As far as I know, no Native Americans developed their own written language. (Correct me if I'm wrong. There may have been some numeral systems, but that's all I'm aware of.)

So now I'm wondering if any tribe ever adopted the alphabets of English, Spanish, French, Russian, or any other European language?

I know some natives learned these languages, and presumably some of them learned to read/write in addition to speaking it. This would provide an opportunity for a tribe to adopt the alphabet if they wanted, without being totally assimilated.

P.S. I'm using the broadest definition of Native American. The native can be anywhere from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Central America or Caribbean, and of course the mainland continents. Basically anywhere in North or South America.


2 Answers 2


First off, yes you are wrong. Some kind of long-term record-keeping seems to be a common requirement for civilized people, so both the Maya and the Inca developed something pre-contact. I personally think its likely the Mississippians did as well, but if so it hasn't survived.

The Cherokee I believe did something similar to what you are asking. Sequoya, one of their tribesmen, was a silversmith who did a good amount of trade with white settlers. So he noticed the white men reading newspapers. He did not know how to read or write English himself, but saw what they were doing and grasped the implications of it. Being a practical man (a smith) he didn't just write it off as "sorcery" as many other Cherokee did.

So he started experimenting with writing himself. He quickly dispensed with the idea of logograms because it required too many symbols (an insight that took Old-worlder's thousands of years to achieve, but they didn't know they needed newspapers either) and settled on a syllabary. That got the number of glyphs down to a manageable 80 or so. Using separate glyphs for vowels of course would have gotten it down even further, but he didn't hit on that idea. For glyphs, he adopted variants of those found in the settler's newspapers. But of course not being literate in English himself, its pretty much random what glyphs were used for what syllables. When he ran out, he had to make up some glyphs of his own.

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When he introduced his system to the tribe, and managed to convince them it wasn't sorcery, they took to it like ducks to water. One of the nice things about a freshly-minted syllabary is that anyone capable of memorizing the phoneme mapping is instantly literate. Soon after adoption, the tribe's literacy rate was higher than that of the nearby white settlers.

This syllabary is still in use today. The capitol of the Cheorkee tribe, Tahlequah, is a few miles from where I live. Its a city where the streets signs are bilingual in English, Cherokee, and Latin1-transliterate Cherokee.

enter image description here

  • You would have to define "record keeping" but certainly there was not only a highly developed language in MesoAmerica but among the Inca there was apparently some type of "communication system" that appears "lost to time" (though certainly not the Inca Road.) As it relates to us Ignorant Westerners it was up to the English to develop a system of record keeping that proved superior to anything in the known world...in many ways even today...what we refer to now as "double entry book keeping" but then was "simply" a manifest on land that numerically expressed and itemized "I have what I say I hav Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 5:35
  • I have no background in finance, yet my wife (who does) informs me I independently hit on double-entry bookkeeping with my home bank account spreadsheet. If its obvious enough that I can come up with it too given the right circumstances, I'm thinking perhaps elevating it to the lofty status of "invention" is a bit much. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 13:16
  • 1
    I mostly used the term "long-term record keeping" because Quipu isn't technically writing as we've come to know it. Its existence to me hints at the possibility that there may have been still more exotic methods inventive civilized people may have hit on that we've been unable to find, so it shouldn't just be limited to writing as we know it. Most people seem to prefer to just pretend Quipu is writing, and that might be better for most purposes, but it has the drawback of being misleading about the mechanics of it.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 13:45
  • One unrelated note: If I'm counting right, a pure alphabet based on that matrix could be boiled down to 27 glyphs, almost exactly the same number as in English. So you can see how we can guess with any writing system, even without being able to decipher it, what kind of system it is, just by looking at the number of unique glyphs it uses.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 16:26
  • @T.E.D. What do you mean by 27 glyphs? I don't see it. Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 0:35

The question is a bit confusing, so I'll give two answers and hope one of them works...

First, there have been a couple of instances AFTER contact that Native Americans (or, sometimes, missionaries) developed a writing system for their language that was inspired by European orthography but looks very different. This includes the writing system for Yup'ik developed by Uyaquq (Hunter Neck), also here. Another example is the Cherokee writing system developed by Sequoyah. This also includes the Canadian Aboriginal syllabics.

Second, I'd guess that MOST Native American languages now have official writing systems, such as the (originally developed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks) Yup'ik orthography based on English orthography, or the earlier orthography based on Cyrillic.

  • 1
    More about Inuktitut Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 6:04
  • I'm pretty sure you are right about the "second" (and of course you are right about the first as well).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 13:17

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