01 June 2012

Handling Handwriting

"Dear Irene- Thanks for card am glad you
are better- But it is hot where you are."
Doesn't have to be Shakespeare to be history

Soon, there shall come a day where the average human cannot read this sentence.
The sad fact is, with the growing dependency on digital communication, proper penmanship is no longer a necessity. Schools are removing cursive handwriting from their curriculums to make room for other challenges more relevant to today's elementary school children. While I don't blame them, I do pity the children. They are missing out on a tradition as much as a talent. I still remember how excited I was to learn cursive. With cursive handwriting came the teachers that let you use pen on your homework! No more block lettering! No more pencils! Sure you had to practice how to do it just right, make it legible, get the slant correct, but soon enough you made it your own. Most of my female friends started using big bubble letters. The boys had the sharp but sloppy words of hurried homework finished on the bus.  As much as it was about expressing your individuality through letters, cursive handwriting was a rite of passage. One we are taking away from our children.

Can you even begin to imagine a world where people who can decipher handwriting are specialists?

One question, Doctor, "Why do you hate me?"
We all reach the point in our genealogy research when we need help from someone who knows more. We may need help with a specific history, a foreign language, handling old fragile documents....... but soon, we will need someone to read all those handwritten notes, certificates and ledgers. I've had those times (like the picture to the left) where the word is so sloppy or mangled, a second set of eyes is necessary even now. But can you even fathom the idea that the next generation of genealogists will be starting from scratch with handwriting recognition? In twenty years, these people won't know how to sign their own names, much less decifer the signature of a long deceased relative. How long before the average family historian is relying on already indexed or transcribed documents rather than reading the original? How long before transcriptionists become a class of people with specialised education vs. volunteers with too much time on their hands? How long before knowing how to write is akin to knowing Latin? Keep handwriting alive! Familiarise yourself with handwriting in your research. Write a journal about yourself. Encourage your children and grandchildren to write.

Like I said, even now you will have difficulties with handwriting. Like anything else, it has evolved from it's original form. The farther you go back in your research, the more unfamiliar the writing will become. As you continue your journey, you are going to come up against thousands of writing samples. At first blush, they will seem like they are written in a foreign language. No worries, there is help! Ancestry.com's wiki has an article on common handwriting tips. The U.K. National archives has a very interesting online tutorial. About.com has a list of sites to help you. Don't worry about which one to try, try them all. The more practice, the better! No matter if there is a transcription (or you're helping make one), look at the original document! There are so much more than words on that page!

 But more than the technical losses, there is the loss of a true art form.
"I like fine wine, good friends, long walks on the beach,
and witnessing legal documents of the late 19th century."

Handwriting divulges personality, status, gender, and education. There was a time when one would know several styles for different situations. The slant can tell you if they were left or right handed. Small, tight letters can divulge an ordered mind. If the dot to the i is farther forward than the actual letter, they're forward thinkers. Every language has it's handwriting styles. Whether you are writing in English, German, Swedish or Russian, you can tell a great many things about someone by their writing style. Even in Japanese, there is a "feminine" and "masculine" form of writing. Moreover, when people learn English as a second language, their handwriting can show that!

My grandfather barely finished the fifth grade before returning to farm work. I used to watch him write out his days transactions very carefully, precisely. He usually printed, but if he had to sign his name, or write a letter, he'd break out the cursive handwriting. You could see the care he took to make it legible (letters would have dots where he stopped and started). My father's hand was broken when he learned to write, so his handwriting has always been terribly sloppy. When writing for long periods of time, he still finds it helpful to hold out two fingers (as if they were still in the cast) to keep his hand comfortable. My own handwriting is a mixture of printing and cursive. I drop the "in" in my "ing", which makes reading my own writing sometimes difficult. I remember watching Total Recall and liking Arnold Schwarzenegger's "M" when he wrote "Melina" in the hotel lobby scene. I practiced for days to get my hand to instinctively make that curvy M...........

I believe I've been quite clear on my "geekiness"- don't judge me.

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