Handwriting is Anything But Dead, According to Two UB Professors

Release Date: January 22, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- While national attention is focused on handwriting only one day each year -- Jan. 23 (John Hancock's birthday) is National Handwriting Day -- two University at Buffalo professors who are leaders in their respective fields think about putting pen to paper all year long.

Tamara Plakins Thornton, Ph.D., UB associate professor of history and author of "Handwriting in America: A Cultural History" (Yale University Press, 1996), the first and only cultural history of handwriting in America, has studied how attitudes toward handwriting also help explain the evolution of American beliefs and social forms.

Sargur Srihari, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Computer Science and director of UB's Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR), an international leader in handwriting recognition research, has developed with his staff an automated system now in use by the U.S. Postal Service that reads handwritten addresses.

They come to handwriting from opposite ends of the spectrum, with Thornton looking at the changing American perspective on handwriting and notions of individuality, while Srihari is concerned with getting machines to read human handwriting in all of its infinite varieties.

"On the one hand, with handwriting, you have people who are trying to get you to conform to an external model and to be obedient to rules," said Thornton. "On the other hand, you have people who resist that, who say 'I'm unique, I'm not conforming to any model.'"

According to Thornton, the idea of handwriting as a mirror on the self goes back to the 19th century, and handwriting analysts have kept that idea alive.

"A handwriting expert and analyst will tell you that you can write with your left hand, if you're right handed, or even write with your foot, and while it will look superficially different, the same unique characteristics will still be there," she said.

Thornton does not pretend to know whether or not that is true, but she pointed out that throughout the 20th century, people who have had their handwriting analyzed generally have been looking for results that reinforce that notion of individuality.

"They don't want to be told, 'Gee, you're really an ordinary person and don't have any particular talents,'" she remarked. "The analysts tell you that you will find out about these wonderful qualities that you have inside."

These days, said Thornton, handwriting analysis reflects society's emphasis on grooming the self.

"One school of analysis says if you change your handwriting, you can change your personality," she noted. "It's called graphotherapeutics. So, for example, maybe you lack assertiveness, and a graphologist will be able to tell you that because they'll see that your "h's" are too low or they'll come up with some graphic sign. Then once you've been clued in, you consciously modify your handwriting and the result is supposed to be that you modify your personality in the same way."

While the cultural history of handwriting may be full of references to how an individual's penmanship differs from other people's, the work being conducted in UB's Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition aims to find what is similar among people's handwriting.

"At CEDAR, we are trying to see what is common about handwriting," said Srihari. "What I try to do is find out, irrespective of who wrote it, can we read it? Can we make sense of what the writer intended?"

To develop the system, Srihari and his colleagues have had to find a way to get machines to deal with the many varieties of human handwriting, one of the most difficult problems in artificial intelligence.

"We cheat a lot!" exclaimed Srihari. "We cheat in the sense that we try and finesse the problem and come at it from all kinds of angles. For example, if we know that in this ZIP code there are only three street names that are valid, why bother trying to read the whole thing? We try to finesse the problem without really trying to read it and we figure that's how people read, too. You bring in a lot of knowledge when you're reading someone's personal letter to you, even if the handwriting is illegible."

Speaking of illegible handwriting, many people just assume that there is more and more of it these days and that it inevitably will continue, thanks to the proliferation of computers.

"There is a huge amount of literature saying that handwriting has gone downhill," Thornton said. "I'm kind of skeptical because if you look at the '50s, which we remember now as the golden age of penmanship, there was a huge amount of literature saying that penmanship was going downhill because of the typewriter and the Dictaphone and the telephone."

In fact, in an interesting twist, Thornton pointed out that there now are companies that will develop personal "handwriting fonts" for the computer so that electronic documents have a more personal look.

"You send in samples of your handwriting and they create a personalized font," she explained. "One of the companies doing this says, 'We don't just take your individual letters and string them together. We can contextualize them so we can make the 't' in the middle of the sentence look the way you do.'"

According to Srihari, the U.S. Postal Service has even requested that the UB researchers examine which of these types of fonts are more easily read by CEDAR's automated system so that they can recommend them to their mailers.

"It's your personal font," commented Srihari. "People get tired of things that are all printed with a word processor. We like to see something a little bit more stylized. Many of these handwriting fonts are quite popular."

So, at least according to these two observers, scrawl is anything but dead.

"After speech, the next most natural way to communicate is with handwriting because it requires very basic technology, just a stick in sand, or pen on paper," said Srihari. "It doesn't require any specialized keyboards or technology."

That's a critical advantage, agreed Thornton.

"People are not going to carry laptops around to do their shopping lists," she said. "It's not going to happen."

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