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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.

It is also 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, or as it is called in Spanish el i-griega or “the Greek i." Words such as ayer, ya, Isabel, había, and iglesia could be written as aier, ia, Ysabel, habya, and yglesya, respectively. 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

B - V - U: In Spanish, the /b/ and the /v/ stand for the same phonetic sound and as such native Spanish speakers cannot distinguish the two sounds. Even today, it is not at all uncommon to find words such as había and venía spelled havia and benia. The difficulty with the b and the v is further complicated by the fact that the written v, which in Spain is still called the uve or the "u-b," did not become clearly distinguishable from the u for years. This is due to the Latin influence that would use the letters interchangeably. Therefore, words that would normally have a /b/ in them such as había, habiendo, and abad, could all be spelled hauia, hauiendo and auad.

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples from Document
nuebe nueve

GI - Z: There are also cases of names and words in which, because of dialectal influences, the letters /gi/ might be replaced by /z/. For example, Giambattista may be written Zambattista, and Giovan may appear spelled Zovan (or Zoan or Zuan).

C - Z - S - SS - Ç - X: Although words in modern Spanish may be written with c, z, or s, these same words may be written with c, z, s, ss, ç, or x in old records, as these letters used to represent distinct sounds that have since been lost. For example, the name Lorenzo may appear spelled Lorenço.

X - J - G: Another set of interchangeable letters that can be tricky are x, j, and g. Most often, the x and j are used interchangeably, as well as the j and g.

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples from Document
dixeronsese dijeron

The Letter “h”

The letter h became silent relatively early in Spanish's evolution and can present difficulties to the reader of manuscripts due to the fact that it is omitted or added arbitrarily. Other times it replaces g or f. For example: enero/henero, oyos/hoyos, Fernández/Hernández, Huerta/Uerta/Guerta, oy/hoy, & Tomás/Thomás, toledo/tholedo, Catalina/Cathalina.

The letter h is only used in modern Spanish as part of the combination ch; however, in old manuscripts, it may have been used a lot more extensively due to Latin influence, appearing in combinations of letters such as: th, ch, ph, gh, and others. Examples of this may include names like Tomas spelled Thomas, Catterina spelled Catherina, Filippo spelled Philippo, etc.

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples from Document

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

Another confusing group of letters used in many old documents are 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/.

Double Letters

The reader of old manuscripts needs to be aware of the frequent presence of double letters in Spanish 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 two different forms of the letter s when they wrote a double s, one of them resembling a j without the dot above it. 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.


Joining of Letters

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of reading old Spanish manuscripts is the way in which letters are joined (such as in cursive). Letters of one word may be joined or not. The letters at the end of a word may also be joined with the next word. This can be particularly difficult when discussing abbreviations. Reading words aloud and continuously will often be helpful as you determine which is the correct alternative.


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 case or capital letters. Such letters may appear at the beginning, middle, or 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, mainly the L and the J 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 is its size.

A real difficulty that readers will find is the fact that the capital letters that frequently appear in the middle of a word will not be joined with the previous letter. The word, therefore, will appear to be two different words. As has already been said, the best way to overcome this obstacle is to carefully read and pronounce the words aloud and continuously.

As with capitalization, there were no set rules for punctuation. Punctuation may have been used inconsistently with modern usages or was often not used at all. Of particular difficulty for the beginner is the total absence of any type of punctuation a dash would be today 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 line breaks.

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 Spanish manuscripts. The reader of old documents should not expect accent marks as used in modern-day Spanish, 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. Consult the Numbers section on this site 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 on this site. You may also refer to a list of common abbreviations for help in deciphering some of the abbreviations you come across.


Very often in old handwriting, reflexive verbs are written with the "se" or "le" at the end of the word. While we would say "se hace" in today's Spanish, the Spanish speakers of the past would say or write "hácese." Identifying this pattern can help you decipher tricky reflexive phrases. Refer to the examples below:

Document SpellingCurrent SpellingSamples from Document
enterrosese enterró
hacesese hace
​Hicieronle​le hicieron


Paleography Introduction