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Proformat News
No: 71
January 2012
January Seminars
No program.

February Seminars
9: Introduction to FH research (over 7 weeks with sessions of 1.5 hrs each), WEA Centre Adelaide, 8:00 to 9:30pm
19: Coming to grips with FamilySearch, WEA Centre Adelaide, 10:00am to 1:00pm

See the seminar program for more details and bookings.

Adelaide Proformat will be closed until 22 Jan 2012.

Reading old writing
Sooner or later a family historian will come across a document written in an old hand that on an initial examination may look impossible to read. In fact, the writing may not be all that ancient. Many find reading nineteenth century cursive style difficult and Adelaide Proformat already has younger clients who have grown up in an era of computers who cannot read the writing taught in schools in the 1950s! Some people are completely put off making an attempt at translation and yet translating this material can reveal crucial new information.

The palaeographic problems faced by the reader can result as follows:

1. In reading, we actually identify words by their shape and this skill fails when the writing style does not follow expectations.

2. We may be unfamiliar with the style used by the particular writer as their letter formations may be imprecise or even incorrect. When we cannot read a word quickly from its shape, we then seek out individual letters in context to determine the word. This in turn fails if the individual letters are not recognisable. This problem is encountered today when you try to read the prescription written by your doctor or see a person’s signature.

In this issue:
January Seminars
February Seminars

Feature article
Reading old writing


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It is this second aspect that causes the most difficulties and the problems arise from a range of factors apart from the personal style of the writer.

1.The language used in the text may be in itself old fashioned. Much of our reading relies on contextual clues and if the language is outdated or foreign or uses an old-fashioned spelling form, it may mean that context clues we employ may fail to assist the reader. This is not helped by the lack of consistency in spelling prior to the introduction of compulsory schooling and the advent of the modern dictionary.

2. Unfamiliar styles in lettering and layout are probably the greater impediment. Our modern alphabet developed as a result of the development of literacy in the general population coupled with the advent of newspapers and books being accessible to everyone. Old fonts and other strategies used by writers were just not practical for the printing presses and it was not long before handwriting started to copy the printed word. This means that material written prior to and in the earlier days of the printing press can be more difficult to interpret.

3. Unexpected conventions and written expressions can impede understanding and old writing contained many such conventions unfamiliar to the modern reader. I use the word convention rather than rules, as rules suggest they were closely followed! These may include obscure abbreviations, punctuation, spellings and euphemisms especially for anti-social behaviour.

These are common letter combinations such as sh, th, st, es, and so on, which were developed into letter forms indistinguishable from the individual letters. They were employed to speed up the process of writing. The old ligature for th looks a little like a y and hence we see signs today like, Ye olde tea shoppe. In fact the place is inadvertently using a modern y for the old th symbol called a thorn. [Note: this was pronounced the in modern speech and was never ye.] Likewise the e in shoppe represents the old ligature for es.
We have abbreviations technically called suspensions occurring when a word is shortened and this is denoted by a full stop—technically called a punctus being heavier than a full stop and not always on the baseline [. •], a tilde [~] or a colon [:]. Thus M. for Majesty, wid: for widow, Phil~ for Phillip.
Another form of abbreviation occurs when letters within a word are removed. Today we use an apostrophe to denote this as in can’t for cannot. Previously a number of symbols were used and sometimes no symbol is evident. A wavy line [a tilde] usually indicates the omission of an a or a syllable containing an a either before or after. A straight line [a macron] suggested an m or n was one of the missing letters. The use of superior letters is a common form of contraction where a letter in the superscript position indicates some letters before the superior letter have been omitted and thus we have Wm and Richrd. Sometimes the superior letters are underlined or have a dot under them.

Quiz: Can you decipher the above images? More importantly can you explain what is happening?

Punctuation was not precise and more often than not, and especially before 1870, omitted altogether. Any punctuation you may find may just be for decoration or filling a line to prevent insertions. A forward slash [/] may be used instead of a full stop [punctus] and an equals sign [=] was used where we would use a hyphen. The comma first makes an appearance in printed works in the early 1500s. A capital letter was often used mid-sentence to emphasis a word.

The spelling used was based on phonics rather than the rules of today and can be inconsistent within the same document. Words often misspelt were personal and place names. Some letters were interchangeable like i and j.

Euphemisms were often used in polite society which was the group that wrote. For example, an illegitimate child the result of rape may be called a raven child in a parish register. Other terms are just unknown in today's language such as Quit rent that was payable to the manor in place of doing the prescribed service, that is, it acquitted you of your requirements. To find an unexpected word in the middle of a sentence in an obscure handwriting can often prove difficult to recognise especially when trying to use contextual clues.

How to address the problem
You will need a magnifying glass.
   • Do not assume anything.
   • Read slowly and practice patience making sure that the words make sense as you go.
   • When fatigue sets in leave the work. You will be surprised at what you can resolve on return.
Above all when you first look at a page of old writing do not be put off by first impressions.

1. Read the text and identify all the obvious words and then see if they suggest adjacent words.

2. Accept that words will often be written phonetically as in contayneing and may have different spelling within the one article.

3. Examine and identify individual letters known to you and then see if they suggest the remainder of the word. You may need to cover adjacent letters to clarify the situation for yourself. Accept that there are many versions of the same letter and the version used is often dependent on the neighbouring letters.

4. Use letters from words in the document that you can read to piece together the letters in the words with which you are having trouble.

5. It will be helpful to look for common words and phrases in old records and use them as your templates. For example, Wills before 1858 often begin with the standard phrase, In the name of God Amen. They often include the phrase, I give and bequeath, and so on. Look for dates and use the letters in the month, day of the week to help.

6. As you figure out individual letters, make an alphabet chart with examples of each letter style.

7. Learn the forms of the letters e and s. These are the most frequently used vowel and consonant in English.

8. Expect that i may be used in preference to j and y in preference to i.

9. Check published handwriting aid books to see if you can identify the obscure characters.

10. Enlarge the especially difficult words on a photocopier and trace them. This action will often reveal the letter in your mind.

11. If you are reading records from a film, place a sheet of coloured acetate or paper over the projected image. This may make the print stand out more clearly.

12. Like learning any skill – practice is needed to develop it. The National Archives in Kew have developed a practical online tutorial well worth the visit.

Always transcribe the document exactly as it is written—misspellings and all. This will help to keep you from making assumptions that might mislead you in your research at a later date.

For more information check out Graham Jaunay's newest book in the Unlock the Past range, Cracking the code of old handwriting.

New books by Graham Jaunay available from Unlock the Past. For more information Just click on the appropriate book image.

1.the—comprises the ligature for th plus the letter e.
2.Edmund—a suspension denoted by the colon indicating missing letters. It is not Edward as the straight line indicates that one of the missing letters is an m or n.
3. William—a contraction.
4. Margaret —a contraction and this time a tilde indicates that none of the missing letters is an m or n.
5.Charles—a contraction with the e shaped superscript letter being the ligature for es.
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