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Making sense of old handwriting



One of the most complicating factors in reading old handwritten records is the common use of abbreviations. Because of the repeated use of the same words in records of the same type, most scribes would speed up the recording process and save paper, ink, and time by abbreviating common given names, last names, and other words using certain abbreviating conventions.

Since there are several types of abbreviations, there are also several symbols used to mark abbreviations. In the case of abbreviations by superposition, some scribes would write a line under the superscripted letters; others would include a double line, and others a colon. Some would add a dot or period in the place of the letters that have been omitted in an abbreviation by contraction; others would use a colon instead or a straight or a curved line above the abbreviated word. Some abbreviations may have no symbol indicating that they have been abbreviated. View examples included below.

Abbreviation Types

Below are brief explanations of the most common processes used to abbreviate words.

Contractions: An abbreviation by contraction is formed by writing the first and last letters of the word and eliminating the middle letters.

Superpositions: This may be considered a variation of the process of contraction and was a common practice for scribes. The first letters are written on the baseline, and the last one or two letters are written above the baseline in a smaller size.

Suspensions: An abbreviation by contraction is formed by writing the first part of the word and eliminating the last part.

Acronyms: These could be considered a type of suspension where the first letter of a word has come to stand for the entire word. Common examples: S.M.E. stands for the Latin phrase Sancta Mater Ecclesia, and A.D. for Anno Domini. Frequently, such abbreviations are doubled in the case of plurals or superlatives. For example, SS means santísimo, or "the most holy."

​​Conventionalisms: Usually found in older documents, these are symbols that represent entire words or syllables. The most common is the use of X or Xpo or Xpto to represent Cristo (Christ). This particular conventionalism is used in the abbreviation of the name Cristobal as Xptobal. There are many syllables that may appear abbreviated using conventionalisms, such as: per, par, por, pro, mer, ser, ver, vir, etc. Usually, these symbols consist of the initial letter of the syllable with a curl or a line crossing the letter. A particular kind of abbreviation using conventions is exemplified by the use of numbers to abbreviate the first part of some of the months of the year, such as: 7bro for setembro, 8bro for outubro, 9bro for novembro, and 10bro for dezembro.


Paleography Introduction