WHAT’S THAT SAY?
In looking through some census records recently, I found myself constantly wondering aloud, “What on earth does that say?” and “What letter is that?”. While I have found that the feeling of pseudo-illiteracy is not an uncommon side-effect of genealogy research, I suppose I had never really found myself saying it as much or with such frustration before. I had studied a lot of languages in school growing up (verbally and written) and many times had been able to figure things out on my own. But lately I have caught myself scratching my head and squinting my eyes more than usual.
I know I’m not alone by any stretch of the imagination in these frustrations. So to offer a hand to those in the same boat, I put together all of the resources I have found about interpreting and understanding styles of old handwriting. (if you have or know of any not listed here, please feel free to post them in the comments for everyone!)
I had a hard time finding a guide to handwriting in Polish specifically. While much of what I found focused on English and German and even Finnish, these resources still had much to offer especially in terms of the evolution of handwritten letters and their shorthands. Also important to remember is that very often, spelling may have been phonetic (where words are spelled the way they sound when they are spoken) and therefore may look a little funny at first.
This is an image I found on an ancestry site. It illustrates several different versions of each letter of the alphabet in different handwritings. The individual letters were taken from an 1880 American census and put together to compare as a reference (click on it to enlarge):
The Genealogical Society of Finland offers a great resource page that discusses and illustrates different styles of handwriting (from Gothic to Humanistic) and offers charts depicting the evolution of each letter from the 16th century thru the 19th/early 20th century. Again, while the reference is Finnish and some letters may not pertain to Polish genealogy, it gives one a guide/impression to draw from when doing your own research.
- Be prepared to tackle an old document letter by letter if necessary. If you cannot identify a letter, leave it out, or put in a suggestion of what you think it is, perhaps with a question mark by it. Do a few more lines and then go back to see if you can now identify the letter. Or see if you have already come across it and understood it somewhere else in the document.
- Knowing the background to the document will help enormously with reading the handwriting. Many types of documents contain standard phrases or formulas. You can then use the phrases which you are certain about to help decipher other words.
- When copying a document always transcribe: this is when you retain the original spellings. Do not translate, this is when the words are changed into modern spelling.
- Spelling in many languages was not standardised until the 18th century. Before then, words were often spelt phonetically and in local dialects. Vowel sounds in particular could be written in a variety of different ways, depending on how the writer said the word. A writer would often spell the same word in different ways in one document.
- Use of y for i, for example myne = mine.
- Interchangeable i and j. Iohn = John. Maiestie = Majesty.
- Interchangeable u and v, such as euer = ever. vnto = unto
- Long ‘s’. Don’t get long s and f mixed up. The ‘f‘ will have a cross stroke, even if it’s hardly noticeable, and the context will make it clear whether it is a long ‘s‘ or an ‘f‘. Writers would often use both long and short ‘s‘, sometimes even in the same word.
- Use of a single consonant where you would find two in modern English, such as al – all.
- Use of two consonants where you would find one in modern English, such as allways – always.
The National Archives also offers a great online tutorial in reading and transcribing old documents. The tutorial section uses English documents, but it is a good way to learn how to read old handwriting and/or practice your skills:
Here are some more resources on reading and interpreting old handwriting:
- Commonly Confused Letters in Old Handwritten Script
- Early-Modern Palaeography
- English Handwriting 1500-1700: An Online Course
- Genealogical Society of Finland – Old Handwriting Styles
- Genealogy.com: Name and word spellings
- Handwriting Guide: German Gothic
- Handwriting Analysis for Genealogists
- Moravians – German Script Tutorial
- Old handwriting – Deciphering old handwriting in genealogy
- Old Handwriting Examples – M. Hudson
- Old German Writings
- OLD-RUSSIAN Mailing List
“For anyone with a genealogical or historical interest in deciphering and interpreting written documents in Russian from earliest to most recent 20th Century times, and discussing old Russian words”
- Palaeography – reading early writing
- PolishLessons Mailing List
“For Poland researchers in translating Polish documents”
- Reading Old Handwriting
- Russian-Polish-English Alphabet Comparison
- Searching with Dots and Umlauts
- Tutorials for Reading Old German, French and English Handwriting
I’ll also be entering this as a page in the Other Bits section.
So, I hope this can be of some help to you all!