10 tips on deciphering old handwriting

10 tips on deciphering old handwriting

A trunk of old letters. A pile of postcards tied with string. A paper copy of the will of an ancestor. All can be fantastic primary research or a font of ideas for stories—if you could only read them!

Reading old handwriting on historic documents can be difficult. Just as in modern times, penmanship skills were often poor, or more likely, the script, language and abbreviations used are unfamiliar.

Here are ten tips to help with old documents written in English:

1. Create a clear working copy

To make things easier for you and to minimize any damage to the original document, scan or photograph the original to make a working copy. With all the digital advances at our disposal these days, adjust brightness, deepen colour for faded ink, and zoom in.

2. Identify the historical period.

A quick look at the array of fonts available shows how different the same words can look when written in different styles. Different periods in history had distinct styles and if you can pinpoint the century, you can then focus on that style. You’ll come across old conventions like the “long s” or the old Anglo-Saxon letter thorn, “þ”. pronounced “th” which became a “y” and shows up in words like Ye (The).Below is a visual sampling of scripts used from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (photos from www.ancestry.com/) For even earlier scripts the University of Nottingham has a wonderful section on reading old manuscripts.

16th Century – Chancery Script
17th Century – Italic Script
18th Century – Secretary Script
19th Century – Round Hand

3. Print an alphabet sheet

Once you’ve identified the right century, (see tip #2) Google image search and print a reference sheet of the alphabet in typical scripts of the period. “19th century handwriting alphabet” produced this result:

4. Do an initial read through

Read through the whole document (out loud if possible) to get a “feel” for the document in its entirety. Even if you stumble over more words than you decipher, your eyes and ears will start to get familiar with the handwriting, and you will begin to recognize some words. Do it again. And again.

5. Think Phonetically

Spellings, punctuation and capitalizations weren’t standardized until well into the 19th century. Many people couldn’t read or write and scribes or officials wrote what they heard. People’s names and place names in particular can have a wide variety of spellings, even on the same page. Patterns of speech and local dialects would have affected what scribes heard. So, for example, if it’s a Scottish document, “William” may be written “Weelum”; “hundred” may be written “hunnert” and “more” might be “mair”. That’s where reading aloud helps too. (see tip #4)

6. Be aware of abbreviations, short forms and jargon

Every profession and era has its own abbreviations, short forms and jargon. A letter in your grandmother’s time might have said “Thank you for your letter of the 14th inst.”(this month) An email message today might end with “TTYL” or “Thx”. Take time to research the meaning of any unknown abbreviations you come across. A few examples:

  • et al = and others
  • wit = witness
  • do = same
  • w/o = wife of

7. Name shortforms and nicknames

The trend in prior times to use nicknames and to abbreviate names when writing them, while annoying, can be helpful because the short forms are easily recognizable and having deciphered them, it will help with further identification of letters.

Here are two resources to help you:

8. Start with what you can read.

Be a word detective. Remember the movie The Imitation Game about the enigma machine? They broke the code when they realized that the German messages always contained a salute to Hitler, so that gave them 6 deciphered letters to begin with. Use the same idea of beginning with what you can decipher and building on it.

So, if you are reading a will, look for words or phrases that you would expect to be there: “last will and testament” “bequeath” “my wife” my eldest son” “property”. Check the address on letters for familiar place names; look at salutations and sign offs. Words like days of the week, months and seasons or even simple ones like “the” and “and” give you a starting point to see how the writer formed lower case vowels or certain capital letters. Then compare them to your alphabet charts (see tip #3) and other words in the document.

9. Fill in the blanks

Write out the text leaving placeholder blanks for words you can’t read. Then in each blank space put dashes for the number of letters in the unknown words. (Example: “_ _ _ _ _ _”) Next, based on your comparison of known words and letter formations in the document and your reference style sheets, work on filling in partial words based purely on the formation of letters. (Example: “_ _ _ ish”) A hint to help here is knowing that where a letter begins the ink is often thicker and the direction it thins is the direction it was formed. Work on long words first, as having many letters gives more clues to completing the word.

10. Get help from social media.

Genealogy groups on Facebook can be most helpful with reading old scripts. Post a good quality image of the section you want help with and put your incomplete transcript in the message section (see tip #9). Note that having an image of a good chunk to work with is more effective than posting a picture of just a few words, because, like you, your helpers will need context. Don’t forget to say please and thank you, and to limit your ask and expectations. Asking for translation of a highlighted sentence with three important missing words is more likely to get assistance than asking for a full-page translation.

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