The language of handwriting

21st September 2009 | Books, Daily Life, Musings | 0 comments

In Monday’s Guardian, Umberto Eco laments the decline in children’s handwriting ability. He gives various reasons why he thinks it’s a shame that we don’t handwrite letters any more, but surprisingly doesn’t talk about the impact that someone’s handwriting can have on the reader.

When I was a teenager, long before we had computers – let alone mobile phones – I knew the handwriting of all my friends and relatives. It was indissolubly linked to my idea of them; I could recognize each person’s handwriting as soon as a letter plopped through the letterbox onto the doormat. The actual form of the handwritten letters, the spacing, the ink colour, the boldness of the script, the way the address was placed on the envelope – all this seemed to convey information about the writer. Someone’s handwriting was an aspect of their personality, and to be deprived of that aspect was to know less of the person. I read and re-read the handwritten letters I received, delighting in the character revealed by nuances in writing style, and by the look of the words on the page.

In the computer age, however, there are many people whose handwriting I have never even seen (and they haven’t seen mine). We communicate by e-mail and text message, and even our rare personal letters are word-processed.  Occasionally I may happen to see a friend’s handwriting on a shopping list or something, and it often gives me a little shock, because their handwriting is not as I imagined. I sometimes adjust my concept of a person because of what I realise on seeing their handwriting. I might think, ‘Oh, if they write like that! ….then I like them better.’ And I can’t feel that I’m wrong to feel that way. As Eco says, handwritten texts can be minor works of art, and like works of art they are windows onto inner worlds.

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