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Kurrent—500 years of German handwriting


Ralf Herrmann


Kurrent is a style of connected hand-writing that was used between the 15th and 20th century, especially in the countries using the German language. The style is based on late medieval cursive writing and can be understood as the written counterpart to blackletter typefaces …

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Just like blackletter, Kurrent is characterized by its abrupt changes of directions. In addition, the letters are almost always connected. Gaps are avoided and also writing over the same stroke again—whether it be on the paper itself or in the air. In cases, where this would happen in the Roman style of cursive writing, Kurrent just uses strokes beside each other.

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Standard Kurrent letters as they would appear around 1900

kurrentdevelopment.gifThe development of the Kurrent style over more than 500 years

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A writing master’s Kurrent (Johann Gottfried Koeppel, 1781)

Kurrent was also a style of the writing masters of the time and they embellished the type with decorative swashes for caps, ascenders and descenders. This gave the style it’s typical proportions with a rather small x-height. With these features fully developed over time, Kurrent became its own branch within the Latin script. The small x-height in connection with the zig-zag patterns and similar letter shapes made the type style more decorative than legible. 

leichtigkeit.jpgBlackletter and Kurrent in a type specimen from the type foundry of Karl Tauchnitz, 1825

sampleletter.jpg

When learning to write German, people would have to learn the Roman block letters and cursive, as well as blackletter and Kurrent, which were the most-used styles for written and printed German. Therefore their colloquial name became “Deutsche Schrift” (German Script). This semantic differentiation between “Latin script” and “German Script” was later misused to support the growing nationalistic ideology at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. The so-called German script was glorified as unique and superior creation of the German people and used as nationalistic symbol. 

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German postcards in Kurrent

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From the magazine Die zeitgemäße Schrift, which was published between 1928 and 1943

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Books in Kurrent from the publisher Alexander Duncker Verlag, Weimar

Sütterlin

At the beginning of the 20th century the teaching of Kurrent was reformed. The proportions of Kurrent in connection with the influence of the steel pen were neither very legible nor a good foundation for a characteristic personal hand-writing style. The German graphic designer Ludwig Sütterlin developed a set of reformed alphabets for the ministry of culture of the state of Prussia. The Kurrent alphabet was introduced in 1915. In the 1930s it had become the dominant writing style for teaching to write German. Even though Ludwig Sütterlin had also created a Latin alphabet for schools, his name became a synonym for his the Kurrent style. 

aeg.jpgSütterlin writing in a children’s cook book

Sütterlin did not try to invent new letters. Instead he modified the existing Kurrent style to make it easier to write and read. The general design of the letters remained basically unchanged. But the proportions were changed to a simple and more legible 1×1×1 ratio (ascender/x-height/descender). Beginners now wrote the letters upright and with a Redis pen without any pressure modulation while writing. 

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Beginner’s Sütterlin alphabet 

The use of Sütterlin and blackletter typefaces was actively supported and even demanded, when the Nazis gained power in 1933. The publishers of school books had to use blackletter typefaces and had to focus on Kurrent writing—Jewish publishers on the other hand were not allowed to use any so-called “German typefaces”. So during the 1930s blackletter and Kurrent writing were on the rise again and the political connotations of this use became more and more prominent. 

edelmann.jpgSütterlin store signage (“Edelmann”)

schmetterling.jpgA children’s book from 1945

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Because of their connections, Kurrent and Sütterlin were not easy to be designed as metal typefaces, but they were offered and used nevertheless. 

Type foundries also reacted quickly to the ideological influence on the type use. Shortly after the Nazis gained power, a new style of modernized blackletter typefaces was offered from various foundries. It is now colloquially known as Schaftstiefelgrotesk (“combat boot sans serif”). This name also shows how strong the connotations between the type style and politics of the Nazi era still are. 

schaftstiefelgrotesk.jpg
Two examples of the modernized blackletter typefaces of the 1930s. Left: Gotenburg, right: Element

Offenbacher Script

The famous German calligrapher and type designer Rudolf Koch also got in the game and developed his own style of Kurrent writing: It was published in 1927 and was called Offenbacher Schrift. Koch wanted a script that was not only easy to write, but it should also allow for some artistic quality and freedom. The design was much more lively than Sütterlin’s Kurrent alphabet and was introduced in schools in the state of Hesse. But despite it’s good reputation in the field of typography and calligraphy, the writing style of Rudolf Koch wasn’t widely adopted.   

kochschrift.jpg

In 1941, after years of promoting the typical German type styles, things changed from one day to the next. The Nazis had realized, that they couldn’t easily force their type styles onto the people in the conquered territories. And the German metal typefaces had to be shipped throughout Europe just to print them, which was rather expensive. So the Nazis took a pragmatic approach: they invented a Jewish connection to the development of blackletter typefaces and with that banned all “German typefaces”. Now the Roman block letters and cursive were proposed as Normalschrift (“standard script”). After that, blackletter and Kurrent quickly fell out of use and were removed from the school curriculum. And with that, hundreds of years of handwritten German became illegible to the general public. 





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Florian H.

Posted (edited)

Thank you for bringing up the topic of Kurrent here, Ralf.

I understand this is not a scientific article, still I wish the captions were more detailed. For example, the samples in the third image (development) were written by Anna Simons, reproduced in Die zeitgemäße Schrift, June/July 1927. By the way, this evolutionary overview deliberately ignores the degeneration in the 19th century caused by the pointed (steel) pen. Koch’s motivation for his Kurrent was to bring back the “original, healthy and strong forms” of the broad-nib pen.

I don’t like the terms Roman block letters and Roman cursive. Former is simply Roman – nothing blocky about it. Latter isn’t Roman (i.e. upright, non-cursive). It could better be labelled Roundhand.

Why include Schaftstiefelgrotesk? The opportunistic nationalism of foundries in the early 1930s can also be illustrated with Kurrent typefaces directly. The first years of the Third Reich saw a whole batch of releases, including Deutsche Werbeschrift (1933), Deutsch-Signal (1934), or Balmung (1934; named after the legendary sword of Siegfried, the Germanic dragon-slaying hero of the Nibelungenlied).

Edited by Florian H.

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Ralf Herrmann

Posted

 

I don’t like the terms Roman block letters and Roman cursive. Former is simply Roman – nothing blocky about it.

While the term block letter is not so common in our field, it is an established term and makes sense in this chart. In fact, it is an important part of the message of that chart. 

 

Latter isn’t Roman (i.e. upright, non-cursive). It could better be labelled Roundhand.

Yes, it could be labelled Roundhand, but that is not what the chart is about. It’s supposed to show two types of letters in two separate branches, which in the German language traditionally are labelled Latin and German, but that makes things even more complicated as you know, because the “German typefaces” are just a sub group of the Latin script. So I use Roman as an umbrella term for the unbroken, connected and unconnected types of the “Lateinische Schrift”. I know that this is not universally accepted, but as long at is clear in the specific context, it’s the best compromise I can think of so far. There is a traditional connection between these styles over centuries and it can be useful to use one term to describe it. Extending Roman to include cursive in this way is as right or wrong as other umbrella terms such as German Script. It is the use and context which makes them correct/incorrect or useful/not useful.

 

The first years of the Third Reich saw a whole batch of releases, including Deutsche Werbeschrift (1933), Deutsch-Signal (1934), or Balmung (1934; named after the legendary sword of Siegfried, the Germanic dragon-slaying hero of the Nibelungenlied).

​I don’t have any original samples of such typefaces in my archive, but I will add them, should I get some in the future. They would fit in very well. Good idea!

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Ralf,

I recently discovered Kurrent in several family letters that were kept by my great grandparents. I had no idea that they were in this type of penmanship until a friend was unable to translate them for me. Do you know of anyone who is able to translate documents written in Kurrent into English?

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Ralf Herrmann

Posted

4 hours ago, MollyM said:

Do you know of anyone who is able to translate documents written in Kurrent into English?

For a short text, you can just show a scan in our forums. 

There are of course also commercial transcriptions services (Kurrent → Roman script). Here is one example: 
http://www.suetterlin-service.de/SUETTERLIN-SERVICE_Transkription_alter_Handschriften/English.html

Translating the text would then be a second step. 

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