26    Mar 20073 comments

I Can’t Read That!

Family historians must be prepared for the many diverse languages that impact our rsearch.

When we must deal with foreign languages, unfamiliar alphabets or archaic handwriting, we need to be prepared or know where to find help. As we learn to read these alphabets and handwriting, we can understand how and where mistakes were made in our names.

Reading through online passenger manifests and census images for the names we know can be enlightening. I skipped over someone named Menchel Tallelsy until I looked at the actual manifest image - It was our cousin Mendel Talalay. The D was scrawled and the transcriber thought it was a separate C and H, instead of the correct D. I recognized TALLELSY immediately as TALALAY, but then I've been looking at even stranger forms of this name for a long time.

Click to view photo in full size

The more you look at old handwriting, the better you'll be able to read it. There are also some excellent online resources for this task, listed at the end of this article.

If you can, start with records or documents in a language you know to become familiar with the challenges.


No matter how good you think your eyes are, use a magnifying glass. I never understood why people in the library always had them. After some major eye strain, I went out and got one myself.

A journalist's motto, and a genealogist's, is always "Do Not Assume." Read carefully and slowly to decipher the words. Ask others to read a listing and see if they can decipher. Several pairs of eyes are always better than one.

Check your document for confusing letters and see if other words on the same page might have them. If the letter form is in a word you can read, use it to decode the others. If days and months are indicating, they can be useful in decoding letter combinations to unravel the other puzzles.

If you can, scan the document and use a program like PhotoShop to enlarge specific words and then crop individual letters to print out. You'll have a handy-dandy poster to hang on your wall.

I've participated in two recent transcription projects of Israeli cemeteries totalling 85,000 burials in two major cemeteries. The records were in Hebrew and needed to be transliterated into English for JewishGen's searchable Online World Burial Registry. The golden rule is always to transcribe whatever is there, exactly as is, complete with errors, but since Hebrew is a phonetic language and usually written without vowels, the names are open to interpretation.

When the names were recorded, the often Eastern European clerks were faced with names to record and spell in Amharic (Ethiopian), Farsi (Persian), Greek or Spanish. In our transliteration, we needed to try to discover the ethnic origins of unusual names, the pronounciation and correct English spelling.

In general, transcribers in large projects need to be familiar with common names and places with fcompetiency in historic handwriting (paleography). Those who are familiar with certain ethnic common names and handwriting may see the letters clearly and unambiguously. Others, with no frame of reference, have a more difficult time. However, the errors may eventually help and provide more information. Keep your originals original. You can always refer to the original and the error when analyzing your findings.

For good practice, read through a wide variety of passenger manifests. Some are beautiful examples of calligraphy, while others are scribbled with leaky pens, complete with ink blotches. With many names on each manifest, you can review them and train your eyes. If you come across a familiar name or place, use those clues to decipher other names.

Check online and at specialty websites for handwriting aids. Avotaynu has some transcription manuals for different languages. Your local Family History Center has finding aids, alphabet charts, abbreviation lists and more. Collect those pertinent to the countries and languages you are searching.


Confusing letters are not only found in the middle of words. The initial letter may also be hard to read and lead to running up the wrong research road or coming to a brick wall. In some intensive work with the Ellis Island Database, before Steve Morse's One-Step Pages www.stevemorse.org were developed, I discovered these letter groups are often confused.
I,J; S, F, P; D, C and H; F, H; J, I; K, R; S, L; O, Q; P, R; U, V; W, M, V, U; b,f; d, el; j, I; k, t; s, l; t, c; ss, fs, ps; w, vv; y, g, q.

Also think about what certain letters sounded like in various languages, particularly when the speaker had an accent: B-P; D-T; F-P, F-V, G-K, J-Y, S-Z, V-B, V-W, W-R. C-S, CH-SH, R-RR, L-LL.

Vowels are also a problem. I, IE. EY and Y can be substituted for each other. AI-AY-AJ all sound the same. A name that begins with an A can begin with an O or other vowel, so check each spelling.

I've listed some examples of language aids online. There are many more. Try to look at some that focus on your family origins. I'm interested in hearing your comments and what you've found. If the database you are searching has the option for "contains," try using the name written without the first letter.


Handwriting Analysis for Genealogists
Graphology for genealogists may give you some personality clues about your ancestors.

Denmark - Alphabets & Handwriting Styles
Danish documents may be written in heavy black German-style Gothic letters. Try this link for assistance.

English Handwriting 1500-1700
A Cambridge University free class with high-resolution document images and exercises.

UK National Archives - Paleography
England again, this time 1500-1800, with assistance for reading and transcribing old documents in an online interactive tutorial.

Scottish Handwriting
Tutorial on historical handwriting, 1500-1750, and assistance with other problems.

FamilySearch Handwriting Guide - German Gothic
Germany used Gothic handwriting into WW2, it was used in 1700s Czechoslovakia, 19th century Scandinavia and the Baltics (Latvia, Estonia).

Moravians - German Script Tutorial
German script from Moravia.

Old German Handwritten Scripts
Although the site is in German, it isn't that hard to navigate. There are documents, alphabet fonts and other helps to read old German handwriting.

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Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Hello, when printing the genealogica tree does not appear the photographs, that I will have that to make to appear? Thanks
  2. I found a great resource for dealing with transliterated Russian/Jewish first names.


    These will help to explain a lot of the spelling variations I've seen while trying to decipher the Ellis Island manifests.
  3. Hello, like Your Blog very much. I found it on cuil.com will add it to bookmark and come back often again to read and follow. Please continue to do great job you do on it.

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