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Making sense of old handwriting

Practical Suggestions

The following seven guidelines offer broad, practical suggestions about how to work with an unfamiliar handwriting style. While these suggestions are general, they are applicable to any paleographic task in Russian. These suggestions are here to help you begin:

1. Study a new hand 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 (or hand) of the scribe, or recorder, and the type of writing they used. This will also help you to notice any particular idiosyncrasies of the writing, such as unique forms of letters, the use of certain abbreviations, or unfamiliar grammatical structure. By recognizing these features of the scribe’s hand from the beginning, you will be more likely to have success in reading the documents the scribe wrote.

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

Repeated phrases, dates and names which you already know can help familiarize you with the handwriting style. For example, when working with metrical books (метрические книги), look for words and phrases such as: крестьяне (peasant), селo (village), and и жена его (and his wife). Common names such as Анастасия (Anastasia) or Иванъ (Ivan) can fulfill the same purpose. By finding familiar words, names, and phrases, you can identify specific letter styles used by the writer so you know what those letters might look like elsewhere in the document. Dates are also a valuable source, since the number of alternatives for a date are limited to 12 months and 31 numbers, as well as specific numbers for the years, all of which can be compared with preceding or following entries.

3. Use the surrounding text as a guide.

Often, the context of the document can help you to determine a particularly difficult word. The following three suggestions should aid you in using the surrounding text to guide your reading of a record:

  • Compare the letters in unknown words or names with those of known words or names. See the previous suggestion for more on using this tactic. 
  • 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 general flow of the document type. Many Russian records are often in table form which can simplify the process of identifying what should be listed in specific columns.  
  • Look for the same word or name elsewhere. This can be especially helpful where there are marginal notes that include the name(s) of individuals mentioned in the record, or where the same surname is repeated several times in a single document. The same name written in another place may be much clearer than the first example you find. 

4. Expect a variety of handwriting.

Remember that a great deal of variety in handwriting can be found even 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 or spelled in different ways. There can even be various spellings of the same name. Keep an open mind to the possibility of spelling variations so you do not rule out a record that is about your family!

5. Compare unknown letters with those on alphabet charts.

Frequently, you can get an idea of what a particularly difficult letter could be by comparing it with letters on alphabet charts, including variant forms of the letters. However, it should be recognized that handwriting can vary significantly 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 to the surrounding words and type of document.

On particularly difficult documents, making your own alphabet chart can be helpful. Once you figure how the scribe writes the letter A, write out a list of all the different ways that scribe has written an A. This is beneficial as many scribes kept the records over the course of several years, meaning that if your research stays in the same geographic location, you may come across records written by the same scribe for other events. Even if you do not encounter other documents kept by that scribe, your letter charts and lists will help you to recognize alternative ways a letter may be written in future documents.

6. Consult an outside source.

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

  • Word lists. Consult lists of given names, surnames, numbers, dates, and other genealogical words. The FamilySearch Wiki has some good information and resources on names, as well as an extensive genealogical word list. The Wikipedia article titled “Russian Given Name” is a great resource with information regarding naming customs throughout Russian history. You can find more resources on the List of Given Names and List of Surnames pages within the Russian Script Tutorial. 
  • Maps and gazetteers. Maps and gazetteers (an index or directory listing place names) are useful in determining locations, variant spellings, where to find the records for a certain town, and other details about a certain place. See Russian Empire Gazetteers on the FamilySearch Wiki for helpful information about gazetteers covering various areas of the former Russian Empire. You can also search the FamilySearch Wiki by the name of a former Russian Empire and/or USSR country for links to maps and gazetteers specific to that country. 
  • The internet. The existence or non-existence of a more unique surname or place name can be often be supported with additional information by simply searching for that name using a search engine or an online encyclopedia, such as Google or Wikipedia. 
  • Genealogical societies. The FamilySearch Wiki includes lists of many specific societies that can aid you in your research. These include the Russia Societies page, Ukraine Societies, Lithuania Societies, and more. 
  • Local family history researchers. It might be worth your time to contact a local family history researcher ahead of time to help, especially if you plan to do your research in person in an archive or religious center. However, don't expect the local priest or archivist to help or to read the documents for you. Even if the archivist wants to help, they might not have the skills, so you may want to prepare by hiring a specialist in the area. 

While these resources are by no means all-inclusive, they may be helpful in identifying a difficult name or in finding a correct spelling.

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

If you cannot decipher a name or word after reasonable efforts, write down your best guess or guesses as to what the word may be and move on. Be sure to use brackets to indicate where you are unsure of the record’s contents, as described in the Paleography Introduction. With more time studying the scribe’s handwriting, you may have more success if you go back to the word after reading more of the document. The word may also be used again in the text, where it may be easier to read than the first time.

Suggestions From The Experts

Dr. Roger Minert offers this advice:

"Although not even the finest expert can claim to be able to read every word, study and practice can make the task doable 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. These basic elements remain the same for the novice and the expert: 

  • Determine the language in question 
  • Determine the alphabet(s) used in the text 
  • Determine the content of the record (vital record, history, land deed, etc.) 
  • Locate the dates of events and when the record was written 
  • Identify the principal persons  
  • 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 
  • Each researcher will need to decide how much detail must be gleaned from a given record. 

"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, 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."

Minert, Roger. “Conclusions.” Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany. Woods Cross: GRT Publications, 2001.


Paleography Introduction