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What is Paleography?

Basic introduction to paleography, the practice of examining and translating old handwriting.


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Paleography is the art of examining and translating handwriting. In addition to deciphering text, it can be used to ascertain the age, place of origin, or accuracy of textual, judicial, and private documents. Paleography technically calls for analyzing the handwriting (script) of old manuscripts. The paleographer considers such characteristics as the slants of letters, concentration of ink and its makeup, and the overall flair as likened with other handwriting. Such analysis enables the scholar to notice dissimilar script, which in a few instances may suggest another individual assumed the labor of copying or in a different case symbolize the function of a corrector of the manuscript. Through comparison of handwriting mannerisms and other characteristics of a text, the paleographer might be capable of dating a manuscript. Additional facets of paleography include the supplies which were employed for composing, the arrangement of those manuscripts, and also the effort of those who replicated manuscripts maintaining the knowledge of antiquity for the interest of posterity.

The method of the paleographer involves, on the one hand, recognizing the wording that will commonly comprise a specific written document; on the other hand, distinguishing first words, then letters of the alphabet.

Even aged American English census records, Christian church records, and deeds of conveyance can be hard to interpret. Even those who translate the words may have trouble understanding the ancient handwriting and print. A crucial distinction to recall is that a good deal of the writing is "phonetic." Writers penned the name as proficiently as they could by however it sounded.

Just as America is a composite of immigrants from other nations and cultures, American English is a compounding derived words and influences. Early American handwriting, though, inclines to be more territorial in nature. It is more often than not established on the oral communication and acquired handwriting (and script style) of the local occupants. Immigrant Germans in Pennsylvania frequently employed Fraktur; English immigrants in Virginia and the Scotch-Irish in North Carolina, for instance, practiced the English hand; and many of the French immigrants in Louisiana used the flamboyant French manner of handwriting. The script style, as well as the jargon and slang, are embodied in the written (and printed) word. Abbreviations, contractions, and acronyms comprised very much a part of the linguistic process.

As a whole, a scrivener (scribe or writer) maintains the unvaried fashion for his documents inside an established period of time, but the expressive style can alter with the years (consider your own writing, for instance). Try to discover a written document by the same author and already translated to utilize as an example. If not, search additional examples of the same time period. A class in paleography can be very valuable to someone wishing to increase their skills at reading old documents, a skill beneficial to genealogists.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

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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