Pseudoscience, shmeudoscience. I believe in graphology.

When I was in grade school, we spent an inordinate amount of time learning penmanship. We didn’t just learn a specific way to form each letter and call it done; we spent hours every week getting it precisely, excruciatingly correct.

We would send off writing samples in official yellow folders to some faceless penmanship expert who, I imagined, was installed behind a polished mahogany desk with a magnifying glass permanently affixed to her eye. Weeks later, our samples would return to us, critiqued. We would be scored on things like how wide the loops of our lower-case g’s were, whether the masts of our h’s swooned too far too the right, and whether, in our fifth grade intensity, we pressed too hard on our Number 2 pencils. We’d be graded individually and as a class, and we had to keep sending them back until we produced something deemed adequate. 

In retrospect, it was bizarre. Our schooling was not otherwise exacting or pedantic. Volleyball was big, as were popcorn parties. Science class circled constantly around the central idea of “the webs of life,” and we filled out copious worksheets about our feelings, and coloring in charts to show whether our behavior toward others could be classified more as Warm Fuzzies, Cold Pricklies, or something in between. But when it was cursive time, it was all business.

I imagine there was money involved. Some tightly-wound busybody with deep pockets and a fetish for handwriting would disburse a major grant to the school if all the young ones emerged with properly trained pencil hands, maybe. 

Except for a few stray Jasons and Heathers who were born knowing how to make a perfectly ornate capital G in all its ghastly glory, everybody hated penmanship lessons. But it hasn’t turned me against the idea of kids learning cursive. Science backs the idea that it’s important, if not as all-consumingly important as it was when I was growing up. Learning cursive helps kids’ brains develop, engaging both the left and right hemispheres; and people engage better and retain ideas better if they write notes out in longhand, rather than typing. My kids are learning cursive in their elementary schools, but it appears to be a simpler, more streamlined version, which is good.

I have another, more frivolous reason for hoping cursive stays around: I believe in handwriting analysis — up to a point. I don’t think you can tell everything you need to know about a person based on his handwriting; but I do believe you can tell something, especially if we’ve all started from more or less the same standard and then developed our own deviations.

My mother used to take a gander at the handwriting of the young men my sisters were dating, and she’d be enthusiastic or wary, depending on what she saw. And she was onto something. It’s not a science, but it’s not nothing, either. You can also tell something (not everything) about a person from how they dress, what car, they drive, their tone of voice, their personal hygiene, and so on. Some of it has to do with external circumstances and how we’ve been taught, but some of it expresses who we are. Something interior gets put on the page, flowing through the pen.

Take a look, for instance, at this handwriting sample from one Thomas Aquinas, shared by Weird Catholic on Facebook:

How much of this is how he was taught to write (and the quality of the pen and paper, and how much light was in the room, and how much of a hurry he was in, etc. etc.), and how much of it is his own personality expressing itself by deviating from the norm? I have no idea. But what I see (and yes, there are huge gobs of confirmation bias at work in my analysis. Whatcha gonna do) is:

Those horizontal marks over letters. What are these? Aquinas would have been writing in Latin. I’m not enough of a scholar to know if they are dots over i’s, or some other diacritical marks. Whatever they are, they are long (not just over one letter) and are heavier at the right than at the left, and they look aggressive and definitive and a little bit angry.

The individual letters are very upright, not slanting to left or right, which suggests self-control and rational thinking, and also a certain amount of reserve and coldness toward others. No rush toward the future, no pining for the past; and no inordinate dependence.

You wouldn’t mistake this handwriting for that of a shy or indecisive person, or a sentimental person. It’s confident, possibly arrogant, but not showy. The pressure on the pen is very consistent throughout. This isn’t someone with meandering thoughts or a lot of time to waste. The words may not be clear to the reader, but it doesn’t seem like the writer suffered from any sloppiness of thought

Anyway, it’s mostly just fun and games. If you want to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll readily agree, and I won’t even hold your cold pricklies against you for it.

It’s true, though, that when someone has been raised with a keyboard and barely knows how to form letters, you can’t tell much from the unpracticed chicken scratches they do produce. And that’s a shame. All my life, I’ve looked forward to the moment when I can walk solemnly up to my daughter, grasping in my trembling hand an intercepted love letter from her beau, and telling her, “This man makes his lower-case a’s with a little gap at the bottom! RUN AWAY NOW!”

Ah well. In the words of Thomas Aquinas . . . 

. . . yeah, actually I have no idea what he says. 



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6 thoughts on “Pseudoscience, shmeudoscience. I believe in graphology.”

  1. Anopheles Sims is right, the long horizontal marks indicate abbreviations. When I took a course in Latin paleography, the professor informed us that Thomas Aquinas wrote in a highly specialized form of medieval script called “littera inintelligibilis” (“unintelligible script”). He was joking, sort of. Very few people can read Aquinas’s handwriting, and I don’t mean “few” as in “one in a thousand” or even “one in a million,” but more like “one in a billion.” Your sense that he’s not wasting any time is correct: part
    of what makes his handwriting so hard to decipher is that he appears to have eliminated all backstrokes of the pen, in order to save time in writing.

  2. When I was in grade school, my papers were held up to the class as a perfect model of Palmer cursive. In college I picked up a Sheaffer set and became proficient in calligraphy. I actually think the Palmer font is ugly, so I taught my kids the Getty-Dubay italic method. Some caught on to it, some didn’t; they developed their own cursive methods eventually. I have two sons who have never been able to get the knack of cursive and still print or type. They are coincidentally my least artistic kids. My most artistic kids have the best and most unique handwriting. My own hand has gotten worse, which I think is because I am in a hurry usually and use the computer daily in graphic arts work and composition. My husband is brilliant and I cannot read his handwriting. My eldest son, who is likewise gifted, has a beautiful legible hand. They have similar personalities, so I don’t know what you can deduce from that except that my son possibly had a better teacher or is the typical high-achiever, eldest child.

  3. My handwriting changes all the time- it’s a mix of cursive and print in one sentence- what does it say about me- lol. But seriously, I agree that children need to learn to write well by hand and penmanship is super important- particular in the technology-driven era of shortcuts we are currently living in. These fine motor skills are crucial for developing artistic talent and mastering the more creative aspects of learning and doing. But at the same token it seems that St Thomas was a passionate man- his “messy” handwriting was his hand trying to keep up with his brain. I’m sure we have all struggled with this. Anyhow, good handwriting is a sign of patience and order and care. So I think your mum is onto something Simcha when it comes to using it as an indicator for a suitable Son-in-Law.

  4. I too got excellent handwriting instruction but alas my naturally shaky hands meant I spent my childhood as a presumed dunce.
    Then we got typewriter instruction followed by computer training, my speed made me a super typist.
    But after 25 years of typing I started to do handwritten notes again (for security reasons) and suddenly I had neat handwriting ? How weird is that ?
    I think most deeply religious people, the doctors of the church probably had writing that was hard to read because they spent as much time as possible listening to God and assumed that everyone could hear God through their scribbles. I also think every one of them probably had at least one follower who could read anything they wrote.

  5. The “horizontal marks over letters” are marks of abbreviation. Unfortunately, I can’t read St. Thomas’s handwriting*, so can’t point to specific instances in the picture supplied, but a mediaeval scribe might well write, for example, “dns” (for “dominus”) with a horizontal line over the “ns” to indicate that this was an abbreviation. They look vigorous to me, rather than aggressive or angry (but, hey, I don’t even believe in “graphology”).

    *Conversely, I believe he would struggle with mine.

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