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Deciphering old-style handwriting

The very nature of genealogical research almost makes it an absolute certainty that you will be required to peruse dozens and maybe even hundreds of hand written documents. Since you will most likely be called upon to trace the whereabouts of a long deceased ancestor or to establish bloodlines which have been forgotten for many years, it is highly likely that the hand written documents which will come under your scrutiny will have been written in the commonly accepted handwriting of that particular time period. This can prove to be a formidable enough challenge by itself and will likely baffle the average genealogical researcher. However many people have overcome these challenges and given enough time, practice and familiarity with different styles of handwriting, you will too.

By far, the best way to gain expertise in reading and deciphering old-style handwriting is through constant exposure to it. A good exercise to help you is to gather several examples of older documents and devote a few days in transcribing them as thoroughly as you can manage. After several days of doing this, you will find that you can fairly quickly develop a knack for deciphering even the most inscrutable penmanship.

Resist the temptation to assume the meanings of difficult words. It may seem to you that you can save time by doing this, but any discrepancy in content or meaning later on will mean that you have to go back and retrace your steps, resulting in more actual work. It is best to read at a comfortable pace and make sure what you are reading makes sense to you before proceeding to the next line.

A good quality magnifying glass or lens will come in handy for this and many other genealogical research tasks so it would be a good idea to invest in one.

Here’s a tip: if you are stuck with deciphering a certain word or phrase, see which letters are the same or at least similar to letters in words that you do understand. Often at times, even if only a few letters are in place the rest of the world quickly comes into place. In fact research at an English university has shown that the brain really only analyses the first and last letters of a word. Even if the middle letters of the word were jumbled up, or as in the case of older documents indecipherable, you would still be able to read the word as your brain does the processing for you on a subconscious level.

Another clue to look out for is handwritten dates and numbers. Since you will probably be able to easily read and understand these, you can see if any of the letters in these dates correspond to letters in words that you do not understand. Through a process of elimination you can then make some educated guesses on the definition of a particular word.

Making a chart of unusual letters or characters as you decipher them will also come in handy as a quick reference for the next time you encounter the letter again.

Original Authors: Doods Pangburn
Edit Update Authors: M.A.Harris
Updated On: 20/06/2008

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