When I started with lettering, all I could think about is how I wanted to be able to draw these beautiful, flawless, elegant scripts. But I had no idea where to begin.

When you first start off, all of these scripts look intimidatingly complex. You see these detailed flourishes and wonder how could I ever do that? There are so many different letter variations and styles.

Your first inclination might be to pick up a pen and start mimicking these letters yourself. Don’t worry, we’ll get there. But there’s a better approach to learning.

The first step is understanding script.

There is a vast history behind scripts and how they have come to be what they are today. Having an understanding and appreciation of that history will help guide your learning.

Two Schools of Thought

There are countless varieties of cursive scripts using the Latin alphabet. But they largely stem from just two styles.

Obviously, every seasoned scribe has developed their own flavor, but if you learn to identify the rules and systems they use, elegant scripts in cursive become much less intimidating.

Roundhand (commonly referred to as Copperplate Script)

There’s a very fascinating story behind this one.

During the times of the Renaissance (~1500), the scribes of the Apostolic Camera (perhaps better known as the Papal Treasury) developed the italic cursiva script. Writing in these times was not easy. Quills were fragile and difficult to use. The easiest way to write was by connecting letters in a way that allowed the scribes to lift their hands as little as possible.

The word “cursive” is derived from the Medieval Latin word “cursivus”, which translates to “running”.

The Apostolic Camera was destroyed during the sack of Rome in 1527. Many scribes moved to Southern France and refined italic cursiva into italic circumflessa. This was later adapted into the French Rhonde (Round) style.

By the mid 1700s, France’s officials were receiving so much written correspondence in a variety of different styles from scribes with different levels of skill. Because of this, the writing became hard to decipher. As a result, France imposed the rule that all legal documents must be written in one of three styles. These are Coulee (a less elegant style of script), Rhonde (what we know as Roundhand), and Speed Hand (which is similar to what we would recognize as gothic blackletter).

Over the course of the next 2 centuries, Roundhand became popularized across Europe and eventually North America.

Example of roundhand script alphabet.

Roundhand alpabet by Geroge Bickham. Image taken from luc.devroye.org

The word Copperplate actually refers back to the 1600s when Roundhand writing styles were reproduced on copperplates. So when you hear the words Rhonde, Roundhand, Engrossers, or Copperplate, they’re all referring to the same thing.

Spencerian Script

The second of the two primary styles is Spencerian Script. This was developed in the mid-1800s by Platt Rogers Spencer. It was used as a standard form of writing and business correspondence until the early 1900s when typewriters became common accessible.

It was also taught in primary schools to students learning to write.

Although Spencerian has since become popularized as an artistic script, it’s original focus was to be utilitarian. Traditionally, the letters weren’t even shaded (they had no line-width variations).

Example of Spencerian script alphabet.

Spencerian alpabet by unknown penman. Image taken from thegraphicsfairy.com

Differences Between Roundhand and Spencerian

There’s no doubt that Roundhand had a big influence on the development of Spencerian, but there are some distinctions to be made.

In Spencerian, the letterforms themselves share similar characteristics, but Spencer’s goal was to create a script that was more legible and quick to write.

Minuscules (Lowercase Letters)

When you closely examine Spencerian letterforms, you’ll notice that the connections between the letters differ in a way that allows the scribe to move the pen even less. Check out this example of the word “minimum” written in each style:

The word 'minimum' written in both Roundhand and Spencerian scripts.

Left: Roundhand word. Right: Spencerian word.

Notice the way the letters in the Roundhand version of the word “loop” or “curve” into each other at a sharp angle, whereas in the Spencerian version, the connection is less sloped and is more direct. This lack of sloping is considered to be less work for the scribe.

You’ll also notice differences in the letters a, d, g, o, and q. In Roundhand, these are generally constructed with two strokes. First the oval, and then the rest of the letter.

In Spencerian, these letters are constructed with one stroke.

Differences in letters between Roundhand and Spencerian scripts.

Left: Roundhand letter connections. Right: Spencerian letter connections.

Majuscules (Uppercase Letters)

The differences in the majuscules of the Spencerian and Roundhand alphabets are quite apparent. This fantastic picture from the IAMPETH website shows the drastic differences between the two.

Differences in letters between Roundhand and Spencerian scripts.

Majuscule comparison of Spencerian and Roundhand. Image taken from iampeth.com

The differences of some letters are more obvious than others, but once you dedicate some time to learning these alphabets, you will be able to tell the difference very easily.

Putting It All Together

Whether they know it or not, there’s no doubt that these two scripts are the most influential cursive scripts to calligraphy and lettering artists.

With all of that influence and inspiration, there’s no doubt that the styles blend together a lot. And for good reason — they’re very complimentary.

But when you first start learning this facet of lettering, knowing the difference reduces the intimidation factor tenfold. You probably already know more about their histories than most people!

Now that you have a good understanding of what cursive script is all about, it’s time to get to work.

In the next couple of posts, you’ll learn how to actually create these elegant scripts with your own hands. I’ll set you up with everything you need to become proficient in this script style. We’ll be going into depth, so get ready!