Everyone who has tried reading a grandmother’s handwritten letter could attest that it takes some time to get used to the handwriting of a particular person, even the different choice of words could be a factor that complicates the understanding of the text. If instead of reading the handwriting of one person who lived in your lifetime we have to deal with documents written by many different individuals several centuries ago, we will see that other factors will complicate even further the reading of handwritten documents. Despite these complications, being aware of some important facts will help you have a more successful experience when reading old documents.
Depending on the time period and the particular style of handwriting used by the scribe, there are some letters that may look alike and some that might be used interchangeably.
j: In many cases it is common to see the letter “i” used interchangeably with the letter “j” or as Italians call it “the long i." Examples: “ieri” could appear spelled “jeri,” “io” could be written “jo,” and “fiore” could be spelled “fjore.”
i - j - gi: Besides the cases mentioned above, in certain occasions, particularly in names, it is common to find the same names spelled with “i”, “j” or “gi.” Examples: The given name “Giovanni” could be spelled “Iovanni” or “Jovanni,” and “Giacopo” could be written “Iacopo” or “Jacopo.”
The Italian "h" is always mute. Being a mere graphic sign, it serves the only purpose to define the pronunciation of the letters "c" and "g". In any other position, it causes no sound whatsoever.
For example, the words "laghi" and "giochi" maintain the hard "c" and "g" sound.
Many letters may seem to look alike. The best way to discover which letter you are looking at is to sound the word out with various combinations of the letters to see if any make sense. Some letters that are easily confused or look similar include: a-o, c-e, r-v, r-x, u-v-n, i-j, j-s, and f-s.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of reading older Italian manuscripts is the linking of the letters. Letters within a single word may or may not be linked together. Letters from the end of one word may also be linked with those at the beginning of the next. This can be particularly difficult when an abbreviation is involved. The result is that word division may not be clear upon the first reading. Reading the words out loud, and slightly run together, will frequently help suggest the correct alternative.
As if all of the above does not make reading the old handwriting challenging enough, scribes frequently decorated their letters and words with flourishes. Such embellishments come most frequently at the end of the word, but can also come at the beginning, or on any letter in the middle. Generally a letter with a flourish will not be linked with the next. However, one must be careful, because occasionally a flourish that may appear to have no meaning can indicate an abbreviation or serve some other function.
Several different spellings of the same word may occur in a single document, and even in the same sentence. There will be no regularity as to the use of a particular spelling. This is due to the number of interchangeable letters and the variety of writing styles for the various letters. Always keep this in mind when studying a document. Below you can see common alternative spellings for months of the year.
There are no definite patterns for the use of upper case or capital letters. Such letters may appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word. Sentences usually begin with one, but need not do so. Names can be found capitalized at one point in the document and not capitalized in another. If you are simply looking for a capital letter to find a name, you could easily miss the name entirely.
You must also be aware of the following case, because it may occur in some of the documents. Some letters had no lower case forms distinguishable from the upper case ones, and therefore all examples of these letters appear to be capitals. The letter "a" may sometimes only show one form, and the only difference between the upper and lower case of that letter was its size.
As with capitalization, there were not set rules for punctuation. Punctuation may be used inconsistently with the modern usages or is often not used at all. Of particular difficulty for the beginner is the total absence of any type of punctuation where today one finds a dash when a word is split at the end of a line and continues on the next line. To understand such words, the documents should be read as if there were no lines.
Probably the most significant point we need to note about the accent mark is its absence in the majority of cases in earlier older Italian manuscripts. The reader of old documents should not expect accent marks, and when they are found, should be aware that they may have a different form or may be placed where they will not be found today.
Depending on the time period in which the manuscripts were created the scribes may have used several formats to write numbers in ages, dates, pages, etc. Many times numbers are spelled out, especially in dates. Care must be taken in distinguishing certain numbers, such as 1 and 7, 5 and 9, 3 and 5 which are at times very similar in appearance and can be confused. Familiarity with the Roman numerals is very helpful. Please consult the Numbers section on this site for more information.
One real challenge for the reader of documents is the frequent use of abbreviations. Words, including names and places especially, are often abbreviated in the documents. We recommend that you read the section on Abbreviations included in this site immediately after this section and the list of abbreviations included under Handwriting Resources. You may also refer to a list of common abbreviations for help in deciphering some of the abbreviations you come across.