In "The Case for Cursive," (NYT [April 28, 2011]), Katie Zezima states that:
For centuries, cursive handwriting has been an art. To a growing number of young people, it is a mystery.
The sinuous letters of the cursive alphabet, swirled on countless love letters, credit card slips and banners above elementary school chalk boards are going the way of the quill and inkwell. With computer keyboards and smartphones increasingly occupying young fingers, the gradual death of the fancier ABC’s is revealing some unforeseen challenges.
This immediately reminded me of the lamentations that have been widely voiced over the loss of the ability to write Chinese characters by hand that has been occasioned by the same technologies:
The difference between the impact of computers and smartphones (also mobile / cell phones) on cursive and on characters is that, in the former case, it is a loss of motor skills and esthetic sensitivity, whereas in the latter case, it is increasingly often the inability to produce many characters at all, whether clumsily or handsomely.
Cursive is merely one form of alphabetical writing; even if one has forgotten cursive script or never mastered it, one can still print the letters of the alphabet in upper and lower case. I have found, somewhat to my distaste, that most people (especially younger people) now exclusively print when they write. This may only be my personal prejudice, but printing looks clumsy and inelegant to me (not always, of course, since I've also seen some astonishingly beautiful printing), and — even though my own handwriting is notoriously poor — I much prefer to write in a simple cursive, both because I think it looks nicer and because, at least for me, it is much, much faster than printing.
Chinese characters too have their cursive and regular forms (see the nine styles of calligraphy for mǎ 馬 ["horse"]) about one quarter of the way down on the left here). As I mentioned above, however, the impact of computers and mobile phones on character writing is of a completely different order than that of their impact on alphabetical writing. What is happening in China is that well over 95% of people who use computers and cell phones rely on these devices to write the characters for them by means of Pinyin (alphabetical) inputting. When one enters an English word or sentence in a computer or cell phone, one is still entering the same letters of the alphabet as if one were writing the word or sentence by hand. When one enters a Chinese word or sentence in a computer or cell phone, Pinyin acts as a mediating tool to access the characters stored in electronic memory. Thus, in "writing" Chinese characters nowadays, one is no longer directly relating to the characters themselves.
As quoted by Zezima, Jacqueline DeChiaro, the principal of Van Schaick Elementary School in Cohoes, N.Y., asks, “Is cursive really a 21st-century skill?” Dare one ask the analogous question for characters?
Just as there are those in our society who make an impassioned plea for the maintenance of the ability to write cursive, so there are those in China who insist upon the importance of students learning to write characters by hand, and not simply relying upon IT to generate characters for them.
[A tip of the hat to John Rohsenow]