My Handwriting, My Self

New languages seep into you—slowly at first, and then, suddenly, you begin to notice its influence.  At least in the anecdotes, this frequently happens through the confusion of words as the mind is momentarily unable to sort to which language they belong, or which language is needed in the moment.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, learning French, has noted the physical aspect of this newness: “Your lips and tongue must live somewhere else–even when resting–then where they live in English. […] This acquiring of of a new mouth is a physical act. It is not enough to memorize the words. You have to train your mouth to say them.”

I, too much the academic, learning too much to read and too little to speak, see it in my handwriting.  Sometimes this takes a form similar to verbal confusion: I recall, several times, sitting in lectures and taking hurried notes only to realize a few minutes later that I had written ‘p’ for R and ‘v’ for N, transliterating portions of my English notes into Greek characters.  Such a moment always brings a smile—and a touch of pride, as if I’m finally experiencing what students of modern languages know.

The influence of non-native languages has been more pronounced, and lasting, on my handwriting.  I have always been more comfortable in the written word than in the spoken word, and my handwriting has felt akin to my “voice”—I see myself in it, and see changes to it as signals that I have absorbed something deeply.  The languages I have studied span three alphabets, which have mingled into one another as they have mingled into me.  My ‘d’, once with a straight (if slightly looping) back, now tilts at an angle toward the beginning of the sentence, a lower-case delta (or lamed) without the characteristic, end-directed bend at the top.  Its base has grown slightly disconnected, like a misshapen note.  The Greek zeta joined forces with my almost-cursive upper-case Z to do away completely—before I even knew what was happening—with a small, angular, struck-through ‘z’.  Were I to write, by hand, “zeta,” it would begin with something more like a 3, elongated, the bottom third reaching below the line.  Because my hand now turns so naturally to this shape, I have never bothered to learn whether the tsaddiq I write is at all recognizable as such.

And my poor, English ‘p’—caught now in some kind of tug-of-war between the Greek and Hebrew alphabets!  It, too, once had a straight back and solidly connected base, requiring a three-motion stroke to write: down, up, and the curve.  Learning to form the Greek rho taught me to write it in a single motion—Greek lowercase letters ought not, I was taught, be written using more than one—an angled stem that curls at its top, the ball only loosely connected.  My lower-case ‘p’ looked like this for six years, until, several weeks ago, I noticed that I was using two strokes to form it, as I never had before: the stem, and then, disconnected entirely, the curve.  A qof!

Since Hebrew “script” consists, unlike my pseudo-cursive handwriting, of individual, unconnected characters, I’ve found myself lingering more over the shape of single letters since my study of Jewish languages has intensified.  A native (or fluent) Hebrew or Yiddish speaker might disagree with me, but their characters are less well suited for the rushed flow of my pen than Greek was—and their influence has been to slow it, slightly, and force me to consider the shapes I’m writing.  Maybe this has happened before, and, with time, I will revert to a more unthinking penmanship.  But even with my more hurried notes, the middle characters of words no longer drop out quite so quickly or fully; I’ve been turning, again, to forming more than two-thirds of the letters.  Insofar as my handwriting is a reflection of myself—and I do identify with it; I’m the sort who refuses to hand over something perfectly legible because a single word appears misshapen to my eyes, appears to reflect incorrectly on my character—then the developments these new changes may reflect are not unwelcome.  More attention, more consideration, less rush.

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14 thoughts on “My Handwriting, My Self

  1. I have never really experienced the problem you describe. For most of my literate life (the period of time when I could competently read and write) I was able to read and write in 2 languages: English and Tamil. I don’t see my habits in one spreading to the other. Tamil is written in separate letters and has no cursive form. I tend to write a bastardised cursive when I write casually in english. Maybe its just a matter of time and possibly the age at which you learn to write either language. I learned to write english maybe just a year earlier than I learned to write tamil, the latter of which I learned to write in primary school.

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  2. When I got my first job as a student architect, in 1981, my mentor (a 70 year old Beaux-Arts trained architect) had me spend the first 6 months just running errands, and in off moments, practicing my architectural lettering.

    Between that and my admiration for calligraphy, I have spent quite a bit of time designing my own handwriting, practicing every day on making my letters just so.

    The death of handwriting, like many an analog practice, is highly exaggerated.While it is not needed or useful for the majority of what we write, it holds an important niche for its ability to communicate not just with the letters themselves, but by the entire graphic form.

    Just as there are people today doing handmade crafts of every conceivable type, writing by hand will be with us for generations.

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  3. I had a similar experience after studying Russian in college. I had long since stopped writing in cursive on a regular basis, except when it came to writing checks — someone at some point had taught me that cursive was the only appropriate method for them. But that fell by the wayside after my first year of Russian, because “p” automatically became “n”, “s” became “c”, “r” became “p”, etc. The actual substitution was the only effect that bothered me — my handwriting was and is so poor in any case that details such as the particular slant or curvature of a character are hardly worth worrying about.

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