12 May 2010

Paleography and those Old Documents

Paleography is the study of reading hand-writing. In our modern days, it may be something a M.D. wrote or someone with "really" bad handwriting. Eighty years ago a Census Enumerator had questionable writing skills. The issue of bad handwriting dates back to the beginning of handwriting. You may find forms (mostly legal) dating to before 1800 with the intent of limiting the consequences of bad handwriting.

If you use a Search Engine to find help, you might find, Script Tutorials, an under-construction website that address six of the Western European languages [Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish] and also English. It is a Brigham Young University. This website links to other websites sometimes outside of BYU that have done a great job of explaining how to extract information from old written documents, but often link to another very good BYU web page.

Writers of the past were often Scribes, who learned their craft and found employment writing documents for governments and individuals. The scribes learned their alphabet and writing style from a teacher so look too for style guides since different teacher followed different style guides. Back when, some of the upper classes could read and write, but their writing was not as good as their scribes. Also as we today use contractions and abbreviations so did the writer of the past. Look for collections of the
contractions and abbreviations and their translation.

Another quirk is that the language has evolved. The old vocabulary is smaller (and borrowing from other languages), the spellings maybe a little different, the idiomatic expressions can be out of vogue, and the alphabet may have changed as well.

Genealogically we look for birth, death, and marriage records. These generally have a set format and narrow vocabulary so look for an extraction guide. Wills are a bit harder, but extraction guides can be used here as well.

As for the oddball idiomatic expression not found in dictionaries, I have had some success using Search Engines with the idiomatic expression in quotes. I found that I was not alone in not understanding, but some kind person knew.

You can look for a professional paleographer to transcribe and translate your document, but they are rare and costly. If you do it yourself, you should collect some guides, period dictionaries and useful websites.

This is a task you can do seated in a climate controlled environment. A good university librarian is ideal.

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