learning to cursive

Judith Thurman’s recent post at the New Yorker blog on cursive handwriting and the Declaration of Independence reminded me of something I wrote some time ago about my own experiences learning to write and read cursive. Reading it over now, I don’t think schoolkid me would have been sad to see schools decide not to teach cursive anymore.

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One of my earliest memories is of being in a shopping cart. This is followed by a memory of being on the floor of a supermarket near a shopping cart, followed by a memory of being in the car, my right arm propped up against the door, on the way to the hospital where my arm was put in a cast.

I’d like to think that being right-handed and breaking my right arm when I was four is the reason handwriting was so difficult for me, but it’s more likely that I simply lacked a bit of coordination at that age. I also had trouble coloring inside the lines and cutting things with scissors along the lines. And I still don’t hold eating utensils correctly. For quite a while, long after the cast came off, I could grip a pencil only with the help of a triangular accessory, but eventually I got the hang of it.

I don’t remember how my printing looked originally; in third or fourth grade we got to cursive. I couldn’t do it. I was given extra worksheets designed to lead me into it: mostly practice with italicization, doing everything but connecting the letters. By fifth grade, when all written assignments had to be in cursive (for reasons completely and utterly unknown to me) I could manage it, but only painfully, slowly, with hideous letters. In junior high they didn’t care about cursive vs. printing: they just wanted writing. I went back to printing, but my printed handwriting had by then taken on the shape of italics. I still print in italics and I still can’t write decent cursive. In English, that is.

One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian before I got to the first day of my first class was learning a new alphabet. One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian after the first day of my first class was learning that Russian handwriting is pretty much all cursive. To my surprise, it turned out that I had little to worry about. My Russian cursive may not be native-writerly, but it is better than my English cursive and it took a lot less time to learn.

It is not uncommon for people working with handwritten documents to run into problems making out what the words say; it is especially difficult when you’re just starting out in research. In the fall term after I first took Russian I began reading 19th century correspondence in English; even worse, the first letters I read weren’t just handwritten, they were faded copies of letters in a letterpress copy book.

I know a number of people who’ve had similar experiences with old handwriting: taking 10, 20 minutes to read a page; wanting to give up; wondering if the 20th century is really the more interesting period; nearly fighting back tears (literally or metaphorically) to finish those first few pages. A fellow grad student a few years ago told me that upon coming across, in the handwritten meeting minutes of some organization in 19th century Germany, a discussion of whether or not to buy a typewriter, she immediately said to herself, sitting there in the archives: “Yes! Buy it, buy it now!”

I’ve sometimes described trying to read old handwriting as a cross between “Wheel of Fortune” and cryptography. If you can make out a few words initially you can use them to decipher the rest. If you know a word is “the”, for instance, you have an idea of what “t”, “h”, and “e” look like – although initial letters often look different than the same letters in the middle of a word. Get enough letters in other words and you can read those words; get enough words in a sentence and you can read the sentence, or most of it.

Proper nouns can be especially difficult; so can initial capitals. Signatures are probably the worst. Once, through the careful examination of m’s, o’s, and w’s in a group of letters written around the same time by the same author, I concluded that a word I’ve seen quoted in publications as “work” most likely is “Mark”: not the most earth-shattering revelation, I know.

As I struggled through those first few letters that day I realized I was running into an additional problem: I had become so accustomed from my summer language course to reading cursive as Russian that I was struggling with the English letters that look like Russian ones. (Example: “m” in Cyrillic script is transliterated as/sounds like “t” in English.) Realizing this, I went up to the main desk at the archives, got a piece of scratch paper, returned to my seat, and set about forming, for the first time since grade school, a cursive list of all the letters of the English alphabet – upper and lower case – which I could then turn to as a reference sheet.

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