The following seven guidelines offer general, practical suggestions about how to work with an unfamiliar handwriting style. While the examples given for each were chosen for the beginning researcher who is working with parish records, as this is where most family history research will and should begin, they are equally applicable to any paleographic task.
1. Study a New Handwriting Carefully
It is important to work carefully and slowly when beginning to read a new handwriting style, so as to develop a familiarity with the personal writing style of the priest or recorder, and the type of writing he is using. Also, notice any particular idiosyncrasies such as unique forms of particular letters, the use of certain abbreviations, or peculiar syntactical approaches. If at first one works slowly with the handwriting, soon their reading ability and speed will both increase dramatically.
2. Begin with Those Portions of the Record That Are Familiar
Repeated phrases, dates, and names of which you are already sure can help to familiarize you with a new handwriting style. For example, when working with baptismal records in the Dutch language parishes, phrases such as "Geboorteplaats" and "Doopdatum" can help familiarize the researcher with a particular style. One can also identify, in surnames and given names that have already been encountered in other records, specific letter styles used by the writer.
For parish records, a list of terms can be found by clicking here.
Dates are also a valuable source, since the number of alternatives for a date is limited to 12 months and 31 numbers, as well as the numbers for the years, all of which can be compared with preceding or following entries.
3. Use the Surrounding Text as a Guide
Generally, the text with which you are working can help you find the meaning of a difficult word or passage. The following three suggestions should aid you in using the surrounding text:
4. Variety of Handwriting Found in Records
Remember that a great deal of variety in handwriting can be found in a single document. It is common to find various styles of the same letter within a given document, and even within the same word. Any word may also be written in different ways. Due to linguistic variations discussed in the Challenges section on this site, there can also be various spellings of the same name. Such variety in spellings is common in the same manuscript.
5. Compare Unknown Letters with Those on Alphabet Charts
Frequently, one can get a general idea of what a particularly difficult letter could be by comparing it with those letters on the alphabet charts available here. However, it should be recognized that handwriting varies drastically from person to person, as well as from time period to time period, and a particular letter in a document may not be found on the alphabet charts provided.
6. Consult an Outside Source
Consult an outside source, especially when a name is involved. The following sources, or ones similar to them, can be of great assistance in deciphering a name:
Additional name lists can be found at the Family History Library. To see the list of available books click here.
While the book list is by no means all-inclusive, it may be a guide in identifying a difficult name or in finding a correct spelling. For others, perhaps more specific to a country or region, do a Google search using the word cognomen (Surname) and the name of the country or region.
A list for the Dutch Caribbean can be very challenging to find due to a lack of record keeping.
Many, especially those published in the last half of the nineteenth century, can be very helpful in determining the existence of a parish listed in an old record, or in confirming the spelling of a difficult place name. Today many place name lists and even digital copies of nineteenth century geographical dictionaries can be found online.
A helpful online geographical resource for research in any country is places in the world.com. Simply select your country of interest to begin searching place names alphabetically. Another very useful online tool is the Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie or the Central Bureau of the Genealogy (CBG) that can be found here. Approximately two years after a person’s death, their personal card is sent to the Central Bureau of the Genealogy (CBG). This card includes birth, marriage, death, and parents of the person. You can obtain the proper documents by requesting an information form from the CBG.
7. Don’t Spend Too Much Time on a Letter or Name
If you cannot decipher a name or word after reasonable efforts, trace or copy it down. Write down your best guess or guesses as to what the word may be, and then go on. The word, especially if it is a name, will most likely appear again. When it does, it may be much clearer the second time, or you may be better able to decipher it in the new context. If it does not appear the second time, then you can go back and look again at the word, having had more experience with less difficult words in that same individual's handwriting.
Suggestions from the Experts
The Mexican paleographer Maria Elena Bibriesca in setting forth norms for the reading of old handwriting offers the following excellent advice:
"Read with calmness and attention to detail, avoiding anxiety or worry.
Read each specific document word by word, avoiding the trap of confiding solely
on your memory and knowledge of similar texts and phrases.
Take into account all written elements no matter how minimal they appear. Even the most
insignificant mark may have transcendental importance. You should investigate
what it means and why it was placed there.
Long and difficult texts should be read several times, until you have a complete transcription."
In short, both beginners and advanced readers of old handwriting should proceed calmly and slowly, reading and reviewing the document thoroughly and usually several times. Remember that a complete transcription takes time and patience, with both the document and oneself.
Beyond these suggestions and the following sections about language and certain handwriting problem areas, practical experience is what is needed most to be able to understand early handwriting styles. In the book English Court Hand, A.D. 1066 to 1500 the authors offered the following advice:
"The beginner will be well advised to attempt at first only documents of which he can without difficulty obtain a correct version to compare with his own. This will be of more service than anything else in helping him to measure the extent and the limitations of his knowledge. He will find that, although reading letter by letter, as he has been taught, has its uses, the trained reader relies far more on knowledge of the nature of the document that he transcribes than on his paleographical attainments... The first essential, then, is a reasonable familiarity with the language of the document. [A second] essential preliminary to correct interpretation is very often a knowledge of the administrative processes of which any particular record formed a part. If you cannot decipher a name or word after reasonable efforts, trace or copy it down. Write down your best guess or guesses as to what the word may be, and then go on. The word, especially if it is a name, will most likely appear again. When it does, it may be much clearer the second time, or you may be better able to decipher it in the new context. If it does not appear the second time, then you can go back and look again at the word, having had more experience with less difficult words in that same individual's handwriting."