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Making sense of old handwriting

Practical Suggestions

The following seven guidelines offer general, practical suggestions about how to work with an unfamiliar handwriting style. The examples for each of the following suggestions were chosen for the novice researcher working with parish records because this is where most family history research will, and should, begin; however, 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 one works slowly with the handwriting, soon the ability and speed of reading 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 baptismal records in Portuguese language parishes, common phrases such as "batizado solemnemente com santos óleos, por mim," "assinado," and "padrinho" can help familiarize the researcher with a particular style. In surnames and given names that have already been encountered in other records, one can also identify specific letter styles used by the writer.

For parish records, see Common Phrases for a list of terms.

Dates are also a valuable source since the number of alternatives for a date is limited to 12 months and 31 numbers, as well as the numbers for the years, all of which can be compared with preceding or following entries.

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. In this way, you can make good use of the familiar dates, phrases, and known names discussed above.
  • Read the word in the context in which it was 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. The name written in the other place may not be abbreviated or could be more clearly written, or, in many cases, the writer may have chosen entirely different letter styles the second time he wrote the name.

4. Be aware of the variety of handwriting found in records.

Remember that a great deal of variety in handwriting can be found in a single document. It is common 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 the linguistic variations discussed in various sections on this site, there can also be various spellings of the same name. Such a variety of spellings in the same manuscript is common.

5. Compare unknown letters with those on the 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. However, it should be recognized that handwriting varies drastically from person to person, as well as from time period to time period, and a particular letter in a document may not be found on the alphabet charts provided.

6. Consult an outside source.

Consult an outside source, especially when a name is involved. The following sources, or ones similar to them, can be of great assistance in deciphering a name:

  • Archive personnel, local record custodians such as priests, or other more experienced researchers. When working on-site in archives, local people—particularly priests in the parish—are familiar with the different surnames found in the area. They also know the surrounding places, towns, and villages. They may also be somewhat familiar with the earlier handwriting styles. Generally, priests and archives personnel are more than willing to help in deciphering a particularly difficult name or confirming a name with which the researcher is unfamiliar. In parish archives, such questions may also serve the function of focusing the conversation on the work that you are doing.
  • Lists of given names and surnames. Consult the various lists of names available on this site for reference. Numerous websites offer lists of last names, such as: Behind the Name.

Additional name lists can be found in the Portuguese paleography: Portuguese Paleography - Names and Naming Customs.

While this list is by no means all-inclusive, it may be a guide in identifying a difficult name or in finding a correct spelling. For others, perhaps more specific to a country or region, do a Google search using the word cognome and the name of the country or region.

  • Gazetteers and geographical dictionaries. These contain alphabetical lists of place names with which one can compare spellings. Lists of these for Portugal and Brazil can be found (coming soon) and can also be found in George R. Ryskamp's, Finding Your Hispanic Roots. Many, 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 in confirming 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 example:

Portugal: Geographical dictionary Dicionário chorográfico do reino de Portugal published by Agostinho Rodrigues de Andrade.

​Brazil: A helpful website where you can find cities in Brazil is the IBGE website or the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística. Look under "Histórico dos Municípios."

Another helpful online geographical resource for research in any country is places in the Simply select your country of interest to begin searching place names alphabetically.

The names of places have also changed as a result of shortening or combining two words into one. For example, a town that today is known as Vinhedo was known in early records as Rocinha. Another example is a city in Bahia, Brazil, known today as Salvador, which had its name reduced from "Cidade do São Salvador da Baía de Todos os Santos. " Using care and a little bit of creativity in the spelling and combining of words, one can usually determine the parish that is being named. Ultimately, final confirmation can only be had by checking the parish records for that particular parish.

  • ​​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 particularly useful in identifying those small places that make up a parish. A map can 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. Google Maps and other online map collections can also be very helpful but often fail to recognize the historical changes in place names. Detailed topographical maps exist for all of these countries, as well as a book called Index to Maps of Hispanic America which comes with a collection of large maps. A discussion about how to use these, as well as a list including national atlases for Portugal and Brazil, can be found in Finding Your Hispanic Roots.
  • ​Search the internet. The existence or likely non-existence of a unique surname or place name can be proven often with additional information by simply searching for that name using a search engine or an online encyclopedia, such as GoogleWikipedia, or others.​​

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

If you cannot decipher a name or word after reasonable efforts, trace or copy it down. Write down your best guess or guesses as to what the word could be, and then go on. The word, especially if it is a name, will most likely appear again. When it does, it may be much clearer the second time, or you may be better able to decipher it in the new context. If it does not appear the second time, then you can go back and look again at the word, having had more experience with less difficult words in that same individual's handwriting.

Suggestions from the Experts

The Mexican paleographer Maria Elena Bibriesca in setting forth norms for the reading of old handwriting, offers the following excellent advice:

"Read with calmness and attention to detail, avoiding anxiety or worry. Read each specific document word by word, avoiding the trap of confiding solely on your memory and knowledge of similar texts and phrases. Take into account all written elements, no matter how minimal they appear. Even the most insignificant mark may have transcendental importance. You should investigate what it means and why it was placed there. Long and difficult texts should be read several times until you have a complete transcription."

In short, both beginners and advanced readers of old handwriting should proceed calmly and slowly, reading and reviewing the document thoroughly and usually several times. Remember that a complete transcription takes time and patience, both the document and oneself.

Beyond these suggestions and the following sections about language and certain handwriting problem areas, what is needed most to be able to understand early handwriting styles is practical experience. 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.” 1

  1. Charles Johnson and Hilary Jenkinson, English Court Hand, A.D. 1066 to 1500 : Illustrated Chiefly from the Public Records (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1915), xxxvii; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 July 2023).
  • Banner: Cantino Planisphere (1502), Portolan Map, digital image, Wikimedia Commons, ( : accessed 20 July 2023). This image is in the public domain.

Paleography Introduction