Moving from printed to handwritten texts   2 comments

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was no printing, and students learned to read and to write in almost the same breath(s): the results of their hands matched the patterns of their eyes. Nowadays, of course, students in almost every case learn to read new languages with printed books open in front of them and nothing handwritten to be found. It easily goes unrecognized or unremembered that handwriting is part of a language taken in full, and that really both learner-readers and learner-writers of it do well to pay close attention to accepted written forms of the language, that is, handwriting. I quote T.F. Mitchell, who penned a manual for Arabic handwriting:

It is a curious fact that students of Arabic have in the past strangely neglected those elements of grammar without which there would be no grammar, viz. the letters. … we may go further and say that the number of those who write Arabic in an acceptable manner is remarkably small. We may note, too, in passing that handwriting shortcomings are not confined to students of languages having exotic scripts; a letter written in French by an English scholar of French rarely, if ever looks French, and if the language had been, say, a Scandinavian one, the foreign origin of the writer would have been even more immediately revealed. There exists, then, it would seem, a definite hiatus at the beginning of all language instruction which a systematic study of written forms would do much to remove. This hiatus is at its widest when the habitué of a given alphabet is confronted with another, when, for example, the user of a native roman scripts is called upon to write Arabic. (Writing Arabic, pp. 2-3)

He is pointing to two possible problems: one, in the case that the new language uses a script closely related to that of the student’s own language, of assuming that genetic relatedness of script equals identity of script, and two, in the case that the new language uses a script unrelated to that of the student’s language, of simply writing on paper (when that is even still done) in a script exemplified by printed type in that language’s script. I cannot forget the opposition I have encountered when teaching Hebrew from some students reticent to separate their Hebrew writing from the printed Hebrew in front of them, but with Hebrew, as with Arabic and other languages, there really is a distinction, in this case between modern cursive script and what is commonly printed in books (then there is also Rashi script). Of course, with Hebrew and with other languages, typefaces were first cut and their style later developed at least partly in recognition and remembrance of handwriting, but even if one wants to use a more monumental style of writing closer to that often found in type, it is more genuine to find some such hand to mimic, rather than a type based on that kind of hand. In our own mother-tongues (assuming that’s the language we get schooled in) we learn handwriting and printed letters as having different shapes, especially in the case of cursive writing, and, while there may be some conscious notice of this discrepancy when we first learn the two kinds of letters, for most of us that cognizance soon vanishes.

Other than giving attention to handwriting to be a more complete student of a language (foreign languages and our own), are there other reasons? Quintilian thought it a necessary concern for orators (Inst. orat. 1.1.28; Latin available here, English translation here, somewhat altered below):

Non est aliena res, quae fere ab honestis neglegi solet, cura bene ac velociter scribendi. Nam cum sit in studiis praecipuum, quoque solo verus ille profectus et altis radicibus nixus paretur, scribere ipsum, tardior stilus cogitationem moratur, rudis et confusus intellectu caret: unde sequitur alter dictandi quae transferenda sunt labor.

The art of writing well and quickly is not unimportant for our purpose, though it is generally disregarded by distinguished people. Writing is of the utmost importance in the study which we have under consideration and by its means alone can true and deeply rooted proficiency be obtained. But a sluggish pen delays our thoughts, while an unformed and illiterate lacks understanding, a circumstance which necessitates another task, namely the dictation of what is to be copied.

He’s talking about orators, but it’s not a big leap from the specific task of oration to other activities attendant to life as a well-educated human being. It is true, of course, that a great many people now write very little in longhand, chained as so many of us woefully are to the beguiling convenience of computers, tablets, and phones. While this is not the place to fully trace it out, there is some kind of analogy between printed books (and even electronic books) and digital text entry on the one hand and reading manuscripts and longhand writing on the other. We must remember, too, that at different points in time for different languages and parts of the world writing itself was a new technology.

