Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

35 Outlawed Baby Names From Around the World

kirza/iStock via Getty Images
kirza/iStock via Getty Images

Here in the U.S., we give parents a lot of leeway when it comes to naming their children. New Jersey only bans names that include obscenities, numerals, or symbols, so the Campbells were totally in the clear when naming their children Adolf Hitler and JoyceLynn Aryan Nation. And no one could stop Penn Jillette from naming his daughter Moxie Crimefighter.

Other parts of the world aren’t as liberal when it comes to baby-naming. In 2017, the Swiss court in Zurich ruled against a couple who wanted to use "J" as one of their daughter’s middle names, as a tribute to her great-grandparents, Johanna and Josef. Their reasoning for the objection? That it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the child and that others would be prompted to put a period after the name when it wasn’t an abbreviation. (The court suggested the much-more-acceptable "Jo" instead.) Here are 35 examples of baby names that, for one reason or another, were deemed unfit for a birth certificate.

1. Nutella

In 2015, a French couple decided to name their daughter Nutella because they hoped she could emulate the sweetness and popularity of the chocolate spread. One French judge wasn’t having it, and insisted that the name could only lead to “mockery and disobliging remarks.” It was ruled that the child’s name be shortened to the considerably more conventional-sounding “Ella.”

2. AKUMA (DEVIL)

The case of baby Akuma, which means devil in Japanese, stirred such a frenzy in the early 1990s that it even caught the attention of the Prime Minister’s cabinet. The Justice Minister at the time spoke out against the government intervention, saying, “It is not appropriate to instruct parents to change children’s names without legal basis.” Regardless, naming your child devil eventually became illegal in Japan.

3. ANAL

New Zealand has no time for anyone’s bizarre baby-naming shenanigans. Parents have to get all potential names approved by the government, and if officials deem something too wacky, it gets added to the ever-growing list of banned names. There were many questionable entries on the list they released in 2013, Anal being a particularly horrifying offender.

4. GESHER (BRIDGE)

Norway is another country that regulates what parents can name their child. One Norwegian mother was sent to jail after failing to pay the $420 fine for using an unapproved name. She protested saying that she had been instructed to name her son Gesher, the Hebrew word for bridge, in a dream she had.

5. TALULA DOES THE HULA FROM HAWAII

Borderline child abuse or most epic name ever? The New Zealand government went with the former, and assumed guardianship of the 9-year-old girl who held that moniker in order to ensure that a more appropriate name was found for her.

6. OSAMA BIN LADEN

Shortly following the events of 9/11, a Turkish couple living in Cologne, Germany, felt inspired to name their child after Osama Bin Laden. German officials declined to let that happen, citing the section of their naming guidelines which states that all names "must not be likely to lead to humiliation." What’s more, German law prohibits foreign names that are illegal in the parents’ home country, and this particular moniker is illegal in Turkey.

7. ROBOCOP

In 2014, officials from Sonora, Mexico, compiled a list of banned baby names taken straight from the state’s newborn registries. While citizens are no longer allowed to give this name to their children, there’s at least one kid out there named Robocop.

8. CHIEF MAXIMUS

Max is usually short for something, so why not Chief Maximus? This was another name that landed on New Zealand’s list of banned names.

9.BRFXXCCXXMNPCCCCLLLMMNPRXVCLMNCKSSQLBB11116

Sweden has notoriously strict naming laws. In 1982, a law was passed to prevent non-noble families from bestowing their children with noble names. Today the law vaguely states that “first names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.” In protest of the restrictions, one couple decided to make their child’s name a captcha code from hell. The name, pronounced “Albin,” was rejected. The parents later submitted the name with the same pronunciation but rewritten as “A." That was rejected as well.

10. @

As is the case with many countries, China doesn’t allow symbols or numerals to be included in baby names. The at symbol is pronounced “ai-ta” in Chinese, which sounds similar to a phrase meaning “love him.” One couple felt the symbol was a fitting name for their son, but the Chinese government apparently disagreed.

11. CIRCUMCISION

Tragically, t his was another name that officials in Sonora, Mexico, discovered in the newborn registries. They made the heroic decision to ban the unfortunate name from that point forward.

12. HARRIET

If Icelandic parents want to give their children a name that isn’t listed in their National Register of Persons, they can pay a fee and apply for government approval. In addition to not being a potential source of humiliation, the name must also meet criteria that’s more specific to Iceland. It can only include letters in the Icelandic alphabet and must be able to conform to the language grammatically.

One family was unable to renew their daughter Harriet’s passport because her name can’t be conjugated in Icelandic. Her brother Duncan also had a banned name (there’s no letter C in the Icelandic alphabet), and the children instead must carry passports that list their names as “Girl” and “Boy.”

13. METALLICA

A baby girl from Sweden was baptized under this heavy metal name, but tax officials eventually deemed it inappropriate.

14. CHOW TOW (SMELLY HEAD)

By naming their child Chow Tow, which translates to “smelly head,” two parents in Malaysia were basically doing future bullies’ jobs for them. The country published this in a list of banned monikers after receiving an influx of people applying to change their given names.

