The Turtle Island Hypothesis
of the Origin of Writing

Dan Moonhawk Alford

To: Relational Languaging list

April 19, 2001

Syllabic always includes the vowel, either implied or explicit. Most syllabaries we're familiar with sit fixed and silent -- including the vowel (say 'ka') while only showing a 'k'; the vowels are then marked with diacritic geegaws and/or supplied by morphological patterns of the language, or just guessed at. (These smell to me of kludges made to a borrowed writing system, a topic to which I'll return.)

That used to be all I knew until

(a) I taught/learned-from some Crees at Blue Quills School in Alberta during the summer of my last year on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation -- learning some Cree and the Cree Syllabary, even writing Cheyenne in it and loving it; but that was only a brief introduction, just enough to prepare me for

(b) 9 years ago, when I met Blackfoot researcher Stan Knowlton, who let me in on the ancient mysteries of the Blackfoot Syllabarium -- what we believe to be the original, the Ur-Syllabary from which all others in the world were copied maybe 9000 years ago or so. This is now called the Turtle Island Hypothesis of the Origin of Literacy (and Numeracy -- a longer story).

Evidence continues to pile up of prehistoric trans-oceanic travel and trade -- so why do I now hypothesize that Blackfoot originated it and weren't just passive "dumb savage" recipients? Comparative internal evidence -- qualities an original with historically four phonemic vowels can have which would then necessarily be lost when transplanted to any other language with more than four vowels (such as the fixed triliteral words of Arabic and Hebrew mentioned as implicit) -- with 5, 6, 7 and more vowels, you'd have to either be a geometer to read and write or you'd tie 'em down, fixed in one direction; which is what we find. I even highly suspect that the Cherokee Syllabary was not "invented" by Sequoyah: that he was a member of the Scribe Clan using a syllabary kludged and made to fit it from one brought long earlier from the north, where Algonkians lived, and thus that Cherokee writing is an offshoot of the original Blackfoot/Algonkian Syllabarium.

As well, I've found the following visual encoding going on (at least in the handier, derivative Cree version (Figure)) and for none other I've looked at: the vowels are marked by triangles -- pointing up for /i/ and down for /e/, with the flat part of the triangle horizontal showing a flat tongue with tip going up or down; when the flat part is going up and down, showing enlarged oral cavity, the small part of the triangle facing right (assume speaker facing right) shows closed lips while the flat part to the right shows open lips. This displays a high degree of linguistic sophistication to model letters on distinctive configuration of oral cavity, tongue and lips -- lost, again, with transplantation into more than a quadra-vowel system.

So if the Blackfoot people didn't give the syllabary to the rest of the world long ago, then the received a "dead" fixed system from the others long ago and breathed life into it, making the vowels and syllables twirl around, move to show sounds, at the same time sacredly honoring the Four Directions -- and should be honored for an incredibly sophisticated linguistic achievement long ago anyway!

Now here's the relevant relational part: unless I'm wrong, the roots of the speech (which are single syllable, about 80, with morphological extensions like reduplication; my duck/rattlesnake example) and the marks of writing and the signs of sign language -- each a full system of its own, fully transparent in a relational way to children, adults and elders who'd become deaf, as well as tribes with different speech sounds; not like our own French(i)fried English mess -- I say, spoken roots, sign and marks all conspire to mesh with each other to create a larger integrated megasystem which would boggle the western mind with its elegant simplicity, the hallmark of Indians on Turtle Island as I've amazedly been finding out for three decades, over and over.

The richness I thus find, and know not of in the others (perhaps our of sheer ignorance and lack of experience -- great scientific reason!) sway me to consider Turtle Island as the deep origin of the writing I'm doing right now, as well as other linguistic achievements we have yet to fathom.

Hmm -- well, I've never quite put all my thoughts together like that. Thanks for the provocation!

[Editor's note: See also "Sequoyah -- Tell Them They Lie excerpts".]