokee system parallels it in
nearly every detail – although of course the signs are entirely
different. If I were to make the case for cognitive constraints
interacting with cultural and linguistic variability to produce
remarkable and unexpected parallels, this would be a good example.
Theoretically, then, the Cherokee numerals are extremely important
even though no one actually used them, as far as we can tell."

The rest of this obituary can be read here.

Incidentally, I've never seen Jurchen spelled Jurchin.