Cursive writing, it seems, is on the way out. In the United States, at least, it’s starting to be removed from schools, much to the chagrin of cursive’s defenders. Some states, including Alabama, California and Louisiana, have mandated cursive lessons in schools in an effort to fight the decline. But as writing on screens becomes more and more dominant, it’s unlikely cursive will ever make a full comeback here. Luckily, though, there’s cursive to be found in other parts of the world.
The cursive that you know best if you’re reading this in English (which presumably you are) is a Latin alphabet looped cursive. But cursive has popped up in writing systems all over the world. For artistic and utilitarian reasons, cursive has been useful for a long time in a number of different cultures.
Why Does Cursive Even Exist?
Today, using computers, you can make letters look like whatever you want them to, but such was not always the case. Writers were often limited by the materials that were being written on. Stone tablets, for example, would produce letters with straight lines and sharp curves. And while there are various fancy scripts throughout history, modern cursive arose with the use of quills in the 17th century. Using a nice, flowing handwriting made it less likely for the ink to smudge or the quill to break.
Today, handwriting is pretty much the same everywhere you go in the United States, but scripts were not always so consistent. Penmanship was a skill honed by artisans, and until scripts were standardized in the eighth century, styles could be wildly different. Then a standard was created by a monk who had been charged to do so by Charlemagne. The new standard script for monastic writing (and most writing at that point was monastic) was called Carolingian Minuscule.
Flash forward about 1,000 years to Europe and the United States, and there was again a huge diversity of styles. Your penmanship would be different depending on your career and your gender. The standard of cursive came from the work of Platt Rogers Spencer, whose method of writing became popular in schools in the mid-18th century. In the decades that followed, the cursive style changed (Spencer’s writing was far more loopy than the cursive in the late 20th century) but the basics were the same. Advances in writing tools made it easier and easier to not use cursive writing, but it managed to stick around until typewriters and computers became ubiquitous.
What Other Writing Systems Use Cursive?
Any writing system that uses the Latin alphabet uses pretty much the same form of cursive. Those that don’t use the alphabet, however, have of course needed to develop cursive on their own. Here are a few examples of cursive writing from around the world, both in the past and present.
The ancient Egyptians had three different kinds of writing. The most formal was hieroglyphics, which are the most famous to us, but were really only used for special purposes because of how time-consuming it was to carve all of the individual symbols. Most ancient Egyptians had more experience with hieratic, which was somewhat like cursive as it was created to be a fast, easier way to write.
For a while, hieratic was the most common, but it was eventually replaced in the seventh century by demotic. Demotic script was originally designed for government use but came to be used for many other purposes. Hieratic continued to be used in primarily religious texts, and so each of the different writing styles filled a different niche. These existed together until Egyptian writing disappeared altogether.
Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which is not too dissimilar from the Latin alphabet. Every once in a while, people on the internet find an example of Russian cursive and make jokes about how illegible it is, with its impenetrable loops that make it look like someone was just scribbling. These examples, however, are just bad handwriting.
Russian cursive is actually not too far off from English cursive, as many of the letters look the same, even when they don’t look the same in non-cursive letters. The lowercase Russian т, for example, ends up looking more like the Latin m. Cursive is still taught in schools in Russia, and there don’t seem to be many fears about its disappearance soon.
Greek has been around for a long time, and the writing style has changed several times. Before the ninth century, there were two primary variants: uncial and cursive. Uncial was similar to stone inscriptions and comprised disconnected capital letters. It was primarily used in official book manuscripts. Private writing would instead be done in cursive, which had connected, slanted letters.
In the mid-ninth century, a new writing system evolved: minuscule. It was based on the earlier cursive, and it predates the Carolingian minuscule. Like cursive, minuscule has a number of ligatures that joins letters together in writing. Eventually, minuscule was mixed with uncial, with the uncial being used as capital letters and the minuscule used as lower case. In the 1,000 years since then, the letters have continued to evolve, and the most modern standard is the monotonic orthography, which took hold in the late 20th century.
Chinese languages don’t use an alphabet, but instead a logographic system where each symbol is a full word or phrase. That means there are far more Chinese characters than Latin ones. Like, thousands more. There is a form of writing in Chinese that simplified the characters and became a kind of cursive, which is called “rough script” but is often mistranslated as “grass script.”
Rough script leaves out certain parts of characters so it’s quicker to write, and it’s most often used in calligraphy. But because it looks so different and there are so many different characters, it can be very difficult to read, especially for newcomers to the language. There is also a semi-cursive version, which kind of bridges the gap between cursive and non-cursive Chinese, as it still has the more artistic flowiness of the rough script but the legibility of the non-cursive writing. Cursive is definitely not the primary mode of writing in Chinese.
Does Cursive Have A Future?
There will always be a need for some people to know how to at least read cursive. Otherwise, we’ll lose the ability to understand anything that was written down for hundreds of years before computers. And as mentioned earlier, there are states that are working to ensure that schools will continue to teach cursive from a young age.
Despite niche cases, it’s not looking good for the future of cursive (in the United States, at least). It’s not faster to write, it doesn’t help with learning the language and people simply have fewer and fewer occasions to practice writing it. Unless you’re designing wedding invitations, there’s simply not much use for cursive.
This does not mean, however, that handwriting will ever entirely go away. Handwriting is better than typing in a number of situations. A student taking notes in class, for example, is more likely to remember things they wrote out rather than typed. Students who learn by handwriting are also better at recognizing letters from an early age. And, on a less scientific note, handwritten notes are considered more personal and thoughtful.
Handwriting can convey so much about a person and a culture. Cursive specifically may be on the decline, but handwriting may see a youth revival like vinyl and cassettes. In a time when people are typing constantly, it’s worth holding onto something that can take us away from screens.