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_A is For American_, Jill Lepore

Subtitle: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States_

An odd but interesting little book, telling of 7 19th century people involved in spelling, alphabets, sign language, deaf instruction, or telecommunications. Many of them shockingly nativist, for all their brilliance.

* Noah Webster, who wanted to create an American language distinct from English, wanted the US free of European influences, created a ubiquitous spelling book, and a failure of phonetic spelling reform.

Lepore also mentions that in the 1790 census the US had 3.9 million people: 3.1m whites, 60,000 free blacks, 700,000 slaves, making slaves 18% of the population. If we assume slave stats were half the white population, slaves would be 31% of that part of the country. I think they were over half the population of some states. Not news, but still shocking. (Relatedly, Jim Crow laws were possibly not a suppression of minority rights, but of *majority* rights, by a terror-wielding minority.)

* William Thornton, who tried to create a universal alphabet -- one system for writing down all languages, or all possible languages, a la the IPA -- out of universalist dreams, including teaching freed slaves to read and write before they were resettled in Africa and being able to write down the languages of Africans. He also designed the Capitol rotunda and became commissioner of the new D.C.

* Sequoyah, aka George Guess, who invented the Cherokee syllabary. Sequoyah didn't know English, or any other writing system; he just knew that whites recorded language somehow, and disbelieved that it was magic. He ended up recapitulating much of the history of writing himself between 1809 and 1821: pictographs! no, those are too limited. ideographs! no, those are too many. syllabary! yes!

Many whites were critical because he hadn't advanced to the final stage of civilization, an alphabet, with the least number of signs needed, but while they were carping, the Cherokee were learning to read and write quickly and in huge numbers. It was said that they could learn it in a day or three, and that by 1838 75% were literate. Missionaries had been working on schemes to write Cherokee, but gave up when they heard of Sequoyah's success.

Sequoyah himself seems to have been rather separatist, and perhaps fatalist about white triumph; sticking to traditional garb, helping sign land away, moving west ahead of not being given a choice in the matter.

I note this incident supports my belief that the alphabet is the result of a freak accident.

* Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who popularized sign language for the deaf in the US, thought it was a universal language shared by all deaf people, and gave speeches about the deaf being a "foreign people" within the US in need of missionizing just like any other heathen race.

John Flournoy proposed a deaf-only state somewhere in the west, for more thorough separation, and to create a state where the deaf could participate in politics beyond voting, as a signing deaf politician was fatally handicapped by his condition. What to do with the hearing children of deaf parents (i.e. most of them) wasn't answered.

* Abd al-Rahman, a Muslim chief's son or prince from modern Guinea, who was taken as a slave, and some 40 years later was freed due to the luck of meeting someone from his childhood, and his ability to write Arabic which upset ideas of savage blacks and played on ideas of north Africans or Moors being a superior race to blacks. His owner freed him on the condition of his leaving the country immediately, but instead he stayed, trying to raise funds to buy his wife, children, and grandchildren from slavery. The chapter talks about the link between literacy and emancipation for other slaves, like Frederick Douglass, and Southern laws that forbade first teaching writing to slaves (lest they communicate and plan), and then even reading (not reading abolitionist literature being more important than reading the Bible.)

An endnote mentions Momulu Duwalu Bukele, an African Vai native of liberia, who invented a syllabary for his own people, also starting from illiteracy. As he did so in only two years, it's suspected he got an idea from American missionaries in Liberia, who included some Cherokees.

Which I just realized means that 1834 Liberia had Cherokees, making history a bit more diverse than I envisioned.

* Samuel Morse, who'd been a decent painter but far ahead of the tastes of early America, which went in only for portraits (like one he did of Noah Webster) and not for his "Gallery of the Louvre", a large canvas of miniatures of paintings which he'd hoped would spark American art. Discouraged, he invented the code he's famous for, which made the electric telegraph usable. He was also paranoid about European influence and a staunch defender of slavery, though also opposed secession. He ended up marrying a deaf woman -- him 57, her 26 -- feeling that she'd be pleasingly dependent and grateful for the marriage. He never learned to sign, I guess they communicated by writing.

(I feel it worth noting that the still widespread aristocracy of Europe, and serfdom only recently abolished or not at all (Russia), may put a different cast on anti-European fears and prejudices in the young republic than we're used to considering. Of course there was also anti-Catholic prejudice as well, but they were also closer to religious wars and politically powerful Catholicism.)

* Alexander Graham Bell, whose father invented "Visible Speech", another attempt at a universal phonetic alphabet, this one based on symbol-pictures for the shape of the mouth. Bell pushed it all his life, more out of a concern for the education of the deaf; early on he approved of sign language, but later feared that that led to deaf-deaf marriages, and the creation of a separate deaf race, which had to be prevented; he was an early Darwinist and of course eugenicist, later concerned about race suicide due to immigration. Bell pere pitched his alphabet as a tool for the British empire, unlike Thornton's Enlightenment universalism: a universal alphabet would make it easier to administer the empire and run the telegraphs, despite the various languages. Bell himself invented devices for teaching the deaf to speak -- they couldn't hear their own sounds, but they could try to make their waveforms match a training set, like early biofeedback -- and then the telephone, which he viewed as less important than deaf education. His deaf wife (former student; age 17 vs. 28 at engagement) disagreed. Unlike many inventors, he got rich anyway. (So did Morse from the telegraph.)

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/365235.html#comments


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 22nd, 2013 05:28 am (UTC)
Was there anything about how much the laws against teaching slaves to write and/or read were enforced?
Jun. 22nd, 2013 05:52 am (UTC)
Not really, you'd want a relevant history book for that. But the 1740 South Carolina law against teaching slaves to write made it criminal and punishable by a fine of 100 pounds, which sounds like a rather substantial penalty for the time. For the antebellum, estimates of 5-10% of slaves managing to learn to read anyway. (Almost seems high to me, given all the field hands.)

(Writing: fear of slaves forging passes, as well as planning rebellions.)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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