What Does That Say??? Deciphering Old Handwriting

If you’ve been doing genealogical research for any length of time, you likely have hit a problem that I’ve encountered more than once: What the heck does that record say???

Sample from Middlesex County, Massachusetts Probate Records

Sometimes the issue isn’t the language in which the document is written. This probate page from 1651 is written in English, but the cursive style is definitely not the Palmer script that many of us learned in school.

In other cases, the script style isn’t the only impediment to figuring out what a record says. It’s also the fact that it is written in a language or in an alphabet style with which we are not familiar, like old German script.

Or the scribe just had plain old bad cursive skills:

Sometimes, one just has to admit that he/she doesn’t have the skills to decipher the document, as frustrating as it is to have to admit that. (I’ve been in that boat, more than once!) In this case, seek out help at the Family History Library, a local family history center, your local genealogy society or, if you live in a community with an ethnic pocket, contact someone who speaks the language if it isn’t English. It’s also possible that you will need to hire a professional who does have the skills to read, transcribe and translate the record or document for you.

Luckily, I have often found that going to those extremes is not necessary.

Rule #1 – and there is definitely no way to get around this – is that you get better with PRACTICE. The more you read old records, the more proficient you will become.

I don’t consider myself particularly proficient in reading old records, but I have definitely improved my skills enough to where I can navigate records in Slovak, Danish, German and Swedish even though I don’t speak those languages.

I have definitely used some techniques that have been successful when working on my own. When reading a document:

  1. Scan over the entire page with a quick glance to get a feel for the format of the record. Are there random words which you can already read? Can you figure out the spelling of the word even if you don’t know what it says?
  2. Analyze the record. What kind of record of document is it? A parish register page? A court document? Land deed? Each record type generally has a format that is followed. For example, a church baptismal register often has entries in columns with date, name, parents, godparents, locality where they live and misc. notes. What look at a few pages before your document and a few pages after. Is the handwriting the same? Can you determine a format used by the scribe?
  3. Use context clues, just as you would in comprehending a passage written in English. If the details are entered in a particular format style, the context clues become much easier to follow.
  4. Familiarize yourself with words like baptisms, marriages, burials in the language in which your document is written. There are a number of charts of common words used in genealogical records available online. FamilySearch links include lists of words and phrases used in genealogical research translated from other languages. Many records are not indexed so you need to know what kind of record you are reading when browsing through record sets. Some records, particularly those in the 1700s, have mixed vital records recorded in church books. For example, instead of a book of all the baptisms in a parish from 1767-1795 listed together, you might find all baptisms, marriages and burials for 1767 in one book, those for 1768 in another and so on. You need to know what you are looking at and trying to read.
  5. I’ve also found it’s really important to familiarize yourself with common surnames and place names in the record set one is using. Also, be cognizant of abbreviations, particularly of given names. Is that Jos (Joseph) or Jas (James)? Are nicknames used in the records? They are very commonly found in Slovak church books. Janko and Ivanko (Slovak) are the same name as Joannes (Latin)and John.
  6. If you can’t make out the letters in one word, scan the page to look for the same letter in a different word. You might be able to figure out how the other word is spelled (I use Google translate to check my spelling, although it’s hit and miss finding words even when spelled correctly.) Then I go back to the unidentified word to try spelling it out and again use Google translate to see if a hit comes up.
  7. Tracing the word sometimes helps. This really works if you are reading a microfilm and can place a piece of paper under the light.
  8. Reading the Cyrillic alphabet is a skill I definitely don’t have. When Slovak records change overnight and are then written in Cyrillic, I have to pull up an image of the alphabet and, just like a pre-schooler learning to read, I match letters. I needed to find a record for Michael Scerbak, so I searched online for how Michael would be written with Cyrillic letters. I then went back to the register and could skip over the name column that didn’t have a child named Michael. Painstaking and slow, but I was successful.

Next, refer back to Rule #1. As my mother used to say, “Practice makes perfect.”

Links to online resources:

There are numerous examples of charts written in different styles. Just search in images: old handwriting

There are a number of videos.

Cyndi’s ListHandwriting & Script

Deciphering Old Handwriting – From a Genealogy Course Taught by Sabina J. Murray

American Colonial Handwriting:
“What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. I
“What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. II
“What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. III

Old English Handwriting:
Paleography: Reading Old Handwriting 1500-1800 – online tutorial
Cambridge University: English Handwriting 1500-1700 – online tutorial

Handwriting in languages other than English:
FamilySearch Research Wiki – Search “handwriting”
Brigham Young Script Tutorials – lessons in reading German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Latin, in addition to English

Extreme GenesEpisode 171, Methods of Deciphering Old Handwriting/etc.

How to Read Old Handwriting: A Primer by Ancestral Findings

Printed Sources:
Deciphering Gothic Records, Fay S. Dearden, 1996, no publisher;
Reading Old Handwriting, Eve McLaughlin, FFHS, ISBN-13: 978-0907099628
Understanding Colonial Handwriting, Harriet Stryker-Rodda,
ISBN-13: 978-0806311531
Reading Early American Records, Kip Sperry,
ISBN-13: 978-0806308463




2 thoughts on “What Does That Say??? Deciphering Old Handwriting”

  1. When I can’t read something in those documents, I ask my husband. His writing is horrible and he seems to be able to decipher the old documents!

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