Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cursive Contains the Cosmos (or something like that)

Earlier this week 5 News was outside Butterfield Trail Elementary asking parents their views on proposed legislation requiring cursive be taught in Arkansas elementary classrooms. The reporter looked cold and was slow in getting takers, and my daughter seemed thrilled to watch the proceedings, so I agreed to talk. Here are the results:

I was ill-prepared to answer the question as thoughtfully as I'd like. Honestly, I think like quite a lot of us, I hadn't given cursive much thought. Everybody has their personal history with hand-writing. Mine is not a glory story. I promptly stopped using cursive some time in middle school and reverted to print, which I've used ever since, except on signatures and checks. My hand-writing is terrible. I much prefer to type.

Having given the question more thought, I've decided there is a more interesting question, one worth pondering. Rather than discuss: Should cursive be required? I'd like to ask: What is cursive, after all?

So, first of all cursive is joined-up writing (the way most other English-speakers title it) or in some places, simply "handwriting." Print writing, the type I use most of the time, is non-continuous, block letters, like the type of this blog post.

Qur'an in classical Arabic cursive
Joined-up writing, or continuous writing, has some advantages of speed in writing, but the most important technology introduced with cursive is simple: You lift the pen from the page less frequently. This was especially important when people wrote with quills, because they were fragile, splattered if not properly used, and broke easily. Joined-up writing reduces considerably the lifting of the quill from the page.

The origins of our cursive are in Arabic. The long flowing script of Arabic manuscripts inspired Medieval Latin cursive, which inspired our modern cursive. I didn't know this until I started researching this post, but a ton of languages have cursive, including languages I've studied but never seen the cursive equivalents, like Greek. Even languages very distant from Geek and Latinate employ cursive, including Bengali, and Chinese, which employs joined-up writing more within individual characters rather than between the words (likely because Chinese is written in a radically different way than left-to-write continuous).

So that's cursive. This leaves us with a couple of questions then. First, is cursive advantageous yet today for writing with speed? To this question, I'd answer no. If you really want write fast in the modern era, learn to type. Typing is our speedwriting technology. I think we will also shift quickly to voice-to-text technologies, so the next wave of speedwriting might be those who learn how to use voice-to-text tools efficiently. Handwriting of any type is on its way out, and not coming back, at least where speed is concerned.

As an example, see this fascinating essay by Richard Powers, a wonderful novelist who dictates virtually all his writing:

A more compelling argument can be made for cursive, however, and this is the argument from beauty. Certain types of handwriting are clearly more beautiful than others. This is also true of print, block letters, it's why we download and use various fonts. It's why some books are more pleasant to read than others, more pleasing to the eye. Print matters.

So too does handwriting. Honestly, I wish I had better handwriting. I'd like people to be able to read my handwriting with ease, and pleasure.

Lindsfarne Gospel, c. 700
Now, if you google calligraphy on, well, Google, one of the top hits is Shindig Paperie, a small business right here in Fayetteville that teaches it. I probably should sign up for a class. The point of calligraphy, its beauty, is its expansion of cursive. It is writing with long continuous strokes, as opposed to built up lettering which, although also beautiful, draws letters non-continuously by lifting the pen or quill.

Calligraphy is also the space in which writing truly passes back into the religious. Handwriting has always been focused at least to a degree on the maintaining and passing on of religious texts. In ancient periods, there were probably two primary groups who learned to write: those in power, who needed to keep political and economic records, and those in religion, who were tasked with copying religious texts. Think of the scribes mentioned frequently in Scripture.

Some calligraphic practices became high art. Pictured above, for example, is the beginning of the gospel of Matthew. Calligraphy in Arabic became especially elaborate, because of the injunction against graven images, so the text itself became the basis for much art.

But many traditions have, over time, turned handwriting and script into art. One of the most enduring is Nasta-liq, Persian calligraphy. Another is the calligraphy of Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty, China.

An example of anemic writing, by Zhang Xu
Interestingly, cursive has even drifted at times into non-meaning, abstract forms. Asemic writing, which was employed especially in avant garde artistic movements, actually has its origins with Zhang Xu of the Tang Dynasty (c 800 CE) who wrote in "crazy" calligraphy.

St. John's Bible, 2 Kings 2
I guess one might consider these types of writing the equivalent of speaking in tongues, in script. I find it fascinating that in a way commensurate to the transcendence of specific spoken languages by speaking in tongues (or Vonlenska), certain authors and calligraphers have transcended handwriting itself, either through artistic expansion or a drift a way to script of any specific sense.

That being said, a majority of calligraphy is still written for the beauty of it. One of the most famous recent examples is the St. John's Bible ( It is the first hand-written, illuminated manuscript written in the modern era. Like ancient manuscripts of almost any era, it was commissioned by a monastic community, Benedictines, but in this case it is illuminating a manuscript in a contemporary translation, the New Revised Standard Version.

Perhaps the problem with requiring cursive as a simple lesson to be learned in elementary school is this: It focuses primarily on the functionality (you need to learn cursive to be able to sign your checks... but in that case let's all just shift to fingerprints) rather than the art and beauty of it. If cursive is about beauty, it would better be taught in art classes. So let's have more art. Let's do calligraphy. Let's illuminate our homework, and create a next generation of young people who, through a variety of means, transcend the written word itself into something that takes wings, in whatever medium, so that art and language and voice and text all meet in a cacophony of gorgeous transcendence.

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