Particular orthography in use at a given time or in a given region (note, for example the que in the Latin sentence quoted below) can, it is true, be gotten by printed editions — assuming, at least, that the texts’ editors aren’t overly normalizing — but graphic ductus, of course, is only the privilege of manuscripts (or inscriptions). (Yes, there is a ductus to printed letters, too, but they’re not our concern here, as they’re a given in language instruction these days anyway.) Printed type is a leveler of sorts: while there can be variation in type, there are multiple copies of the same type; with handwriting, it’s all at least a little different, even when written by the same person. The gap between handwriting and printed type varies from language to language, and from script to script within one language. Armenian erkat’agir for uncial and bolorgir for miniscule are not at all unlike their printed cousins, but nōtrgir and especially šłagir show less resemblance to printed type. If we turn to Greek and Latin, many documents on papyri, for example, are written in scripts that require much practice and patience to read (note the items in the bibliography below) when compared with the fonts of printed texts.

The pithy saying qui scribit, bis legit will be known to some readers (see this post elsewhere for a little discussion of it). The monk Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) in his De laude scriptorum (ch. 6; pp. 60-61 in the ed. listed below), has the same idea in more words:

Fortius enim, que scribimus, menti imprimimus, quia scribentes et legentes ea cum morula tractamus.

Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading.

In my previous post, I hinted at the manuscript work of our intellectual forebears. A perusal of William Wright’s recently published letters (ed. Bernhard Maier, see below) will illustrate how often he copied manuscripts for his colleagues in other parts of the world, as will for other scholars manuscript catalogs of European collections, which sometimes have copies of manuscripts from elsewhere in the hand of scholars whose names we know well. It’s hard to doubt that there be some utility in copying by hand manuscripts, even in part, even though this is hardly a necessity any more as it was before the days of relatively easy and inexpensive photography. Close copying of a script hitherto at least somewhat unfamiliar can be very instructive. Thorough exposure to one particular scribe, too, or at least one particular style seems most advisable. (A similar view led Janet Johnson, in her Demotic Egyptian grammar, to use the work of just one scribe in scans as examples for each chapter.) Perhaps before that, reading manuscripts of known texts, especially with a printed edition at hand for comparison might be especially helpful at earlier stages when students don’t know the language as well as they later will.

Where do we find samples of manuscripts in different scripts for perusal, study, and copying? There are, of course, myriads of freely available inscriptions and manuscripts in a great variety of languages available online: αἰτεῖτε καὶ δοθήσεται ὑμῖν, ζητεῖτε καὶ εὑρήσετε, κρούετε καὶ ἀνοιγήσεται ὑμῖν. Also in the previous post I mentioned some manuscript facsimiles published by former generations of scholars. Fortunately, these are not only represented by the past. An extremely fine — not to mention extremely heavy (but moderately priced for its great quality and worth) — recent example is the Album of Armenian Paleography (ed. M. Stone et al.), which is notable for going into the 19th and (in the section “archival documents”) 20th centuries; a letter written in Armenian by the famous French linguist Antoine Meillet is even included. Specifically for more modern kinds of handwriting, I already mentioned Mitchell’s book on writing Arabic. I have beside me a reprint of Witter’s Deutsch-Englische Schreib- und Lese-Fibel und Neues Erstes Lesebuch für Amerikanische Freischulen (St. Louis, 1881), which teaches handwriting exactly alongside of Frakturschrift to American students studying German. Students learning Russian, too, find themselves in special need of instruction for the language as handwritten when compared to printed or electronic texts, and at least one modern textbook I know of points this fact out. Finally, two posts back I gave several examples of Greek typography and especially noted the ligatures based on Greek handwriting in Byzantine manuscripts; there is some video and explanations showing the basics of this kind of writing here.

