Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Is handwriting a dying art?

With Computers, e-mails, text message and chip-and-pin technology taking over, the days of handwriting appear to be numbered

By Stuart Jeffries  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

But why, when we have so many other means of communicating? Lovett imagines a time when the electricity is down, your palm-held is on the blink, there is no sun to recharge the batteries and something essential needs to be written down. What is to be done -- employ a scribe? I don't think so.

Sumerian merchants were the first to codify their transactions in a recognizable script more than 5,000 years ago. They were alone in this discovery, archaeologists have long claimed, though some new evidence suggests the Egyptians were developing pictorial hieroglyphics independently at the same time.

The less prosaic version is to be found in Plato's Phaedrus, where Socrates tells the story of a god who offers an Egyptian king a miraculous aid to frail human memory. The king is skeptical, as is Socrates who warns that writing will replace memory and argues that the truth that lives in the human soul will be dissolved in its translation into ambiguous inscription. (Ironically, as Jacques Derrida pointed out, we only know of Socrates' skeptical thoughts about writing because Plato wrote them down.)

The Sumerians used a stylus and wet clay to record the ingredients for beer. The endlessly inventive outpouring of human writing thus grew out of commercial necessity. Since then, the history of writing is one of a virulent spread of the written word, such as India's 200 different scripts, or Japanese which has three scripts and thousands of characters. But the story also cannot miss the wholesale erasure of written cultures. The Spanish destruction of Mayan civilization meant the loss of thousands of documents; only four codices survive.

According to Steven Roger Fischer, author of A History of Writing, Hitler decreed that the Latin script should replace the Gothic, which had hitherto been a symbol of Germanic identity. Gothic was described by the Nazis as a "Jewish script," but quite possibly, behind this racist rhetoric were practical considerations: Latin script was easier to write.

In Britain, Latin handwriting styles were popularized in the first writing manual in the 1570s. Early Victorians used a copperplate style with thick and thin strokes, but later in the 19th century, the "Vere Foster civil service" hand was most frequently taught in schools. Only in the 1930s was the semi-cursive or joined-up style known as round hand developed. Most schools now teach a variant of this.

But there are other national handwriting cultures. Different national forms of handwriting are distinctive -- British, French and American schoolchildren, for instance, write in entirely distinct ways. In France an ideological row over handwriting erupted in 2002 when the education minister, Jack Lang, decided to stop teaching French children the traditional baroque handwriting because he claimed it had resulted in loss of legibility at speed and the failure of some disadvantaged secondary students to write at all.

Today, Latin script's global dominance is intensified not just by the global stranglehold of English but because of computers. Times New Roman is everywhere because it is Microsoft's default typeface.

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