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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. Latin has a long history of using abbreviations, and there are many conventions. This is due to the repeated use of the same words in records of the same type; most scribes would speed up the recording process and attempt to save paper or expensive vellum, ink, and time by abbreviating common given names, last names, and other words using certain abbreviating conventions.

It is because of this long tradition that Latin has many more abbreviations and symbols than her daughter languages, and it can quickly become confusing to those who are unfamiliar.

To further complicate this issue, due to the geographical and political division of Europe during the Middle Ages, there evolved various styles of calligraphy, with each having its own systems and modes of abbreviations. For example, the word autem could be abbreviated as or at (Insular), aūm (Spanish), & aū or aut̄  (other regions); likewise, nomen: nō (Insular), nm̄n (Spanish), & nom̄ (other regions). Therefore, it is important to know the area in which the record is made; however, having an understanding of Latin grammar and knowing some general abbreviation conventions will greatly help in understanding esoteric documents.

Below are listed the various types of conventions that are commonly used in these documents; however, they may not cover the many variations that exist in Latin registers. While learning these conventions, it is recommended that you keep this list open, as it will help minimize errors and confusion.

Abbreviation Types

In Latin, there are various kinds of abbreviations and symbols that can be used.

Contractions: An abbreviation by contraction is formed by writing the first and last letters of the word and eliminating the middle letters. In Latin, there can be two kinds: pure & impure. A pure contraction keeps the first and last letter or letters; meanwhile, impure contractions keep one or more inter-word letters.

Pure Contraction



Impure Contraction



There are a few exceptions that do not use the first letter of the word. These are:






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, which is typically indicated by an ascender mark. In Latin, there are three kinds of suspensions: simple; syllabic, which indicates that there has been an abbreviation but does not specify; and specific, which indicates that the word has been truncated.





Nota bene: the final three of the series are ornamental versions used in papal or regal documents










Acronyms: These could be considered a type of suspension where the first letter of a word has come to stand for the entire word or even an entire phrase. Common examples include 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.



Anno Domini, the year of the Lord


Versus, against

​​Conventionalisms: Usually found in older documents, these are symbols that can represent entire words or syllables. The first kind are symbols that replace entire words. These symbols include alchemical and zodiac symbols; however, the most common symbol that you will come across in genealogical records are «Nomina Sacra» or Sacred names such as Christograms. Christograms stand for Jesus Christus and come in various forms such as Chi-Rho (), IX monogram, IHS, XPO, among others. See Christogram for more information and examples.

Even more common than symbols are relativec marks. These are syllables that replace a syllable or part of a syllable and indicates to the lector what the missing syllable is. These are the most common abbreviations that you will encounter in Latin.

Relative Marks

◌̂ or ◌̄

A nasal consonant (m, n)

-us, -os, -s (typically at the end of words

r, re, ra, ar


-ur, -tur, -er

ꝯ, ɔ, or ꜿ

con-, com-, cum-

vel, ul, el

mem, mun

non, nun

qui, quo, quia

por, pro

per, par, por

ū or v̄

ven, ver, vit

-um (end of words)

While this list will give you the tools to decipher the majority of Latin abbreviations, there are some that are conventions and simply must be memorized. In Common Words, we have included as many of these exceptions as possible to aid in your paleography work.

Furthermore, there are some regional variations in conventions. See the Regional Variations Appendix to see some examples.

Other resources include:


Paleography Introduction