Cursive eulogies are everywhere these days, but the fact is, everyone still writes. Grocery lists, medical prescriptions, even love letters are penned by hand – we just tend to use scribbly, un-joined print rather than the fancy longforms of the past. Script, which once dominated daily affairs and correspondence, is today reserved for the solemn formality of diplomas and wedding invitations. On those rare occasions when we do trade the keyboard for the quill, there’s the nagging worry readers will find our scrawl totally illegible, or at the very least unconventional.

Letterforms often still distinguish a country like regional cuisine or local currency once did

In fact, variations between individual letterform styles shouldn’t be written off (pardon the pun) as mere personality quirks: there are, it turns out, recognisable and consistent differences in handwriting among nationalities – cultural fingerprints that tell a story between the lines. Just as Italic (a slightly sloped cursive) varied across cultures and over centuries, modern handwriting features regional idiosyncrasies that persist in our digital landscape. At a time when cultural differences seem to be diminishing, letterforms often still distinguish a country and its borders, much like regional cuisine or local currency once did.

Cursive, which comes from the Latin currere, meaning “to run,” refers to any script where letters are joined and the pen only lifts from the page between words. It is, quite literally, a ‘running hand’. A texting thumb might be more to the point these days: most of us can barely scrawl our signature, though we spent years in childhood painstakingly tracing the cursive alphabet on dotted thirds.

Even if your penmanship is more chicken scratch than calligraphy where John Hancocks are concerned, the writing model acquired at school leaves its traces. You might have learned  looped cursive if you grew up in Britain in the mid-20th Century – looped cursive requires that all letters in a word be connected, and certain letters have loops to provide for joins – or practiced Spencerian script in the US. Spencerian was the de facto standard writing style for business correspondence before the widespread adoption of the typewriter. If you’re a millennial living in Western Australia, your words may slant at an 80 degree angle to the right, while in most of continental Europe, young writers transcribe their sentences almost vertically on the page. And some of our handwriting shares features that seem not to have been taught in any writing scheme whatsoever: hollow dots or hearts above the lowercase ‘i’, for example, or a preference for majuscule – capitalising every word for emphasis. 

The need for speed seems to have been the driving force behind the evolution of handwriting

There are subtler regional differences too. In France, for example, the number seven is always written with a crossbar through the swash (which is, disappointingly, not a pirate’s accessory but the figure ‘7’), in order to distinguish it from the number 1, while a Canadian 7 appears comparatively naked and unadorned. A German lowercase ‘q’ usually has a decorative flair on the descender (the part of the letter that dips below the line) to prevent confusion with the numeral 9 according to die Schreibschrift, a fiddly form of penmanship still taught in German schools. In North America, on the other hand, the stem often ends with a hook curving up to the right. Why do these regional differences in handwriting exist, and what – if anything – do they reveal about national identity?

The answer is far from straightforward. The need for clarity and efficiency, teaching methods in the classroom, the development of pens over the centuries, and changing priorities for handwriting itself all influenced contemporary variations in handwriting. “The running hand is man’s quest to write faster,” explains Bob Hurford, historian and archive committee chair at the International Association of Master Penman, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting. Of course, gender, age and handedness are also factors, but the need for speed seems to have been the driving force behind handwriting’s evolution throughout the West.

Back to school

Sharpen your pencils, as this next bit may require notetaking.

Illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period reveal the many styles of writing that emanated from monasteries at the time, but these were Textura script: not technically cursive, since letters are kept separate from one another.  Stocky, textured Blackletter was popular (for point of comparison, the Gutenberg Bible was written in Blackletter, and the dramatic strokes of this font still make their appearance on pub signs the world over), but writing styles often depended on local tastes and customs.

Hybrid forms such as Anglicana developed to become the most widely-used book hand of the Middle Ages in Britain and northern France. In the 13th Century, Renaissance Humanists in Italy invented a new style of script based on the Carolingian Empire: so-called Caroline Miniscule Italic, with its beautifully arched drops and slightly rounded edges. Nearly 200 years later, the printing press allowed writing masters to greatly expand their influence as published copybooks began to standardise writing forms, spreading the popular Italicalphabet through Europe west of the Alps to the Iberian Peninsula, France and finally, to England.

