Ten *More* Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

If you have ever delved into the exciting world of German family history, it is very likely that you have come across the elusive-yet-beautiful old German script. Almost like another language in itself, Kurrentschrift is a form of writing (based on late-medieval cursive) that was used in Germany and Austria until the mid-20th century. In my previous post, Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discussed ten basic steps for working with old German documents. While I still recommend hiring a professional for the best results (contact me here-I’d love to work with you), below are ten even more detailed tips to help you unlock the mystery of the old German script:

1. Get hip with the lingo. Letter writers of the past often used the same phrases over and over in writing, just as we do in English today (“Thank you for your e-mail”, “Attached please find”,  etc.). Being familiar with these common phrases helps in transcribing the old handwriting, as it allows you to better recognize the rest of the sentence. Some phrases that you might find in historical German letters include:

Ich habe deinen Brief erhalten/bekommen. I received your letter.
Seid herzlich gegrüßt. Literally: Be greeted affectionately.

English: We send you our warm regards.

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. A German Saying: “What God does is well done”
Vielen herzlichen Dank. Many warm/heartfelt thanks.
Wir sind alle gesund. We are all healthy.

As discussed in the first post, abbreviations also appear frequently in old German documents. The most common abbreviations include: “d.”, meaning “den” (the) before a date, as in “d. 2te February (the second of February), “u.” for “und” (and), and “geb.” for “geboren”, meaning “nèe.” The meanings of other abbreviations can be found using this site – although if you don’t speak German, have a dictionary handy!

 2. Master the tiny details of the letters.  In Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discussed the minute differences between “e”, “n” and “m”. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only letters in Kurrentschrift that look almost the same. Other examples include:

*  “N” and “St” – These two letters are very similar and are often difficult for even a professional to tell apart. If you look closely, however, you can see that the bottoms of the two letters are (or should be) different. The “N” finishes with a swoop to the right, while the “St” finishes with the crossing of the “t” itself. However, in actual documents, this can still be difficult. The 1920s example of “St” in Stunde (hour)  on the bottom also finishes with a swoop to the right and thus even more strongly resembles an N. Here, however,  you can differentiate it from an “N” in the fact that the “t” is (slightly) crossed, as opposed to the “N” in “Nachmittag” (afternoon) above.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.56.21 PM   Nachmittag
Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 3.11.59 PM   Stunden

*   “B”, “C” and “L” – If you look at the three capital letters below, you might be a little alarmed. They are incredibly similar. However, if you know the clues to look for, you will be able to tell them apart. The “C” (middle) is easy to differentiate  from the other two letters as there is no loop at the top. Just a simple stroke with a little downward hook at the top right. As for the “B” (left) and the “L” (right), the “B” is different in that it has a little straight line coming off the bottom swoop, much like our lowercase cursive b today.  Notice this line in the left word “Brief”  (letter) compared to the rather fluid finishing of the “L” on the right in the word “Liebe” (dear). “C” is not a very common letter in German, and is often only found in names, such as “Christian.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.35.44 PM
*   “v” and “w” –
These lowercase letters look similar, but are actually quite easy to tell apart. While they both have the loop on the right, the “v” only has one stroke before the loop, while the “w” has two.  Below, “v” is on the left, with a real-life example of the word “vielen” (many). “w” is center, followed by an example of the word “wird” (will). Finally, the last column shows both letters in the words “verkauft werden” (will be sold). Notice how the “w” has one more stroke before the loop than the “v” in this sample from an 1868 letter.

V

vielen

wwird  

verkauft werden

 

3. Understand the importance of occupations. As we are to some extent today, our ancestors were also defined by their occupations. Therefore, on any certificate, the occupation of a person was listed  before the person’s name. For example, a certificate may read that “the farmer Johann Schmidt appeared before the undersigned registrar”, with farmer (Bauer) preceding the name of the person involved.

The level of one’s occupation was also important. Occupation levels were:

“Lehrling” – apprentice

“Geselle” – journeyman (apprenticeship complete)

“Meister” – master

These levels, if listed, always follow the name of the occupation. For example, “Schuhmachermeister” is a person who is a master shoemaker. In the examples below, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt was a Schuhmachergeselle (first handwritten word, top image) before he was a Schuhmachermeister (last handwritten word, top line of bottom image).

Schuhmacher

Schuhmachermeister

4. Think horse-drawn carriage driver. Speaking of occupations, many occupations that were around in the past are no longer around today. Or, if the occupation is still around today, there may have been a different word for it in the past. This website provides an A-Z list of old occupations with their modern-day German translation. If you don’t speak German, you can find the old-fashioned occupation of your ancestor in the left column, and then use a dictionary to translate one of the modern day names in the right column. In my experience, the most common occupation for women seems to have been “Näherin” (seamstress), while the most common occupation for men seems to have been “Bauer” (farmer). Edna M. Bentz’s book “If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records” has a great list of old-fashioned occupations as well.

