National Handwriting Day is this week and once again the great cursive war has sprung into the news. What is this cursive term over which people have become so polarized? When most speak today of cursive they refer to the handwriting of America’s late 19th and early twentieth century – full of cumbersome loops and unwieldy connections. Not so. The term cursive has been around for centuries and simply means connected.
The script known as American Cursive is a part of our history. Like high button shoes, corsets and the Model T, it had its place in history, but not in our classrooms today. It’s good that we study it just as we study other scripts and appreciate its part in our culture; but it’s not a particularly efficient or practical way to write, especially in this age of digital recognition programs.
Across history, scripts have come and gone according to the needs of the people. We owe our alphabet to the Phoenicians. The Greeks added the vowels and transformed our writing to left to right. The Romans adapted and brought lettering to a quality previously unknown. Tools mattered. The chisel, the pen and the brush all contributed to evolving lettering styles. Scripts spread as peoples migrated across Europe among which developed cursive hands. Developed for economy and speed, the written letters often became a book-hand and visa versa. Beauty and practicality intertwined as those who wrote books strove for both.
It’s unsure whether the Caroline minuscule rose from a cursive or mixture of cursive and half-uncial, but its use spread and, in fact, is still relevant to lower-case letters in use in England today. Gothic scripts derived from the Caroline, their use fading away with the Renaissance and the arrival of the printing press, eventually culminating in the arrival of La Operina, Arrighi’s writing manual for the cancellaresca or Chancery hand.
Literacy flourished and so did handwriting manuals and copy-books – round hands, italic hands, business hands, flourished scripts, print scripts and cursive hands. William Morris, Edward Johnston, Graily Hewitt, Marion Richardson and Alfred Fairbanks all influenced handwriting in England. Here in the United States, the contributions of Spencer, Palmer and other penmen cannot be ignored. Handwriting was/is important.
With the advent of the typewriter and the computer, there is no doubt that the daily use of handwriting has diminished. So where does that leave us today as we explore handwriting in the 21st century? I think it puts us in the same place as people in early Rome, Italy during the Renaissance or in the UK in the early twentieth century. Handwriting needs to reflect the culture of the people who are using it. Just as the Gothic scripts faded with the advent of the Renaissance, it’s time for American Cursive’s swan song. Where architecture, furniture,cars, or clothing reflect an age, American Cursive is also dated if it ever was a particularly practical form of writing.
I think we can all agree that handwriting is fundamental. The act of putting pen or pencil to paper is important. Learning to write is part of learning to read. But it’s important that we develop a style of handwriting that is practical for people today rather than resurrect the writing of past generations. We need a script based upon the natural elliptical motion of the hand with speed and economy as its foundation. We need a model that is easy to learn and requires a minimum amount of practice. And most importantly, we need a hand with a minimum of extraneous marks so it can be digitally recognizable.
A modern hand based on the italic of Arrighi would be a good choice. It’s simplicity of shape, economy of joins and practicality make it a good foundation from which to develop a 21st Century American handwriting model. It’s time we move forward with a new handwriting model for a new century, one that reflects a future where we embrace both the digital and handwritten word, one in which handwriting matters.