Handwriting: How to read your ancestors’

10 May 2019

Ah handwriting…It can be hard enough reading your own handwriting at the best of times. Do you remember those long, grueling lessons learning how to write the letter ‘e’ in a swirly loop several times until it was absolutely perfect? To only eventually learn to type everything up with a keyboard (there were lessons on touch-typing also!).

Gone are the days of writing down the date and your name in the corner of your exercise book. Writing letters on beautifully illustrated paper to exchange with a significant other for weeks, months and years, supposedly a thing of the past too.

So if you can’t read your doctor’s handwriting, or your own – how on earth do you read your ancestors?

Cursive handwriting

The art of penmanship

Writing classical and religious texts was a discipline solely for monks with many different styles of writing which differed by region.

In later centuries, as letter writing became more standardised, both men and women were “expected to embrace flourishes unique to their sex“.

Nowadays, when we look back at historical handwritten documents, such texts sometimes look completely illegible to the modern-day reader.

However, with the right tips, working through and transcribing documents will become much, much easier!

Old quill nib

Where do I start?

Here are four tips to help you read and understand your ancestors’ handwriting:

“Reading is essential for those who seek to rise above the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

Attempting to read old documents in an old style of writing that is unfamiliar to you will look somewhat (if not completely) illegible.

The first step is to start reading through the text slowly – letter by letter would be ideal, particularly if it is a long document!

If you are unable to identify a letter, write a suggestion of what you think it is, or come back to it later.

Glasses on an open book

Terms, idioms, and standard phrasing

Do you know the document that you’re transcribing?

By knowing the background of the document, it will serve to help you enormously with reading the handwriting! If you know the phrases that are more likely to appear, you’ll be able to read them easily!

You can then use these to help decipher other words you find particularly tricky.

Old documents

Decipher, but don’t change

Transcribe – don’t translate.

Keep the words in their original form rather than changing them into their modern form. One idea is to put the modern spellings in brackets so you know which is which if you don’t have the original document in front of you.

Old pen nib and cursive handwriting

Spell it out

Before the 18th century, words were often spelled phonetically in local dialects (this is similar to the name Shakespeare, which had many different spellings, even in his own Will!).

Maijestie is an example.

Letter spelling in both upper and lowercase had many different variations. Have a look at the images below.

Letter Spellings - The Captials

Letter Spellings - lower case

Rootsweb has a great diagram of the types of writing you are likely to encounter.

It may be long, but it’s worth doing. Just like researching and filling in your family tree!

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