The Rise and Fall of D. R. Wilton; or, Handwriting versus Digitization

When I was at high school, I had a friend named Dixie Wilton who was famous for, among other achievements, his signature.

This was back in the days of fountain pens, when people still actually signed things. He had some responsibilities that required him to put up signed notices around the school, so he put a lot of effort into his signature.

It was a remarkable signature, especially for a 17-year-old boy, combining gravitas with elegance. The D extended a long way to the right, then returned and curled under; the tail of the R had a calligraphic swoop; and the W stroke finished in an upward flourish that curled back over the first two initials like a quiff of hair, or a small fair-weather cloud. He practiced his signature all the time, as a cross between a meditation exercise and a doodle — and everyone else practiced it too, so we could make fun of him for such pretension.

Nowadays, that level of commitment — that degree of artistry — in someone his age would be unthinkable. That’s not because 17-year-olds have changed, but because of the rise of digitized text and the decline of cursive handwriting.

What’s more, this gain-and-loss quandary is happening all over the world. In the name of instantaneous and global transmission — the triumph of communication over time and space, in effect — most of the world’s writing systems have been digitized for use on all our digital devices. In fact, the relatively few remaining scripts that have not become part of the Unicode standard are worth examining, like D. R. Wilton’s signature, to identify what is lost in the conversion, and what writing is all about.

I’ve been thinking about this question as I’ve been doing one of my Endangered Alphabets carvings, this one in the Garay script for the Wolof language of Senegal and its environs.

The Garay script, created in 1961 by Assane Faye, has not yet been accepted into the Unicode standard and thus digitized, for two interesting reasons. First, it does not have what we would regard as a uniformed letter height. Having spent hours poring over samples of Assane’s writing, I came to the conclusion that even lower-case letters seem to have four different heights. This is not as vertically-defiant as the wonderfully unconventional Mandombe script, which looks like a row of unevenly-stacked bricks. But even so, it reminds us how narrow and uniform our assumptions are about what writing ought to look like and how it ought to behave.

The second and greater challenge posed by the Garay script is that, in one of its two manifestations, whenever the writer reaches the end of a word (the left end, as the script is written from right to left), the last letter-stroke is extended down and back underneath the previous letters. In other words, it is the only script in the world in which every word is underlined.

This delightful and elegant calligraphic flourish, the kind of satisfying element that Dixie Wilton appreciated, baffles digitization. It’s hard enough to create a font with a complete set of ligatures, but ligatures generally only have to link one letter with its neighbor. In Garay, the subscript line varies with the length of the word, and needs to have the same smooth curve as a slur over a series of notes on a musical staff.

It’s not the only Wolof script that revels in the graceful movement of the human hand, the turn of the wrist. Earlier this year I heard about a new script called Caytu, developed by Cheikh Talibouya Seck.

“I decided to do so because I believe that each nation must develop its own cultural elements,” he explained. “It makes the world a more varied, more interesting, less boring place. As for the methods I used, it’s simple: I made several tests, and eliminated everything that seemed too ugly, too complicated, not original enough, until I reached this result… My main goal was to have an easy-to-use and elegant alphabet.”

Caytu is indeed elegant and (I am guessing) easy to use; but by the same token, it would be hard to digitize. Constraining those lovely flowing lines into uniform squares would certainly make it infinitely easier to use, to teach, to publish, to propagate. But his intent was also to be more varied, interesting, original, and elegant.

Nowadays, in a post-fountain-pen era, we rely on a font package for those qualities. But in doing so, what are we missing?

We’re missing that writing by hand involves a series of extraordinarily intimate connections — between the mind and the body, between the hand and the page, between the page and the reader. It is an act, even a drama, rather than a product.

Writing that has not been digitized (or, in an earlier era, cast into type), is not just writing — it is somebody’s writing.

If you get a text or an email from an unsaved number or address, you have no idea who it’s from. I actually got a series of prank emails from my best friend from high school (who could do an excellent D. R. Wilton signature, by the way), and I had no idea who had sent them. It was an eerie and extraordinarily disturbing experience.

For the reader, then, there’s an issue of trust; for the writer there’s an issue of impersonality. Two days before writing this, I got an email from someone who had created a font based on his own handwriting so his communications would feel more personal. Less technically skilled, I bought a calligraphy pen to make my writing both more attractive and more clearly mine.

