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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.
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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
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of our reading relies on contextual clues and if the language is outdated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
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
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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