Roots to the Past

Diana Tibert
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We learn easier when we are having fun. If we are dreading the experience, it not only takes longer to learn, but we may get frustrated and quit.

We learn easier when we are having fun. If we are dreading the experience, it not only takes longer to learn, but we may get frustrated and quit.

Throwing in the towel is exactly how I felt on my first and second attempts at reading handwriting in old documents. I stared at many words hoping they would magically transform into readable text.

The best way I found to solve these words is to expose myself to more of the same handwriting.

Eventually, what looked like a jumble of letters I guessed to be Wicols becomes Nicholas.

The study of ancient writing, or paleography, is not something we need degrees in to help us with our research. But learning the basics will make life easier.

To get started, visit The National Archives of the United Kingdom website

( and play with the interactive tutorial for old English between 1500 and 1800.

Many of us can read a sentence in modern text even if the letters are jumbled. Old handwriting is not as easy to decipher.

If a word cannot be solved at a glance, it has to be dissected, letter by letter. Where letters cant be identified, leave a space.

In many cases, the letter will be repeated in a word you do recognize elsewhere in the document.

Knowing the type of document you are reading does help.

For example, if you are reading a church record, words associated with baptisms, marriages and burials will be used.

Until the 18th Century, words were spelled as they were pronounced.

Add into the mix the persons own dialect and this can make for interesting reading.

To conserve writing paper and time, abbreviates were standard. One of the first I encountered was Wm for William.

Dashes, squiggles and dots were used to place letters in words and show where others were missing.

Another form of abbreviation was to replace two or more letters with symbols. For example, the blended letters th were often replaced with the thorn symbol that looked like y. This created ye for the.

The archives interactive tutorial contains ten documents for you to hone your new skill.

In one window is the image of the line to be transcribed. In another, you type what you think you are reading. When you are finished, select submit to see how well you did.

After a few exercises, I suggest you play the Ducking Stool Game. To save the woman from being dunked in the river, you must correctly transcribe the word. Unfortunately, for this poor woman, I failed miserably in my first attempts to save her.

Another helpful website is Old Handwriting in Genealogy Research (

It includes common names, places and occupation samples.

Researchers File ...

Seeking information on the Milton family of Springhill. Contact: Carissa Atkinson; West Brook, RR #3 Southampton, NS B0M 1W0; email:

Editors Note

Diana Lynn Tibert is a freelance writer living at Milford, NS. Submit genealogy queries by writing: RR#1 Milford, Hants County, NS B0N 1Y0; or email:

Organizations: National Archives, Genealogy Research

Geographic location: United Kingdom, West Brook, Hants County

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