Handwriting is a form of art that will be with us forever

The birth of written communication

The establishing charter of the abbey of Tihany or the Letters from Turkey by Kelemen Mikes would not be complete if we did not know the paper they were written on or the handwriting itself with which they were written down. A written work is not only a random collection of letters, it is a work of art: in the past, the writing surface and writing itself were a fundamental part of the work and it reflected the writer’s style. Before printing was invented but for long centuries even after that it was the most important tool ensuring the survival of human culture and it remains indispensable even today. But when did people start to write and how did writing as we know it here in Europe today develop? Here are the answers to these questions.

The benefits of handwriting from the beginning to the modern age

Writing is a basic skill whose potentially most important role is preservation. Old literary works including Homer’s epic poems or the Kalevala were traditionally verbally transmitted between communities for a very long time before they were finally written down ensuring that these works, which are part of our collective heritage, are preserved for all times. However, it is not only ancient epic poems or medieval establishing charters that were preserved through writing. The role of writing is not only preservation, writing itself is creation.

To show an example from the 20th century: early space programs would simply not have been possible without the use of handwriting. What does that mean? A photo from 1969, which later became iconic, depicted the moment as Margaret Hamilton, the lead software designer of the American Apollo program, was standing smiling next to a stack of files as tall as her. These files contained handwritten codes without which the landing on the moon could not have been successful at the time.

Carved in stone, scratched in clay

"Writing is a peculiar thing. It is as much science as it is art. Since it evolved thousands of years ago, various groups of people have devised countless alternatives to record their thoughts using glyphs, syllabary and letters, which were all different writing systems. Many scripts were derived from existing ones while others were developed by a single man behind a desk. A few are only used by a single language while others are used by hundreds of languages, which are unrelated. And even within the same writing system, there are countless forms to choose from to write down the same thing,"

- writes Attila D. Láng in his work called Íráskalauz (A Guide to Writing)

The alphabet based on the Latin script uses the combination of 35 to 40 letters and 10 digits to describe the world. To be able to write, people had to learn twenty times as many cuneiform signs in ancient Mesopotamia and hieroglyphs in Egypt. In Japan, pupils have to learn 2600 characters. In China, people have to learn at least 3000 characters only to be able to read newspapers but if they want to understand a work of fiction or a scientific study, they need to know even more ‘letters’. Not let us travel back a few thousand years in time to understand the enormous legacy people on earth have in their possession.

One of the earliest writing systems belonged to the Sumerian people who started to record their financial transactions, also commercial and public administration information on clay tablets in the Middle East more than five thousand years ago. For their cuneiform, they used triangular tipped reed strands or sticks (stylus) to scratch the unique, wedge-shaped signs into wet clay tablets. The combinations of these created symbols that represented objects or concepts.

Handwriting and Etelburg r.feather fountain pen

Not far in space and time, there was another writing system developing. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were part of a stylised, fairly complex cuneiform system that was used to represent objects, concepts and sounds. The Egyptian scribes belonged to the elite of the society and used papyrus, pens and ink instead of clay tablets. The word hieroglyph roughly means god’s words or sacred engraved letters. In ancient Egypt and Central America, writing was also used to create calendars and to record historical and natural events.

Our next post will continue to discuss the history of handwriting from the development of Latin letters until the spread of digital writing.

Sources:

Megyeri G.; Horváth D.; Cosovan A. Analóg lények vagyunk egy digitális világban – avagy a digitalizáció következményei és lehetőségei kutató és tervezői szemszögből. In Veres Z.; Sasné Grósz A.; Liska F., Eds.: Ismerjük a vevőt? A vásárlás pszichológiája. Az Egyesület a Marketing Oktatásért és Kutatásért XXV. Országos Konferenciájának előadásai. Pannon Egyetem, Veszprém. 2019 ISBN: 978-615-00-58 711–720.

  • Láng Attila D.: Íráskalauz

  • Fűr Zoltán: A magyar rovásírás ABC-s könyve

  • Várkonyi Nándor: Az írás és a könyv története

  • Albert H. Hughes: What your Handwriting reveals

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