Sunday, September 7, 2014


The art and practice of penmanship used to be an important
skill in American life, and whether or not you were good at it,
writing in cursive longhand was something almost everyone
had to do to communicate until the commercial typewriter
was invented in 1868.

Today, longhand or cursive writing by most Americans is
limited to signing a check, signing a credit card slip, or
writing a few words on an otherwise printed document.

Letter writing survives technically, but most communications
today are by e-mails or text messages. Pen and ink, or even pen
and pencil, are almost extinct.

Until the 19th century, every book was written in longhand
before being typeset. Today, more and more books are being
written, published  and read electronically.

It is an irreversible phenomenon.

A few persons, however, insist on writing letters. Among them,
for example, is Tom Ridge, former congressman, governor of
Pennsylvania, and first cabinet secretary of the Department of
Homeland Security. Throughout his public career, and no doubt
before it, Mr. Ridge writes letters in longhand, in ink and on nice
paper. I might add that they are not perfunctory letters. However
short, they are always original and engaging. I prize the ones I
have received from him over the years. President George H.W.
Bush did that before him, and many Americans possess treasured
examples of his gracious penmanship. Some other Americans,
both famous and non-famous, also persist in communicating in
handwritten form. Fine writing instruments and fine papers
to write with them are still made, but pen and paper companies
are disappearing. The number of persons who write letters
or anything else in longhand is fast dwindling.

The extinction of handwriting has been hastened by the
many new devices with which you can scribble your signature
on a credit card screen with your fingernail, or send money
and information electronically without any signature at all.

Collectors of autograph letters and manuscripts no longer
have contemporary material to acquire. Autographs and
signatures themselves can be made with a machine.
Handwriting itself will soon be something only found in a

If handwriting survives at all, it will likely be as an art form
like painting, and practiced only by s few artists.

In a few generations, ordinary handwriting will likely not be
readable by anyone except a few scholars and trained
experts. The handwriting that billions of us now take for
granted will be like cuneiform, ancient pictograms and
hieroglyphics are regarded today. It will be the same for
those who speak English and other Indo-European languages,
and those who write in calligraphic ideograms and non-Roman
letters such as Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic and Hindi.

The question is, therefore, how long will penmanship be
taught in schools? Will the children of the future even know
how to write?  Common Core does not ban teaching cursive
longhand, but it also does not require it. Even the word
"penmanship" has become politically incorrect.

Because computers use keyboards, the skill of typing is still
an important one. But even the ability to type may soon be
extinct. I’m old enough to recall that I thought the invention
of the electric typewriter was “amazing.” New devices now
accurately transpose the spoken word into print on a
computer screen. It is being widely suggested that even
the spoken word might be soon extinct, as new inventions,
already in development, can transpose words you “think” to
a computer or readable device. No “sound” will be necessary.

It is all happening very quickly, and even if inevitable, it will
change the whole nature of how human beings communicate
to each other in only a few generations, and with sudden
alterations of human culture itself.

What happens when the intimacy and privacy of letter writing
are gone? How does language change when no one any longer
"writes" in it.

Who knows the now inestimable consequences of this rapid
disappearance of human handwriting?

Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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