This article on reading penmanship is long overdue, and I was happy to see it on my newsletter from the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.
Deciphering Old Documents
by Dee Gibson-Roles
One of the most difficult tasks for a genealogist is that of reading and deciphering handwriting in old documents. Besides the fact that some handwriting is almost impossible to read, there were letters and letter forms used in “the olden days” that are no longer commonly used, if used at all.
Coupled with that problem is the lack of standardized spelling until close to the 20th century. We will address all of these problems here and provide some tips on deciphering old documents.
One letter or term that is often seen in old handwriting and continues today is the word or term “ye” as in “Ye Olde Tavern.” Quite often today this “ye” is used when an ambiance of colonial times is desired. Most pronounce the word as “yee.”
But this pronunciation is totally in error. It seems hard to fathom that the correct pronunciation is simple “the” — just as the word “the” is pronounced. Of course the first question is, “How on earth did they get ‘the’ out of ‘ye’?!?” Perhaps a bit of the history of the term will explain.
The letter form that became the “Y” was called a “thorn” and was probably derived from a rune, part of a runic alphabet used by Northern European or Germanic peoples until about the 1200s. It represented what is now our “th.” But when the printing press came into use, there was no sign or letter for the thorn, which resembles a lower-case “p” with the loop moved down to the middle of the vertical line.
The letter closest in appearance to the thorn was the “y,” which was often substituted for the thorn in printed material. Thus the “y” when used in this context was pronounced “th,” and when the letter e was added to it, the word became “the” in pronunciation.
Few people today even realize that the word is actually pronounced “the.”
Another letter form that can be confusing to a researcher, especially a new one, it that of the double “s.” Almost anywhere in a document that a word with a double “s” (as in Tennessee) occurred, the two letters were replaced with a symbol or letter that was very similar in appearance to a lower case “f” or “p.” It is very important to remember this when reading or transcribing any old handwriting.
Obviously some indexers are not aware of this, as we sometimes see the word “Tennepee” or “Tennefee” in transcriptions of old handwriting used in place of what is obviously supposed to be “Tennessee.”
Capitals and Spelling Confusion
Sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between two or more letters at the start of a word. Good examples of this are the letters “I” and “L” or “J” and “I.” Also, it can be difficult to distinguish an upper case “S” from an upper case “L,” especially in given names or even surnames.
By comparing the unknown letter to a known word in which the letter is definitely the same as the one in question, one can usually ascertain which letter is correct.
A good example of this is confusion between the names Samuel and Lemuel. Often it is hard to determine which one is the correct, one as many writers formed the capital “S” and “L” nearly alike. The best way to resolve the question is to search for another known word in the document that begins with the same letter and compare the known first letter to the one in question.
For many researchers, the first attempts at reading on old document result in much frustration. There are several reasons for the difficulty. Two of the most obvious are the spelling of words and the embellishment of many letters with flourishes and so on.
First and foremost, there was no standard spelling until the late 19th century or early 20th century. We often hear the statement that a certain word or name was misspelled in a document. However, we cannot say that the spelling of any word or name was incorrect at that time because of the lack of standardization.
In fact, it has been said that the more ways a person could find (or invent) to spell his name or another word was an indication of his educational level and/or his intelligence. Doubtless this is an exaggeration, but it does bear a grain of truth.
Another spelling problem is that many words were spelled phonetically, as the writer heard them, and not necessarily the way we would expect to see them. For example, in one letter written by a Confederate soldier to his family, he stated that a friend had died of “new money” fever. He was referring to pneumonia or “pneumonie fever” as it was called.
Punctuation and capitalization of words is another problem. Punctuation was, at best, a “sometime thing” and again, there was no standardization where capitalization of the first letter of a word was concerned. One can expect to see several words within a sentence with the first letter capitalized even in formal documents. (Common nouns especially were often capitalized, as they still are in modern German.)
As far as the lack of punctuation is concerned, it is best to read a whole paragraph and determine where the punctuation should be placed to make the sentences “make sense.”
We would be remiss if we did not mention transcription at this point. In transcribing any document, the contents must be recorded exactly as they are in the original documents, spelling problems and lack of punctuation included. In fact, the word “transcription” as applied to older documents indicates that it has been recorded word for word exactly as written in the original document.
If necessary, one can add footnotes or endnotes to the transcription explaining or clarifying any part that is still difficult to understand.
On a lighter note, one researcher was recently transcribing County Court minutes from the 1790s, recording the transcription as a Word document. Repeatedly, the program kept trying to correct the spelling and repeatedly, the transcriber reversed the correction to be exactly what was in the minutes. Finally the program gave up and notified the transcriber that it was turning off the spell-check function!
When attempting to read an old document in which words or passages are difficult to decipher, it is a good idea to record the entire document on paper, or least the paragraph that contains the difficult part or parts, leaving a blank space for any word that is illegible. After reading and recording the entire passage, one can often determine the mystery word by seeing its place in the context of the entire document.
Another “trick” is to try to locate the “mystery” letter or letters in another word or words that are legible and known. By comparing the two, it is often easier to determine what the mystery word actually is.
Reading old documents can be challenging, frustrating and discouraging to a beginner. Rest assured that it will be easier as time passes and more documents are read. And remember, help is available from local genealogical and historical societies in most areas.
Also check out what Ronni Bennett said last Wed over HERE at Time Goes By Blog.