The Engrish Arphabet
May 12, 2010 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Is there a word for foreign "accents" in handwriting?

I guess what I am asking is, is there a word for how one's handwriting in a non-native alphabet is affected by the alphabet you're used to? For example, people who grew up writing some variant of Sino characters (hanzi, kanji, hangul and hanja) bring an unmistakable "look" to the Roman alphabet: notes from dad, notes from mom. My parents' English handwriting looks exactly like this, too. Where does it come from? Is it calligraphic strokes crossing over? Are there fundamental aspects to writing in a given alphabet that can make another alphabet look very different if applied? Or is it just the way English handwriting is taught in Asia? I feel like I'm using all the wrong terminology, but hopefully you know what I mean.

(This question was prompted by seeing a very carefully painted sign behind a Japanese restaurant in Denver, with foot-high letters telling you where to park - as neat is if they were stenciled, except they had "the look" to them, too!)
posted by peachfuzz to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I've noticed that those who write Cyrillic also write English differently. Don't know the name though! Will be watching this thread with interest.
posted by too bad you're not me at 8:48 AM on May 12, 2010

I looked at the notes from your parents; the handwriting doesn't look unusual to me. It is a bit neater than average. I believe that the main factors that affect English handwriting are, does the person know how to hold the pen or pencil correctly, and is this person making the necessary effort to create a legible result, or is he or she too impatient or lazy to do so? If there is any influence from having previously learned to write in a different language, it is probably that since some other languages are more demanding in terms of precision and variety of shapes of the characters that are used, a certain amount of discipline is instilled, so that you do not get as sloppy a result as you do with many (possibly most) native English writers.

But no, there is no word for a foreign influence on handwriting. Basically, writing is either neat or sloppy.
posted by grizzled at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2010

Seconding the above. I can always tell if someone's native written language was Cyrillic.
posted by griphus at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2010

I have no answer to this question though I do question the premise as looking at those examples you provide would not lead me to suspect that the authors spoke a foreign language (from handwriting only -- spelling and grammar mistakes aside). Many of my students whose native language involves some form of Sino characters often have small, blocky writing.
posted by proj at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2010

I've noticed that those who write Cyrillic also write English differently.

I know exactly what you mean. Almost every Soviet-raised adult I've ever known has had nearly the same exact (but very distinctive) handwriting. I'd attribute it to the homogeneity of communism.
posted by litnerd at 8:56 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've noticed the Cyrillic thing too - a friend of mine was in teh Peace Corp in Bulgaria, and when I looked at her letters through the course of her term, the handwriting took on that look.
posted by notsnot at 8:57 AM on May 12, 2010

But no, there is no word for a foreign influence on handwriting. Basically, writing is either neat or sloppy.

I disagree. My job involves having to individually check the hand-written paperwork of an ethnically varied group of individuals, at least a quarter of whom are immigrants. I've never been wrong on Cyrillic yet and I'm pretty sure that these similarities exist in other non-Latin alphabets. I'm not sure how this works with something like Hanzi, but Russian script writing (Russians of my parents generation and before did not, for the most part, write in block letters) is very distinct from English, even though quite a number of letters are similar or exactly the same.
posted by griphus at 9:00 AM on May 12, 2010

It probably has something to do with the styles of handwriting that are taught in countries where the Latin alphabet is not native. This is true to some extent even where English is the native language: students who learn the D'Nealian method of writing frequently retain those distinctive hooks into adulthood.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:08 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

"But no, there is no word for a foreign influence on handwriting. Basically, writing is either neat or sloppy."

Um, no.

There's a whole branch of forensic linguistics that deals with handwriting analysis. I have no formal FL training, so I don't know the terminology, but yes, it's there. One's old ways of using language are going to influence the new ways...and this includes the physical writing of speech, much like the voice apparatus (as well as one's knowledge of language and how it works) is influenced by and habitualized through use of one's native tongue.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:11 AM on May 12, 2010

Doesn't even need to be from a different alphabet at all - I notice patterns of differences between Americans and people from parts of continental Europe who have maybe an extra character or two.
posted by heyforfour at 9:12 AM on May 12, 2010

I wonder. I've seen Japanese people who didn't speak a word of English, but had beautiful, textbook cursive. I wouldn't have been able to say "that was written by a Japanese person." I did note that a lot of Japanese people would form the digit "9" differently than I was used to, but that's about it.

Like MB, I suspect this sort of thing would have more to do with the style of Roman lettering they learned rather than their non-Roman primary language, and you'd be just as likely to see these "accents" among people from different countries that use the Roman character set.
posted by adamrice at 9:15 AM on May 12, 2010

Oh, yes, heyforfour brings up a good point. Not only does language get influenced by what we know and are used to, but we have a range of sociolinguistic styles we employ based on who we are talking to, the medium being used, and the purpose of the communication. And that can affect everything from what sounds we make and how we make them, what words we use, pitch, gesture, and writing style - among many, many other things.

I'm using the word 'style' in the sociolinguistic sense here - much like code and register, where these things are subject to ___-shifting.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:17 AM on May 12, 2010

heyforfour: "Doesn't even need to be from a different alphabet at all - I notice patterns of differences between Americans and people from parts of continental Europe who have maybe an extra character or two."

