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.

For example:

The National Archives offers some handy tips on reading and transcribing old documents (click Read More to read the rest of this post and more resources):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. For example:

    • 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 alall.
    • Use of two consonants where you would find one in modern English, such as allwaysalways.

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:

Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting
1500 – 1800

Here are some more resources on reading and interpreting old 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!



3 Responses to “WHAT’S THAT SAY?”

  1. footnoteMaven on May 13th, 2008

    This is not only a fantastic article, but a fantastic resource.

    Thank you so much!

    Having recently had a problem figuring out what was a “J” and what was an “S,” I will put this to good use.


  2. Donna on May 14th, 2008

    It’s definitely something you learn over time. And just when you have the priest’s or census taker’s handwriting finally figured out, there’s a new guy taking over! It takes practice, too. When I was looking at records all the time, it got much easier. Now it’s like looking at gibberish all over again. Thanks for the resources. Polish handwriting is further complicated by the different letters…how many times does a “ł” look like a “t”? LOL

  3. Elizabeth on May 14th, 2008

    – Thanks, Footnote Maven!! 🙂

    – I know, it can be so frustrating!!! I am forever trying to decipher between the “ł” and the “t”, also! Thanks for stopping by!! 🙂

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge