One genealogical obstacle that all researchers must overcome is handwriting. A study of handwriting, referred to as paleography, can be vital when trying for accurate research results. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen incorrect family information simply because the researcher did not read it correctly. Other information might be missed altogether. I asked a friend to read a document to me one day, and when she handed it back to me she asked, "Is this in English"? I just laughed because it was. Before long she developed the skills to read the document too. That's just what it is, a skill��"and one that needs to be polished up every now and then. Even professional researchers need to practice so as to not lose it. Some problems that creep up include the alphabet, interchangeable letters, spelling, and abbreviations.
The formation of letters has evolved over time. During specific times and in specific places there was somewhat of a norm in writing. Secretary hand was used during the Stuart period in the British Empire, and the Italians found a quicker way of writing in italics. Studying a handful of documents from the time period of interest will prove helpful. Trace over each letter to see how they are formed and perhaps construct an alphabet. No matter how well you know a particular style of writing, there will inevitably be a scribe who wrote his own way, but take your time to study it. Being too hasty will definitely cause you to miss some important information. Another point of interest is interchangeable letters. In many cases the u and v were often used interchangeably as well as i with j or y.
Spelling and abbreviations account for a lot of problems too. As we all know, Webster's Dictionary hasn't always been around. It's amazing how many people can't find their ancestor because they are looking for one specific name with an exact spelling. Always look for variants. Other words may not be spelled as you know it. Sometimes it helps to say it the way the scribe spelled it and perhaps the local dialect will become clear. Abbreviations vary from person to person. A few common ones include contractions, superior letters, and suspensions. Contractions will include an apostrophe in the word or a line over a missing double consonant. An example of a superior letter includes the name Wm (William) or Matie (Majesty). Suspensions are still used today by using a period at the end of a word like Jan. (January). Other symbols like colons and dashes were also used at the end of abbreviated words.
These are just a few points about reading old handwriting. For more information, find a book at the library; there are several good references. For Old English I like Genealogical Research in England and Wales Vol. 3 by David Gardner and Frank Smith. Every researcher could use a brush up on their paleography skills. Even modern records are sometimes difficult to decipher and some of the same principles apply to studying those documents. I've learned that a little paleography study now will prevent a lot of future headaches in research.
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2003.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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