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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. Instead of reading the handwriting of just one person who lived in our 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.

It is very helpful to have an alphabet chart 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.

I - Y: In many cases, it is common to see the letter /i/ used interchangeably with the letter /y/. Words such as maio, fevereiro, batizei, igreja and assinei may be written mayo, fevereyro, baptizey, ygreja and assiney. This can make initial recognition of the word difficult. As with many other problems in this section, as you pronounce the word, it will become evident what the original was.

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples From Document

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.

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples From Document

The Letter “H”

The letter /h/ is not commonly used in modern-day Portuguese, with the exception of the digraphs ch, nh & lh. However, in old manuscripts, it was used a lot more extensively due to Latin influence appearing in combinations of letters such as th, ch, ph, and others. Examples of this may include names such as Tomas spelled Thomas, Catterina spelled Catherina, and Rafael spelled Raphael, among other possibilities.

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples From Document

“Confusing” Letters

Many letters may seem to look alike. The best way to distinguish 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.

Long S

Many old documents use two forms of the letter /s/: the long s (ſ or ʃ) and short or round s (s). The long s was derived from roman cursive and was widely used well until the 19th century. One of the reasons for the decline of usage of this letter has to do with the complicated and often convoluted rules on when and when not to use the long s. Generally, it is not used to end a word and is often found within a word. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize this letter as otherwise, it can cause a lot of confusion with other letters - especially with the letter /f/.

Here is a printed example of the long s in use in Portuguese taken from Obras do grande Luis de Camões printed in 1720:

Portuguese-Alphabet/Os-Lusiadas-Extract-(Long S)




antiguamente. Eʃta he a Cidade de Evora, das prin-1Anciently. This is the city of Évora of the prin-
-cipaes de Portugal, & muyto antigua, & tanto,2-cipal [cities] of Portugal, & very old, & so much 
que naõ me lembro ter lido, quem foʃʃe o primey-3that I do not remember reading, whoever was it first 
-ro fundador ʃeu, nem ʃe póde affirmar della mais,4founder, nor can it be affirmed any more
que ʃer antiquiʃʃima, como diz o noʃʃo Reʃende5then to be very ancient, like our Resende says
na ʃua Deʃcripçaõ, aonde tratta de ʃeu nome, & o6in his description, where it deals with its name, and what
que pode alcançar, & ʃaber de ʃua antiguidade. O...7can be reached, that is to say of its antiquity. The...

Double Letters

The reader of old manuscripts needs to be aware of the frequent presence of double letters in Portuguese 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 the two forms of the letter /s/ when they wrote a double /s/. See 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.

While modern Portuguese still uses some double letters, old manuscripts can often have more of these pairs.



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 nor lowercase 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 also 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 whatsoever, causing sentences to blend together. Thus, the documents should be read carefully, and the reader should mentally place breaks where they seem to apply most.

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 Portuguese manuscripts. The reader of old documents should not expect accent marks as used in modern-day Portuguese, 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.

See Numbers 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 in this site immediately after this section and the list of Common Words included under Portuguese handwriting. You may also refer to a list of common abbreviations for help in deciphering some of the abbreviations you come across.


Paleography Introduction