15. LINDA

In 2014, Saudi Arabia released its own list of banned baby names. Several of them, like Linda, claimed spots due to their association with Western culture.

16. SEX FRUIT

The New Zealand government thankfully stepped in before some poor child had to spend the rest of their life with the name Sex Fruit. (Though being raised by parents who thought that was a smart idea in the first place probably presents its own set of challenges.)

17. MONKEY

Denmark is another country that requires parents to choose baby names from a pre-approved list. Parents need permission from the government to choose outside the list of 7000 names, and each year approximately 250 are rejected. In addition to Monkey, the names Pluto and Anus also didn’t make the cut.

18. VENERDI (FRIDAY)

Italy has the jurisdiction to reject baby names when they are “likely to limit social interaction and create insecurity.” Judges claimed the name Venerdi, meaning Friday, would make the young boy in question the subject of mockery. The parents were forced to change the name, but in response threatened to name their next child Mercoledi, the Italian word for Wednesday.

19. NIRVANA

Portugal has a whopping 80 pages dedicated to listing which names are legal and which are not. Nirvana is among the more than 2000 names that are included in the banned section.

20. FRAISE (STRAWBERRY)

When a couple attempted to name their child after a strawberry, the French courts intervened. The judge claimed that the name Fraise would incur teasing due to its connection to the idiomatic phrase “ramène ta fraise,” which means “get your butt over here.” The parents insisted that they were only trying to give their daughter an original name, and eventually went with “Fraisine” instead.

21. "." (FULL STOP)

Among New Zealand’s 2013 list of banned names that people apparently tried giving to their children is the symbol “.”. The name would have been pronounced “Full Stop.”

22. SARAH

When naming their children, Moroccan parents must choose from a list of acceptable names that properly align with “Moroccan identity.” Sarah with an “H” is banned because it’s considered to be the Hebrew spelling, but the Arabic “Sara” is perfectly fine.

23. Prince William

Unless the Duke of Cambridge is traveling to France, you won’t find any Prince Williams in the country. A couple from southern France was barred from giving the name to their child in 2015. According to a French court, the name would have led to a “lifetime of mockery.”

24. Mini cooper

The French parents who were prevented from naming their baby Prince William came prepared with a back-up: Mini Cooper. The same court that denied them their first choice ruled that it wasn’t appropriate to name their kid after a car either.

25. IKEA

IKEA is beloved around the world, but there’s one place where it’s illegal to name your baby after the furniture store: It’s home country of Sweden. The name violates the nation’s strict naming laws.

26. Hermione

Harry and Ron are acceptable names in many parts of the world, but in the Mexican state of Sonora, Hermione makes the banned baby names list. The Greek name, which means “well born,” predates the studious witch in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Nonetheless, Sonora has determined that the modern pop culture connotations make the name unsuitable for kids.

27. Fish and Chips (for twins)

The names Fish and Chips sound odd enough on their own, but together, they’re downright cruel. New Zealand banned a couple from giving this set of names to their newborn twins, marking a rare occasion when two names were banned as a pairing.

28. Spinach

Speaking of naming children after food: the name Spinach is outlawed in Australia.

29. Cyanide

Not many people have positive associations with Cyanide. A woman from Wales was one exception: She attempted to name her daughter after the poison, explaining that it was "responsible for killing Hitler and Goebbels and I consider that this was a good thing." The British Court of Appeals stepped in before the name became official.

30. 007

If your name has to consist solely of numerals, you could do worse than 007. Sadly, James Bond’s code number is a banned name in Malaysia.

31. Griezmann Mbappe

When France won the World Cup in 2018, two parents wanted to celebrate in a big way. They named their son Griezmann Mbappe after football stars Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe. French officials felt the child wouldn’t grow up to be appreciative of the homage, and they forced the couple to pick a new name for him.

32. Messi

Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe aren’t the only soccer stars who’ve had babies named after them. In Rosario, Argentina, the hometown of Barcelona player Lionel Messi, baby Messis were becoming so common that the town passed a law specifically banning the name.

33. Ambre (for a boy)

Some names are deemed inappropriate not because of how they sound on their own, but because of who they’re given to. French officials stopped a couple from naming their son Ambre (the French version of Amber), arguing that having a traditionally feminine name risked "confusing the child in a way that could be harmful." Another pair of French parents got into legal trouble for similar reasons when they tried naming their daughter Liam.

34. III

Many countries forbid parents and guardians from including numbers in baby names. There have been attempts to skirt this rule in New Zealand by using Roman numerals instead of Arabic numerals, but they were unsuccessful. The name III doesn’t cut it in the country.

35. Blu

Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy could have ended up with a different name if she was born in Italy. A couple in Milan tried naming their own daughter Blu (the Italian spelling of blue) and were ordered to change it. Naming laws in Italy dictate that "the name given to a child must correspond to their sex." Because Blu is an unconventional name, officials argued that it doesn’t correspond to any sex and is therefore illegal.

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