Old handwriting often differed greatly from our current handwriting. This can make it difficult to read old, handwritten documents, which can similarly make it complicated to complete your genealogy research. Following the right strategies for reading old handwriting can go a long way toward simplifying your process and aiding in your genealogy research. Here are a few of the top tips for reading old handwriting.
Read Entire Document
If you are struggling with reading the handwriting of a document, it is important to read the entire document. This will help to provide context for difficult to read words. Getting the big picture will often help you to puzzle out the smaller pieces. By reading the complete document, you can help to ensure that you obtain that big picture.
Write out Alphabet
As you make your way through the document, it can help to write out the alphabet. Try to mimic the original handwriting as closely as possible and create a cheat sheet of sorts for their individual letters. This will also help you to become more familiar with the handwriting used in the document.
Transcribe the Document
Attempting to transcribe the document can go a long way toward allowing you to read it. It can also help to ensure that you will have a copy of the document that you will be able to more easily read. As you complete the transcription process, you should leave blanks or placeholders for words or letters that you don’t know. Ultimately, transcription can feel like putting a puzzle together, which makes it important to find the surrounding pieces and enable yourself to look at the document as a complete picture.
Look for Common Words or Phrases
Identifying common words or phrases can go a long way toward helping you to piece out specific words and familiarize yourself with the handwriting. It is incredibly common for a document to have the word “the” sprinkled throughout. You should also learn phrases that are common with specific documents, such as wills or deeds. By identifying these phrases, you can make out some of the specific words of the document.
Prior to the 19th Century
It can be incredibly complicated to read any documents that were crafted prior to the 19th century. This is because there wasn’t really much standardization prior to this time period. Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization didn’t necessarily follow the same rules that we know today. Words in older documents were often spelled phonetically, which meant that one person might spell it differently than another. This also meant that local accents could potentially impact the spelling of different words. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to see the same name spelled multiple ways throughout the same document. This can make it difficult to handle name changes and ensure that you are researching the right person.
Scan the Image
If you are working with a hard copy or the original image, it can be extremely helpful to scan the image onto your computer. Not only will this provide you with a digital copy of the document, but it will help you to zoom in and zoom out relatively easily. This small step can go a long way toward making deciphering the document an easier process.
Common Confusing Parts of Old Documents
There are many things in old documents that can be confusing when trying to read it today. Understanding many of these confusing aspects can help you to recognize them when they arise. For one thing, the s that was used back then often looked like our current f. This can make it incredibly confusing to read an old document. In addition, there are many letters that were often used interchangeably in words. I and y were often used interchangeably, such as dye vs die. U and v, as well as j and i, were also used often used interchangeably.
There are also various phrases that were used interchangeable. The use of the word cousin was often actually used to mean niece or nephew, rather than the child of an aunt or uncle. Saying “good brother” or “good sister” was another way of saying brother-in-law or sister-in-law. The use of “in-law” could also have referred to stepparents. Mrs. may be used to refer to a woman with high social status, rather than as a reference to her marital status. Infant could mean both a baby or a person under the legal age, which is more commonly referred to now as a “minor.” These are just a few of common confusing phrases or letters.
It is important to try to stay organized while attempting to decipher a handwritten document. Look up an alphabet for reference from the time period of the document you are trying to decipher. Keep your notes organized in order to simplify your process as much as possible.
Read Out Loud
It can be extremely useful to read the document out loud when you are attempting to decipher it. In many old documents, the words were spelled phonetically, rather than the standard spelling that we use now. Reading the document aloud can help you to recognize unfamiliar words.
Learn Common Abbreviations
Abbreviations were often used in order to save space and time on a handwritten document. Learning these common abbreviations can go a long way toward helping you to successfully read the document. For example, et el means “and others,” while “wit” was often used to mean “witness.”
Be patient with yourself while trying to read old handwriting. It will often take a significant amount of time, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to do it. There are many resources available to aid you in reading old handwriting, but you must be patient in order to do so.
Our expert team at Heritage Consulting is well-versed in reading old handwriting from older handwritten documents. We offer professional genealogy services to help aid in your research. If you are having difficulty reading old handwriting, the expertise of a professional could be invaluable. To learn more about the services that we offer, contact us at Heritage Consulting today!