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Making sense of old handwriting

Practical Suggestions

Practical Suggestions

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.

1. Study new handwriting carefully.

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, you work slowly with the handwriting, soon your reading ability and speed will both increase dramatically.

 2. Begin with those portions of the record that are familiar.

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 you with a particular style. We provide common vocabulary for you to learn words you will often see in these records.

3. Use the surrounding text as a guide.

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:

  • Compare the letters in unknown words or names with those of known words or names. This way, you can make good use of the familiar dates, phrases, and words discussed above. 
  • Read the word in the context in which it is written. This can be especially helpful where the records are written in complete sentences or where you are already familiar with the basic concept that is being developed. 
  • Look for the same word or name elsewhere. This can be especially helpful where there are marginal notes or where the same surname is repeated several times in a single document.

4. Consider the variety of handwriting found in records.

Remember that a great deal of variety in handwriting may be found in a single document. It is possible 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 may also be various spellings of the same name.

5. Compare unknown letters with those on alphabet charts

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.

  • On a particularly difficult document, making your own alphabet chart can be helpful. As an example, once you figure out the scribe's A's, write out a list of all the different ways that the scribe has written an ' A.' This is helpful because most scribes write for an extended number of years, and you might encounter this same handwriting again, or it will help you to recognize alternative ways of letter writing in future documents.

6. Consult an outside source.

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:

  • Archives personnel, local record custodians, such as priests, or other more experienced researchers
    • When working on-site in archives, local researchers or priests in the parish or church, are familiar with the different surnames found in the area, and also surrounding places, towns, and villages. 
  • Contact a local family history researcher
    • The German language has changed a lot over time. It might be worth your time to contact a local family history researcher ahead of time to help. Do not expect the local priest or archivist to help or to read the documents for you. Even if the archivists want to help, they might not have the skills, so come prepared or hire a specialist in the area beforehand. Local archives should be able to help you find one. 
  • German heritage societies can be invaluable for the German researcher.
  • Lists of given names and surnames online
    • Consult the list of given names and surnames available on this site. The FamilySearch Germany Personal Names page also can be helpful. Wikipedia has a list of German surnames names, both masculine and feminine. These tend to be more modern; however, they can be useful. Numerous websites offer last name lists, such as the following:
      • Behind the Name: Surnames
      • Behind the Names: Given Names 
      • Germanic Genealogical Society: Surname List  
      • for Jewish surnames
      • Lists of surnames. Consult the German Name Page, which has lists of common names with handwriting examples. An extensive list of surnames​ is available at, which explains German naming practices and saint names and dates. 
      • Germany Personal Names is a FamilySearch Wiki website that gives a brief description of naming practices in German-speaking regions. It also has name lists. 
      • The German Genealogy Society has an extensive and detailed surname list. They include the name and the place it's found, including the villages, states or provinces, and country. It also lists the time period the name began and/or ended.

Spelling variations are a common occurrence because of the many different dialects spoken throughout Germany and in German-speaking Europe.

  • Surnames distribution sites such as Geogen can be helpful to see where German last names are distributed, as well as offer name variations. 

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:

  • Gazetteers
    • Gazetteers and geographical dictionaries contain alphabetical lists of place names, which is helpful for comparing spellings. Many of these, especially those published in the last half of the nineteenth century, can be very helpful in determining the existence of a parish listed in an old record or to confirm the spelling of a difficult place name. Today many place name lists and even digital copies of nineteenth-century geographical dictionaries ​can be found online. For a more detailed explanation and a list of gazetteers, go to our Gazetteers page. 
  • Dictionaries
    • Ernest Thode's German/English Genealogical Dictionary has an extensive list of antiquated German words in both German and Latin. There are also handwriting examples at the beginning of each chapter. For Thode's and similar word resources, go to our Dictionaries page.
  • Maps
    • Generally, most of an ancestral family within a single generation or two (and often for ten or more) will come from a relatively limited geographical area. A detailed map of that area, even one from a national atlas, will be very useful in identifying those small towns that make up a parish. A map can also supplement gazetteers and geographical dictionaries by allowing you to see the physical relationship between the parish or locality in which you are currently working and that of the newly encountered parish, town, or locality.
  • Search the internet
    • The existence or likely non-existence of a more unique surname or place name can often be proven by simply searching for that name using a search engine or an online encyclopedia, such as Google, Wikipedia, or others.
  • Script Generator. 
    • Michael Nülken's website has a script generator. Put any German word into the script box and then choose from eight different German scripts to see how it may be written. Keep in mind that this generates the ideal scriptwriting and does not take into account individual scribes' idiosyncrasies.

7. Do not spend too much time on a letter or name.

When you encounter a difficult entry or word, remember not to 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 is 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 handwriting.

Suggestions From the Experts 

Dr. Roger Minert, in setting forth norms for the reading of old German handwriting, offers this advice:

"Deciphering handwritten entries in vital record documents is a task that everyone doing family history research 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 he sees, 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. Those basic elements remain the same for novice and expert:

  • Determine the language of the document in question.
  • Determine the alphabet(s) used in the text.
  • Determine the content of the record (vital record, history, land deed, and tithe payments, for example).
  • Locate the dates of events and when the record was written.
  • Identify the principal persons—the person(s) baptized, buried, married, confirmed.
  • Determine the location of the event and the importance of other places named.
  • Locate and translate important adverbs that more exactly define the event.
  • Identify other nouns and adjectives that augment descriptions of people…

"…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 such as those mentioned above, 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."1

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:

"The beginner will be well advised to attempt at first only documents of which he can without difficulty obtain a correct version to compare with his own. This will be of more service than anything else in helping him to measure the extent and the limitations of his knowledge. He will find that, although reading letter by letter, as he has been taught, has its uses, the trained reader relies far more on knowledge of the nature of the document that he transcribes than on his paleographical attainments... The first essential, then, is a reasonable familiarity with the language of the document… an essential preliminary to correct interpretation is very often a knowledge of the administrative processes of which any particular record formed a part.”2

1. Roger P. Minert, “Conclusions,” essay, in Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany (Woods Cross, Utah: GRT Publications, 2001), 123.
2. Charles Johnson and Hilary Jenkinson, English Court Hand, A.D. 1066 to 1500 : Illustrated Chiefly from the Public Records,  Internet Archive, January 1, 1970, Xxxvii.