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Making sense of old handwriting



Everyone who has tried reading a grandmother’s handwritten letter can attest that it takes some time to get used to the handwriting and the different choice of words. It is even more difficult to read documents written by many different individuals several centuries ago, with other factors that make it harder to understand and decipher. Despite these complications, being aware of some important facts will help you have a more successful experience when reading old documents. Below are helpful tips to help you read these records:

Renaud, M. Hyacinthe. Paléographie Française ou Méthode de Lecture des Manuscrits Français du XIIIe au XVIIe Siègle Inclusivement. Rochefort: Imprimerie Ch. Thèze, 1860.

It is very helpful to have an example French alphabet open while transcribing a record.

Interchangeable Letters

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.

y: In many cases, it is common to see the letter /i/ used interchangeably with the letter /y/ or, as some French-speaking people call it, “the greek i."

b - v - u: In French, the /b/ and the /v/ stand for the same phonetic sound. Even today, it is not at all uncommon to find words such as había and venía spelled havia and benia. The difficulty with the /b/ and the /v/ is further complicated by the fact that the written /v/, which in France today is still called the “u-b,” did not become clearly distinguishable from the /u/, so that words which would normally have a /b/ in them such as había, habiendo, and abad, could all be found as hauia, hauiendo, and auad.

gi - z: There are also other cases of names and other words in which, because of dialectal influences, the letters /gi/ might be replaced by /z/. For example Giambattista may be written Zambattista, and Giovan may appear spelled Zovan (or Zoan or Zuan).

u - v: Since Roman times, the interchangeable use of the letters /u/ and /v/ has been very common, particularly writing a /v/ instead of a /u/. Example: Giovanni spelled Giouanni.

“Confusing” Letters

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: c-e, r-v, u-v-n, j-s, and f-s.

Double Letters

The reader of old manuscripts needs to be aware of the frequent presence of double letters in French records to avoid inadvertently converting one of the letters into another letter, especially where each of the letters in a double-letter pair is written in a different style. The most common case in which one may confuse a double letter pair for two different letters is the case of the double “s.” Many scribes would use two different forms of the letter “s” when they wrote a double “s,” one of them resembling a “j” without the dot above it, as seen in the example below.

Other letters that may appear in double letter pairs are: b, c, d, f, g, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, and z. In the Alphabet Chart section of this site, you may find additional examples of double consonants.

Renaud, M. Hyacinthe. Paléographie Française ou Méthode de Lecture des Manuscrits Français du XIIIe au XVIIe Siègle Inclusivement. Rochefort: Imprimerie Ch. Thèze, 1860.


As if all of the above does not make reading the old handwriting challenging enough, the writers 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.

Alternate Spellings

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.

Capitalization and Punctuation

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 at 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 /z/ 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 no set rules for punctuation. Punctuation may be used inconsistently with 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 to the next line. To understand such words, the documents should be read as if there were no lines.

Accent Marks

Probably the most significant point we need to note about the accent mark is its absence in the majority of cases in earlier manuscripts. The reader of old documents should not expect accent marks as used in modern-day French, and when they are found, 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, and 3 and 5, which are at times very similar in appearance and can be confused. Familiarity with 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 on this site immediately after this section.


Paleography Introduction