Students in France are still required to write using a blue fountain pen

How then, did handwriting – an inherently personal practice – develop regional patterns? Certainly, some hand flourishes were accidental or arbitrary, and others were imitated merely for their artistry. Copybooks preserved these differences, which soon became ingrained in the national consciousness. Because handwriting’s function was at once a mark of social standing, a means of self-expression, and a tool of trade – particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries – penmanship really did mean different strokes for different folks: mercantile versus epistolary, practical versus ornamental, business versus personal. With so many hands to master, it’s a wonder this byzantine system of penmanship survived the journey across the Atlantic.

In fact, handwriting’s changing form in the US was largely driven by the speed of commerce. Clerks on the docks, for instance, had to write bills of lading and ships’ manifests quickly and legibly; Italic cursive was too slow, so a simpler Copperplate style evolved that reflected a new social agenda (The Declaration of Independence is written in Copperplate, so named because a master engraver etched the text onto a copper plate before printing). As the older Gothic forms lost favour in England, the number of common scripts decreased, while industrialisation and immigration gave rise to a range of writing styles in both the US and Europe.

Form from function

Pens had everything to do with penmanship, of course. Gone were the feathered quills and ink blots of English Roundhand; these were replaced by fountain pens, which naturally lend themselves to joined-up letters. In the 1960s, mass produced ballpoints and fibre tips made the fountain pen a relic of the past – except in France, where young students are still required to write their lignes d’écriture with a blue fountain pen. This might explain why French handwriting retains its characteristic elegance: the classic writing instrument requires fewer lifts between letters and a more dexterous grip, resulting in a slanted cursive with looped letters.

By contrast, the upright penhold required by ballpoint pens results in a bolder, more vertical script – the kind typified by American handwriting. It seems the loud, bubbly letterforms of writers in the US has less to do with character than with the contents of their desk drawers. In Australia, young students must write in pencil until they are issued ‘pen licences’: diplomas that announce their mastery of “joined letters that are clearly formed and consistent in size,” according to the Australian National Curriculum Standards for English. Perhaps if we made penmanship that exciting, we might convince more students to take up letter writing on their own, especially now that the teaching of cursive is no longer required in most US public schools.

Finland has likewise given up handwriting courses in favour of touch typing, and other Nordic countries have made similar changes to their national curriculum. But England – never one to follow the herd – has entirely different attitudes about handwriting. The UK government does not mandate instruction and entire school districts are therefore free to teach their own methods, which range from blocky print script to looped cursive, though the National Handwriting Association recommends “clear simple forms with natural joins.”

A handful of British teachers still teach the older methods, perhaps owing to a sense of tradition – or because of confusing language used in the 2014 National Curriculum document, which recommends “cursive” instead of the usual term “joined-up” (rumour has it that the English wanted their handwriting to look more like that of the French, and publishers slipped in the c-word accordingly). Britain’s large selection of high quality steel nibs, writing papers and oblique penholders makes penmanship even more difficult to pinpoint. While there may not be one national handwriting style, what could be more quintessentially British than a complex system tangled up in the old and the new?

From stonecutting to manuscripts to email, handwriting is very much an evolving phenomenon, but many regional nuances appear in danger of extinction. Some European writers no longer close their fours, to the chagrin of maths teachers everywhere (an open four looks suspiciously like the letter ‘y’), and in the US, the once-flourishing loops of capital Gs, Zs and Xs are remarkable now only for their sameness: basic, stick-figure capital letters. Text messaging has arguably contributed to handwriting’s increasing homogeneity, but while print is opaque, handwriting is sincere: word processors can’t reveal corrections, doodles in the margins, or the intimacy and flair of hand-lettered sentences.

“Handwriting is an imprint of the self on the page,” says Dr Rosemary Sassoon, a handwriting researcher whose cursive typeface, Sassoon Primary, is recommended by the National Handwriting Association. Indeed, handwriting conveys sentiment, originality and an expressiveness text messages or emoticons can only approximate. In the age of the iPhone, cursive’s usefulness might seem dubious, particularly to younger generations. A “proportion of teenagers,” Sassoon notes, “seem to disregard any trace of their taught model and develop a round personal writing almost indistinguishable from their peers. It seems that soon it will no longer be so easy to tell the nationality of a writer.”

For now, at least, the differences are easy enough to spot.

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