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How to decipher old handwriting

If you've ever looked for your ancestor in old record sets, then chances are you've come across some pretty difficult handwriting to decipher. Handwriting can be a challenge because not only has the English language evolved over history, spelling changed, the way we abbreviate words changed, just being able to interpret someone's unique style of writing can be a mystery and challenge in of itself.

Paleography, or the study of old handwriting, is an art form, to say the least. Not only does paleography require many years of careful studying and analysis, it is also deeply rooted in history and the understanding of historical documents

Before you begin studying the handwriting in an original image you have at hand, analyse the document type you have a hold of. If it's a probate record, you'll likely see legal terms used throughout. If it's a travel or migration record, as seen below, you might find a pattern of commonly used terms related to passage. Before you begin your handwriting research, jot down a few related words to the document you're reviewing to help you make judgement calls about those tricky-to-decipher words you may encounter later on.

Next, begin your letter by letter read. Do not try to interpret words, just try to determine what letters are in your document. The easily identifiable letters will be your keys to unlocking the rest of the words and phrases. Once you've done a letter by letter read, go back and read word by word using the letters you've already discovered to help you uncover words and phrases you're not sure about. If you're really stumped at one or two phrases or a whole section in your analysis, try reading what you can aloud and try sounding out the document. You might be surprised by what hearing yourself read can reveal. 



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