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Making sense of old handwriting



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.

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.

J: In many cases, it is common to see the letter /i/ used interchangeably with the letter /j/ or, as Italians call it, i lunga or “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, on 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 Letter "h"

The Italian /h/ is always mute and became silent relatively early in Italian's evolution. This can present difficulties to the reader of manuscripts due to the fact that it is omitted or added arbitrarily. Being a mere graphic sign, it serves the only purpose of defining 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/ sounds.

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: a-o, c-e, r-v, r-x, u-v-n, i-j, j-s, and f-s.

Double or Linking Letters

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 running them together will frequently help suggest the correct alternative.



As if all of the above does not make reading 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.


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. Below you can see common alternative spellings for months of the year.

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 /a/ may sometimes only show one form, and the only difference between the upper and lower case of that letter is 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 older Italian manuscripts. The reader of old documents should not expect accent marks, and when they are found, they 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 Roman numerals is very helpful. For more information on this, see the Numbers page.


One real challenge for the reader of documents is the frequent use of abbreviations. Words, including names and places especially, are often abbreviated in documents. We recommend that you read the section on Abbreviations included on this site immediately after this section. You may also refer to a list of common abbreviations for help in deciphering some of the abbreviations you come across.


Paleography Introduction