News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 5, 2013

‘Foreign’ letters to confuse a genealogist

Tamie Dehler
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Any serious family researcher will at some time or another encounter old documents in an older handwriting style that need to be read and deciphered. This exercise can be extremely frustrating to the person who has no experience with old varieties of handwriting. One of the skills each genealogist needs to have in his/her “toolbox” is proficiency with the different forms of old handwriting.

Many old documents of the 1500s, 1600s and early 1700s are in a type of writing called Secretary Hand. This writing style was developed in the early 16th century as an alternative to calligraphy (also called Book Hand), which monks in earlier centuries used when copying book manuscripts.

Calligraphy was much too time-consuming for general use, so a script for legal documents and all forms of government business was developed. It spread to also include general business, church writings and personal use.

Secretary Hand is common, and indeed the dominant style of handwriting, in wills, probate records, court records, deeds and parish records from the British Isles, Colonial America and some European countries, such as Germany, from 1500-1700.

In the Secretary style of script, there are a number of letters that are very different from modern letters. These include e, c, t, r, s, h and k. The script is full of loops and looks extremely ornate to the modern eye. Letters in the words are joined together, and there is also the presence of slashes and strokes before words, that lead into the word. These are called “attacking strokes.”

Commonly confused uppercase letters are F and H, J and I, K and R, S and L, O and Q, P and R, U and V, and W or M for UU. Commonly confused lowercase letters are b for f, d for el, j for i, k for t, s for l, t for c, ss for fs or ps, w for vv, and y for g.

A letter not used nowadays can be found in Secretary script. This is the old Germanic rune, called “thorn,” which represented the “th” sound. It looks to us like the letter “y.” Thus “the” was spelled “ye,” “them” and “that” were abbreviated as “ym” and “yt,” but the words were pronounced exactly as they are now.

The “yogh” is also a letter not found in present-day English, but was a carry-over from middle English. It resembled our cursive “tailed z” or a number 3 in appearance. This letter sounded like a g, k, or h. Thus the word “night” could appear something like ni3t.

A third letter used in older script was the “long s.” The letter s could have two distinctive appearances while sounding the same. This older form of s originated back in Roman times and is present in Roman script. In the Secretary Hand, the long s looked like a p with a very long descendent. When printed, the long s resembles a lower-case f without the horizontal line through the middle. These two letters – long s and short s – were simply different versions of the s we still know and love in today’s English. They sounded the same. There were rules for when to write the different versions of s. Essentially, the long s was used at the beginning or in the middle of words, but not at the end. To see all of the rules for using long or short s, go to babelstone.

Finally, ampersands (the “and sign,” “et cetera sign,” or “&”) were used in the Secretary Hand but are unrecognizable symbols to us today. To view examples of the Secretary Hand, visit and www.buck


More on old handwriting next week.