Definitely. Handwriting as taught in French schools is massively different from "standard" British handwriting.
posted by turkeyphant at 9:45 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I saw a post somewhere about all the different styles of penmenship taught in different geographic areas, in different decades. When I looked at the links, I could see hints of various people I knew and how their handwriting differed. Central and Eastern European, British, North Americans of different ages. It's definitely there in the letters "r" and "t" and "n" and "f" and the numbers, especially, well, all of them!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:58 AM on May 12, 2010

Russian drafters even letter their drawings in a characteristic style. I didn't know any non-Russian, Cyrillic writers before lettering drawings was obsolete.
posted by jet_silver at 10:12 AM on May 12, 2010

Good question, and one I have thought about asking myself. I noticed while working with a whole range of cutomers from around the planet that this is the case -- to this day I can spot Japanese Girl handwriting almost instantly -- and it is not merely non-Latin alphabets. The gap between a European digit 1 and a North American 1 are obvious at a glance.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:32 AM on May 12, 2010

There are definitely differences in english handwriting across cultures. I spent a lot of time in China and my students' English handwriting was very easily identifiable. When learning to write Chinese characters they learn a very specific way to write, including stroke order and style, (there is a right and wrong way to write Chinese characters, you can't just produce the image however you want) and this carries over to english and is easy to see. (they write lines in English letters according to the rules of Chinese writing) Chinese people who write English more have it less though, almost like a spoken accent would lesson.

Also, when I was in Mexico I noticed a certain handwriting Mexicans had, which was rounded.

I think these handwriting differences are a facet of cultural differences in general.
posted by bearette at 10:34 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can definitely see this in writings from France and North America. Some of the letters are shaped differently. It took me a long time to learn that an upside down V is actually the number "one" in french hand-writing.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:39 AM on May 12, 2010

Interesting! I've definitely noticed that people that grew up writing Cyrillic make the letter X as a backwards C next to a regular C, rather than two intersecting lines. Also, in certain Latin American countries like Chile (and probably elsewhere) the number 7 must have a bar crossing it, or else it is a 1.
posted by fermezporte at 12:13 PM on May 12, 2010

It has to do with what style of handwriting people learn as kids. In America, I learned D'Nealian as a child, though generations before me may have been taught Palmer.

I now live in the UK, and a few years ago was told by a Scottish man that my handwriting was very "American" (he had lived in the US for many years). I found it interesting because I always kind of thought that British writing had a certain "feel" to it as well - especially men's writing, which, not only being similar from one man to another, also seemed MUCH neater and more legible than the average American man's handwriting. When I looked into it a bit more, I found that in Britain, people may have been taught the Vere Foster method of handwriting. Or maybe Nelson, or Marion Richardson.

Here's a bit on the history of handwriting

Here's a short piece on the history of handwriting in America

a description of some of the different styles taught in the US.

Here's an interesting article on handwriting.

A man named Florian J Hardwig studies this exact topic:

Why do Swiss people write in another way than Germans, French differently than Dutch? Are there dialects’ of handwriting styles? The handwriting of people varies. Yet, contrary to widespread belief, it is not a completely personal and individual thing: the writing model acquired at school leaves its traces. As school is generally organised nationally, one can distinguish handwriting styles from different countries (and periods).

Great question! Handwriting fascinates me.
posted by triggerfinger at 12:58 PM on May 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

I know exactly what you mean. Almost every Soviet-raised adult I've ever known has had nearly the same exact (but very distinctive) handwriting. I'd attribute it to the homogeneity of communism.

Umm, right. Actually, to the extent that this is true, it simply has a lot more to do with the emphasis placed on teaching nice handwriting in eastern Europe - something which seems to not have even exist in America any longer. (For instance, I read an article about how fewer than half the schools in America teach cursive. Weird, to me.)

To someone raised with the Cyrillic alphabet, there's as much diversity within the handwriting of one's peers that it's no problem to identify who wrote something simply by examining their handwriting. I suspect this is a case where, to a non-Cyrillic writer, one sees mostly odd trident-looking letters and backwards letters, which obscures the personality of the writer to some extent. (We learned both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabet in school.)

To my eyes, native Americans have very similar handwriting, so do people in the UK or France or Germany. It's just a resemblance based on how they were taught in their schools; I doubt it has anything to do with the homogeneity of capitalism.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:46 PM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thank you! I notice this with British handwriting - there's a certain rounded style that for some reason every Brit has. And I do notice the Asian style of writing with my East Asian friends too.
posted by divabat at 3:26 PM on May 12, 2010

Response by poster: thought-provoking answers so far, thanks! I think the stroke order thing may be on the right track. And I had no idea about how many different styles of handwriting were taught - fascinating!

It's funny that some people don't see the look in the examples I linked - it may be a matter of sensitivity. I grew up noticing that my parents and all their friends had the same handwriting, and it's distinct as a thick accent in speech to me now. I'm having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it is - I think part of it is that the way different letters are drawn, some in one stroke with lots of bends and curves and some as several separate strokes, doesn't follow any rule that makes sense to me, but is remarkably consistent from writer to writer. Like, a simple letter might be two separate strokes, but something that is more complex is one. Always, no matter who is writing it. Hard to describe.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:07 AM on May 13, 2010

What an interesting question (and interesting answers above).

When I taught ESL, one thing I noticed was that most, if not all, of my Korean students would draw a short line above their lower-case letter i, rather than a dot.

This page explains that in the Korean alphabet "the shapes of the the vowels are based on three elements: man (a vertical line), earth (a horizontal line) and heaven (a dot). In modern Hangeul the heavenly dot has mutated into a short line."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:18 AM on June 20, 2010

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