Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Response to Should Cursive Handwriting Die?
[Note: you might have to read the linked blog post from FamilySearch to understand some of my comments.]

Many of my own ancestors did not know how to write. The direct evidence of their lives is an "X" mark on a deed or marriage record. Today, the ability to communicate by voice and text is almost universal although there are still pockets of humanity that do not have the tools of communication. When I was very young, I lived in a small isolated town. Our only form of communication with the outside world besides handwritten letters was a rudimentary telephone system. I had virtually no contact with relatives who did not live in the same small town. Today, in a matter of seconds, I can connect with any one of my seven children's families and, if we care to do so, see and talk to them as if they were sitting in the same room.

We often have feelings of nostalgia for conditions in the past. In many ways, my early childhood in a small town has some very appealing characteristics, but in longing for the past, we tend to skip over the problems and challenges that were inherent in what was comparatively a primitive society. For example, when we got sick, there were no Urgent Care facilities, no doctors without hours of travel and no drugstores with an array of medications that actually worked.

From a genealogical standpoint, we sometimes wring our hands over the loss of the ability to write in cursive. I have written several posts over the years about the fact that cursive is no longer universally taught in our schools in the United States. Very few children today are comfortable writing at all much less writing in cursive. But let's take a quick check at a genealogical reality: none of us initially have the background to read handwriting from 100 or 200 years ago. We all have a steep learning curve if we reach the point where we do research into old, handwritten documents.

In my small town, everyone knew how to ride a horse. I have a number of photographs showing my grandmother, who died long before I was born, riding a horse. People still have horses and still ride them, but few have a horse as their only method of transportation other than walking. Personally, I do not care to ride horses. I have done a lot of horseback riding even for extended periods of time and I do not nostalgically long for the days of horseback riding. For me, horseback riding was painful and unappealing.

Guess what, I have exactly the same attitude towards handwriting. During my entire life, I have had a condition called "essential tremors" that make small motor skills almost impossible. Handwriting is a torture to me. Without a keyboard, I would not write much at all. (Just think what you would have been spared from reading!)

I am certainly not taking the position that quantity equals quality. But to take the attitude that poetry and all of the world's literature will die simply because we cannot write by hand is a little bit silly. It is also a long stretch to claim that we will all become stupid because we do not learn to write by hand. How much of the world's literature was lost in the past because of the time-consuming effort it took to write it all out by hand?

What about the ability to "read old cursive handwriting?' Here is an example of some very good handwriting from Entre Rios, Argentina in the 18th Century. You can click on the image to see it larger.

"Argentina, Entre Ríos, registros parroquiales, 1764-1983," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 19 May 2014), Paraná > Nuestra Señora del Rosario > image 2 of 386; parroquias Católicas, Entre Ríos (Catholic Church parishes, Entre Ríos).
Are you able to write in cursive? Can you read this text?

Learning to read old documents is a different skill from writing in cursive. Just because you learned to write cursive in school does not mean you can read. Reading and writing are two different skills and reading in a language that is not your own is an additional skill. Even if you know the language this text was written in, it would still be a challenge to read it.

This example points out a simple fact: the ability to do genealogical research is a challenging skill that must be learned. Learning to write cursive conveys no special abilities to those who are trying to read old handwriting in a language they do not know. Genealogists may be more aware of the loss of the skill of cursive writing in today's schools, but to assume that our society will collapse because of this one skill makes no sense.

Quoting from the above post, the writer asks this question:
Without skills in writing and reading cursive, how can future generations read such important and carefully preserved original documents as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution?
When was the last time you read the U.S. Constitution in its original form? Have you ever read the U.S. Constitution in its original format? I must admit that even though I have taught college courses in Constitution Law, I have never actually read the entire U.S. Constitution in its original handwritten form. Why would I need to do so?

What is really lacking among today's youth and even most older Americans, is a feeling for and knowledge of history. The examples given by the author of the FamilySearch post points out the need to rediscover and benefit from our collective history. The most telling statement made in the post is the following:
Family heritage is preserved in handwritten records. Nonprofit FamilySearch International’s free online databases of historical documents relies [on] more than a million online volunteers who read digital images of handwritten documents from all over the world, identifying formal names and critical facts to make the digital images easily searchable online. 
“We are heavily dependent on individuals who can read not only handwriting, but variations of older cursive writing used over time in over 100 languages,” said Collin Smith, FamilySearch indexing manager. While fewer people are currently learning cursive, Smith noted, many tools and handwriting tutorials can help volunteers of all ages learn to read old styles of handwriting.
Hmm. What is there that is fun and easy about genealogy? By the way, when was the last time you read a Browning sonnet either the original handwritten document or even a printed version? Have any of the original Browning manuscripts even survived? The answer is actually, yes. Here is a sample of Robert Browning's handwriting.

25 June 1888. Robert Browning and Sarianna Browning to Fannie Browning and Robert Barrett Browning.

Can you read it? My point exactly.


  1. Thank you for your very well-argued points about cursive handwriting. I have struggled all my life with 'messy' writing because of very poor fine motor skills. My uncle, an engineer, always printed every letter or note he sent. I'm struggling now to read a 1638 English will, but I know I'll get it because of the 'key' I have in hand plus the rote phrases known to be in wills. I could care less if my kids or grandkids write in cursive - I just want to be able to understand their message, and vice-versa. Thank heavens for typing - I use a computer for any reports, letters, genealogy. [and note: books are printed in cursive!] Merci.

  2. I agree with you on all your points. My take on this is that people trying to keep cursive handwriting alive are like the boy sticking his finger in the dike. In other words, regardless of what effort society makes to preserve cursive writing, it will just, at best, delay what is going to happen anyway.

    And what is taught at school is very much a zero-sum game. Since there are going to be only so many total hours of classroom instruction each school year, teaching more of A means that less of B must therefore be taught. Nostalgia should not be a sufficient reason for teaching obsolete skills at the expense of skills needed for the 21st century.

  3. I have read that studies have shown (I don't have cites for the studies) that you learn better by writing something down than by typing the same thing. I see writing as a different form of learning and recording, and we might lose that if people cannot write. Printing and writing in cursive might well yield the same result, but I don't know that to be true.

  4. When I started reading Danish records the Gothic handwriting was pretty challenging for me. I almost always write in cursive, but this was very different and I'm not sure if being familiar with cursive gave me any advantage. What did help was using the handwriting helps on Family Search and practice, and if you're not interested in taking the time to practice anything then you probably won't get far with genealogy.