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.
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 his reading ability and speed will both increase dramatically.
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 German baptismal records, look for such words and phrases as: Taufe (Baptism), Geburt (Birth), Geburtsregister/Geburtsbuch (Birth Register or Book), Eltern (Parents), Vorname, Familienname or Geschlechtsname (Last name), Kind or Kinder(Child or Children) can all 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 church records, a list of phrases can be found by clicking
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:
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, there can also be various spellings of the same name. Such variety in spellings is common in the same manuscript.
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 on our website. However, it should be recognized that handwriting varies drastically from person to person, as well as from time period to time period. A particular letter in a document may not be found on the alphabet charts provided and should be studied in context with the surrounding words and type of document
Consult an outside source, especially where a name is involved. The following sources, or ones similar to them, can be of great assistance in deciphering a name:
Spelling variations are a common occurrence because of the many different dialects spoken throughout Germany and in German speaking Europe.
While these lists are by no means all-inclusive, they may be a helpful guide in identifying a difficult name or in finding a correct spelling.
Other Genealogical Resources can be very helpful and relatively easy to take into archives to help with your research:
When you encounter a difficult entry or word, remember to not spend too much time in one place. Use the alphabet charts, paleography and handwriting guides and other references on this site for help. If it's still unclear, write down your best guess, or trace the letters onto a separate paper and keep going. The words in German documents are very formulaic and will be repeated again in later entries. German names are also used repeatedly, so if it stumped you the first time, you might be able to decipher it when you encounter it again. Like us, scribes on genealogical documents have a range of decipherability in their hand writing.
Dr. Roger Minert in setting forth norms for the reading of old German handwriting offers this advice: " Deciphering handwritten entries in vital records in the German-language realm will eventually if not constantly face. Although not even the finest expert can claim to be able to read every word, study and practice can make the task do-able and enjoyable. With each hour of experience, the researcher becomes more adept at processing basic elements of entries and moving through records at a higher rate of speed and accuracy. These basic elements remain the same for the novice and the expert:
"Most experts are self-taught, and their proficiency is the result of hours and years of experience. Limits to progress in gaining such proficiency are the access to good reference materials, the availability of records to study, the amount of time that can be devoted to the task, knowledge of the foreign language, and the will to succeed."
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: