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Making sense of old handwriting



Everyone who has tried reading a handwritten letter can 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 our lifetime, we have to deal with documents written by many different individuals several decades or even centuries ago. As will become evident, there are other factors that 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.

The Catalan Alphabet

The modern Catalan alphabet is a Latin alphabet established by Pompey Fabra i Poch and consists of twenty-six letters and fifteen digraphs, a combination of two letters that represent one sound.

Catalan Alphabet

A aB bC cD dE eF fG gH hI iJ j
K kL lM mN nP pO oQ qR rS sT t
U uV vW wX xY yZ z    

Unique Letters

Ç çCe trencatL·L l·lEla geminada



Common Issues and Problems


Catalan has what is called a vowel reduction system. This means that Catalan has one set of vowels for stressed vowels and another set of vowels for unstressed. The stressed system has seven vowels: [i], [e], [ɛ], [a], [o], [ɔ], and [u]; meanwhile, the unstressed system has three: [i], [ə], and [u]. These systems together look like the following:

Catalan Vowel Reduction System

Before the standardization of Catalan orthography, many scribes would write out words as they heard them, which, due to the vowel reduction system, often means using vowels that look very different from the current standard convention. This can cause headaches for researchers trying to look up uncertain words that can look completely different from their modern counterparts. For example:


This word, when transcribed, is written as asposalas. In modern Catalan orthography, this word is spelled as esposalles, which means "betrothal" or "marriage promise." The reason for the large difference between the two spellings is due to the vowel reduction system since all the /e/s in this word are unstressed and, therefore, can sound like /a/s. With this in mind, when a researcher comes across a word they cannot identify, it can be useful to try and switch out the vowels according to this system and see if they form a more recognizable word.

The most common of these switches tend to be /e/s written as /a/s, such as in the word "testimoni," which can be spelt as "tastimoni."

I - Y - J: In many cases, in old Catalan registers, it is common to see the letter /i/ used interchangeably with both /y/ and /j/. This can make initial recognition of the word difficult. As with many other problems in this section, as you pronounce the word, it will become evident what the original was.

For example:

  • Viuda, "widow" > vjuda
  • Avui, "today" > avuy
  • Vuit, "eight" > vuyt or vujt
  • I, "and" > y or j


Depending on the time period and the particular style of handwriting used by the scribe, some letters may look alike, and some might be used interchangeably.

C - CH: Catalan is unique among romance languages as many words end in consonants; in many older manuscripts, it was common to use /ch/ when a /c/ ended a word. In modern orthography, the digraph /ch/ is no longer used.

For example:

  • Lloc, "place, location" > lloch
  • Vic, A city in Catalonia > Vich

NY - Ñ: In traditional Catalan orthography, the digraph /ny/ is used for the palatal nasal sound, or [ɲ]. However, it is not uncommon to find the Spanish /ñ/ in instead. This is a prime example of what is called castellanització, or the process of Catalan taking on traits and characteristics of Spanish.

L - LL - L·L: In modern Catalan, the letters /l/, /ll/, and /l·l/ represent distinct sounds. However, these are interchangeable, and it is uncommon to find /l·l/ as the middle dot or the punt volat is not used in older texts.

B - V - U: In Catalan, the /b/ and the /v/ generally stand for the same phonetic sound, and as such, native speakers generally do not distinguish the two sounds. The difficulty with the b and the v is further complicated because the letter /v/ did not become clearly distinguishable from the /u/ for years. This is due to the Latin influence, which would use the letters interchangeably. Therefore, words that normally have a /b/ could be spelt with /v/ or even /u/.

The Letter “h”

The letter h became silent relatively early in Catalan's evolution. For this reason, this letter can present difficulties to the reader of manuscripts due to the fact that it is omitted or added arbitrarily, and in old manuscripts, it was used a lot more extensively due to Latin influence, appearing in combinations of letters such as: th, ch, ph, gh, and others. Examples of this may include names like Tomas spelled Thomas, Catterina spelled Catherina, Filippo spelled Philippo, etc.

Additional Resources


Paleography Introduction