We digitize writing because we view it as a form of communication. As such, it needs to be as universal, clear, and exact as possible, invulnerable to misinterpretation.

But writing is also, in effect, an art form, perhaps the most democratic art form. When we write a G we can tell our own G from anyone else’s, and a handwriting expert can make informed guesses about our character. We can even tell our current state of mind: My own writing is very different first thing in the morning from a couple of hours later, and different again at the end of the day when I’m tired.

Beyond that, it conveys something about where and when we learned to write: The handwriting on a chalkboard outside a restaurant in Paris could only be French. Even without practicing our signature a hundred times during after-lunch geography class, we shape our letters more than we shape any other creation or possession. 

As such, writing is a form of coding. The irony about digitization is that a good, old-fashioned handwritten letter encodes far more information than a digitized standard letter. 

The issue, then, is one of bandwidth: A script that is highly expressive, or an individual person’s handwriting, carries just too much meaning for our devices to handle. Digitization eliminates vast amounts of information in the name of creating a universal, quickly processed standard.

The best example may be the Arabic script, which varies even more from country to country, from region to region, from culture to culture, than our own Latin alphabet. Those differences and variations are important for any number
of reasons. Eliminating them in the name of a mythical standard Arabic is like telling people they can no longer talk to each other, and all communication needs to take place
in Morse code.

All this is happening beyond most people’s notice, of course, but they sense the change. And this inkling results in the question that, since I started displaying the Endangered Alphabets carvings and speaking about them 11 years ago, I’ve been asked more often than any other: Is cursive English an endangered alphabet?

The fact that this question is asked so invariably, so passionately, implies that this isn’t just a matter of intellectual curiosity. Wrapped around the question is a tone that implies that something beautiful, important, and highly evolved is at risk. Is typing out letters as discrete units rather than flowing through whole words in some sense a step backwards, a step toward brutalization and stultification?

It’s an odd question, given that those of us (of a certain age) who were taught cursive will also admit we hated the strict discipline of the form. Cursive was taught not because it was beautiful but because good handwriting was an employable skill. For a clerk, a fair and unambiguous hand might mean the difference between profit and loss; for a mapmaker, it might make the difference between a ship sailing and a ship sinking. Hence the rigor, even the brutality, of our teachers, who drummed the combination of letters and ligatures into us over and over, while — in my case, at least — the ghastly metal-nibbed ink pens tore at the page or vomited great gouts of ink onto our work. Everyone who learned cursive ought to hate it.

Kids don’t learn to write like that anymore, and I suspect that is one reason why folks of my age bemoan the decline of cursive. It was a form of writing that was essential to us, to the point of being beaten into us. Was all that suffering useless, in the long run? When we complain that today’s kids can’t understand cursive, it’s another sign that they don’t understand us, and we’re afraid they don’t care. 

No, cursive writing appeals to us, I think, because it reveals writing as a human act, rather than a mechanical one. We can see the dynamic movement of the pen across the page, unconsciously putting ourselves in the writer’s place — we can appreciate the effort involved, the attention given to the flourishes. By the same token, we feel we know the writer as if listening to their speech, with its emphases and hesitations, its pacing and rhythm.

As such, I’m sad about the simplification of scripts into more mechanical or geometrical forms. Traditional Chinese and Arabic are remarkable in that they are true scripts — that is, you can see the movement of the hand, the point where the pen or brush hits or leaves the page. But both have now been reconceived in simplified forms, more geometrical and mechanical, easier to digitize, learn, and execute, perhaps, but colder and more mechanical. No opportunity for expression, engagement, elaboration, imagination, pride, and care in one’s work. 

So am I in favor of the reintroduction of cursive? Yes, but not in the way it was traditionally taught. In other words, not as a necessary form of communication, but as an art. 

Dixie Wilton’s signature only seemed pretentious because we never thought of writing as something more than a means to take notes and pass essay-based exams.

I imagine a signature-writing exercise, not in art class, but in English class. Practice your signature. Your goal: Make it more than just a squiggle with a fingertip on a point-of-sale screen.

Use a ballpoint, a sharpie, a pencil, an ink pen, a brush, a calligraphy pen, a can of spray paint. See which feels right in your hand. See which creates the look you want. Take your time. Have fun with it. Feel the bones in your wrist turn like the hand of a dancer. And all the time, remember: What you are writing is your name. Think of it as a kind of avowal: This is who I am. This is how I choose to meet the world. This is my writing.