Curtains for Cursive?

04 Dec 2012

“The only thing constant is change itself.” ~ Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

The art of written communication has dramatically evolved over the millennia. Back in ancient Egypt, hieroglyphs were carved into stone. Millenia later, they can still be seen.  While scientists and cryptographers have deciphered many of the glyphs, The average person today has no familiarity with being able to read any of those writings.

As genealogists, we understand that examining original documents is the best form of determining whether or not we have the correct information.

The electronic age is making it easier for us to access these records. Reading documents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be cumbersome, but the average person can usually read such materials written in their native tongue.

Unfortunately, as with Egyptian hieroglyphs, the average person has no experience in reading handwriting from earlier periods. Letters were formed during the seventeenth century and earlier in far different ways than they are formed today. The example below is from a seventeenth-century parish register in England. Can you clearly read the record?


Seventeenth Century Writing Sample


Cursive (or joined-together) writing dates back to ancient Rome. The longhand developed by Medieval monks derived from classical Arabic script. The use of cursive writing in English pre-dates the Norman Conquest.

For centuries this script has been used in both formal records, and informal writing. The joy one gets when finding a letter written from one ancestor to another, and reading what the concerns of the day were. Or reading a treasured missive penned by a soldier far from home back to his cherished family, and getting an insight into what his experiences and concerns were, and how he felt.

Unfortunately, it may not be long before those precious letters are as illegible to modern readers as hieroglyphs are to us today. With the advent of computers and digital writing, many school systems are re-examining the need to teach cursive writing to students.

As of July 2012, 45 of the 50 United States have adopted the Common Core curriculum, which provides for phasing out the teaching of cursive writing.  Many feel that cursive is an anachronism in the this modern day of notebook computers, tablets, and iPhones.

The Associated Press reported recently that some states are bucking the trend. Several states, such as California, Georgia, and Massachusetts, have chosen to continue to require the teaching of cursive. Still others have allowed individual school districts to continue teaching it if they so desire.

The sad reality is that we are facing a time when the simple skill of reading that we take so much for granted is about to undergo a drastic change. As historians, we may recognize the danger this represents to future generations and their ability to understand their own past. Many articles are appearing on both sides of the debate (such as the New Yorker’s In Defense of Cursive and the Atlantic’s Cursive May Die, But We’ll Talk About It Endlessly First). But, as the ancient Egyptians could not stop the demise of hieroglyphs, I fear that those who try to stop the march of this current change will find themselves to be fighting the fight of a modern-day Sysyphus.

The important thing to do as genealogists, is to prepare for the future. Transcribe your family correspondence so that there is a digital text copy. Make sure you link an image of the original page to the text. Do all that you can, so future generations will still be able to enjoy the written word of their ancestors.