As a simple example in closing, here are some images from an Arabic manuscript I recently cataloged, CFMM 274, an early twentieth century manuscript of hagiographic texts. Anyone who has lived in an Arabophone culture and grown accustomed to handwritten notes, letters, etc. will have little difficulty reading this scribe’s handwriting, but students who have spent most of their time with printed Arabic materials will find themselves facing more difficulty. Printed Arabic type is based on clear letter shapes that have a ductus with obvious beginning, middle, and end. This is the case, too, with some manuscript hands, Naskh, for example, but in the hand in these images, it is at least in some cases easier to think in terms of words being written than distinct letter shapes strung together. The teeth of some letters (e.g. sīn and šīn) so noticeable in Arabic type (and Naskh and other scripts), is here almost completely absent; single dots are the same, but double dots are a line and a triad of dots is a (sometimes) curvier line. There is, I think, no real shortcut to getting familiar with harder-to-read hands: one must slog along, preferably with a text not too difficult in terms of vocabulary and content, often stopping to compare this word with that elsewhere on the page; our knowns inform our unknowns, then becoming knowns for further elucidation of other unknowns (I’m sure Seneca, Boileau or the like has said this more finely, but no place comes immediately to mind).

CFMM 274, p. 1

The title and first sentence read قصة القديس الكامل مار اهرون بقلم تلميذه بولس. في كل جيل وفي كل حين يتلألأ الصديقون محبّو الله.

CFMM 274, p. 96

Here is the title of another text in the manuscript: قصة القديس مار اولوغ احد رفاق القديس مار اوجين.

CFMM 274, p. 177

Finally, these are a few lines from the life of Būṯāmīna (or Būtāmīna) — I’ve not yet identified this female saint, but in addition to this text, we have a Garšūnī copy (MGMT 157, pp. 42-44), also late, in which she is called Būṭāmīnā; I’ll be grateful for any other information on her. The text reads: في رؤيا بعد موتها بثلاثة ايام وبيدها اكليل وضعته على رأسي وهي تقول لي « ستكون معي بعد قليل » وفي اليوم الثاني قطع رأسه بعد ما اعترق بيسوع المسيح اعتراقًا جيدًا.

The easy access to quality images in great quantity of manuscripts brought about by digital photography, the internet, etc. means that students and teachers have right at their disposal a slew of manuscripts with which to practice both their reading and their writing, not to mention their literary and linguistic acumen. We are no longer pressed to feed ourselves on printed editions merely, and we would do well to make ourselves quite at home with manuscripts as often as possible, and that means tolerance and familiarity with a broad range of handwriting in the languages we work with.


Klaus Arnold, ed., and Roland Behrendt, tr., Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes (De laude scriptorum) (Lawrence, Kansas, 1974).

Malachi Beit-Arié et al., Specimens of Mediaeval Hebrew Scripts, 3 vols. [the last still forthcoming, I think] (Jerusalem, 1987-).

Janet H. Johnson, Thus Wrote ʿOnchsheshonqy: An Introductory Grammar of Demotic, 3d ed. (Chicago, 2ooo). Downloadable here.

Bernhard Maier, ed., Semitic Studies in Victorian Britain: A Portrait of William Wright and His World Through His Letters, Arbeitsmaterialien zum Orient 26 (Würzburg, 2011).

T.F. Mitchell, Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to Ruqʿah Script (London, 1953, with reprints).

C.H. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands, 350 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Oxford, 1956).

Richard Seider, Paläographie der griechischen Papyri, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1967).

________, Paläographie der lateinischen Papyri, 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1972).

Michael E. Stone, Dickran Kouymjian, and Henning Lehmann, Album of Armenian Paleography (Copenhagen, 2002).

Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography (Oxford, 1912).

R.G. Turner, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (Princeton, 1971).

Siegbert Uhlig, Äthiopische Paläographie (1988); ET, Introduction to Ethiopian Palaeography (1990).

Ada Yardeni, The Book of Hebrew Script (London, 2002).


2 responses to “Moving from printed to handwritten texts

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  1. Pingback: Writing with Implements or with Keyboard, or How Important are Pencils in Your Life? « Rosemary’s Blog

  2. Pingback: Continuing manuscript culture « hmmlorientalia

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