5. Expect the unexpected. And by this, I mean that words may not be exactly as they are in the dictionary today. Just as our English speaking ancestors used words such as “thee” and “thou”, our German speaking ancestors used different words as well. If you transcribe a word and have absolutely no idea what it means, it could easily be a word no longer in use. This website offers a great German-German dictionary (started by the Grimm brothers) for old-fashioned German words.

But what if you still can’t find your word? In that case, if you are certain of your transcription, it very likely could be a spelling mistake on the part of the author. As German spelling did not become widely standardized until the end of the 19th century, words in letters and other documents were often spelled “creatively.” While this can make deciphering certain words rather difficult, it is slightly easier if you are aware of some of the more common mistakes. Below, some examples:

*  a “t” might be substituted for a “d”

*   a “g” might be substituted for a “k” or a “ch”

*   an “f” could be substituted for a “v”

bad spelling

In the above example, the author of the letter writes “ich aich noch nigt” instead of the proper German spelling “ich euch noch nicht” (part of a sentence, literally “I haven’t…you yet.”) The “eu” is consistently replaced with “ai” in this letter and the “ch” with a “g”. Once you start to notice the common mistakes an author makes, you can identify these substitutions in other words in your document.

6. Keep on an eye on those Americans. If your German ancestors were in America, they might have included English words and place names in their letters. I’ve come across “Varmer” (farmer), “Kolorata” (Colorado), “daler” (dollar), “vor schur” (for sure), and so on. So, if you cannot recognize a German word, take a step back and ask yourself if your ancestor could have been using some of their newly learned English.

7. Be street smart. The word for street in German is “Straße”, often abbreviated “Str.” If you know that a word in your document is a street, but can’t figure out which street it is, use this website to help you out. You type your ancestor’s city in “Suche im Strassenverzeichnis”, which then pulls up a map of the city and an A-Z list of street names. If you know at least some of the letters in your street name, this can help you recognize the correct transcription of the word.

8. Don’t be fooled by “normal” script. Names of people were often written in normal Latin script, just as the cursive script we use today. It is important to be aware of this fact – for example, you don’t want to see a letter “e” in a name and think that that is how an “e” is written in the rest of the document. Much the opposite – names were often signed one way, while the body of the document was written in Kurrent. This is especially true for church book registers.

In the example below, the author signs her name (Louise H) in “normal” script. You can see that there is no swoop above the “u” as in Kurrent, the “e” at the end of Louise is more like our cursive “e” than the Kurrent “e” that resembles our modern “n” and the “H” is nothing like the complicated Kurrent “H” that goes both above and below the line. However, in the rest of this document, the author would have used the Kurrent letters.

Louise H

9. Understand the system. If you know the information that should be on a document, transcribing is much easier. Luckily, certificates from most regions of Germany/Austria have similar formats, providing the same information for the people involved. Some information you can expect on birth, baptismal, marriage and death certificates include:

*  City, date

*  Person’s name, occupation, city of residency, religion

*  How the person was identified (passport, baptismal certificate, military pass, birth certificate)

*  Parents’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, if they are deceased

*  Witness’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, age

*  Signatures of those involved, witnesses and registrar

FredMarriageCert

The First Page of a Marriage Certificate, Berlin 1888

10. And finally, and most importantly, know when to take a break. You’ve almost finished your transcription, but there is  still one frustrating word that you cannot figure out for the life of you. You want to persevere and finish, but my advice is: don’t. Take a break, and things will often look much clearer if you stop and come back later. I’ve experienced this a number of times: The transcription is just about finished, but that one last word is baffling me. I take a break, come back  later or even the next day, and all of the sudden, the word is perfectly clear and I wonder how I didn’t see it before.  As a linguist and not a scientist, I can’t explain how that happens, but it amazes me every time!

And that’s that! With these ten tips, in addition to the original Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, you should be well on your way to battling the handwriting of the past. And once again, if you would like a professional to translate your documents, I’d be happy to help – contact me at language@sktranslations.com.

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Image Credit: All original samples have been published with the permission of the client.

All Kurrentschrift letter samples are from the Kurrentschrift wikipedia page, except for “N” and “St”, which can be found here.

 

Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

As anyone who has ventured into the world of German genealogy knows, the handwriting used in Germany before the second half of the 20th century is very different from the handwriting used in Germany today. This old-fashioned script, known as Kurrentschrift, was taught in German schools until 1941, when the government declared that a Latin-based font (the script we use) was to be the new form of writing in the country. While this makes communication with modern Germans much easier, the words of our ancestors nevertheless remain written in the ever-elusive script. Having worked with many such documents as a professional genealogy translator, I have learned that deciphering the old handwriting can be like learning to read another language. While I recommend hiring a professional for the best results (I would love to be of service), here are some tips for deciphering old German handwriting that I have gathered along the way:

1. Identify letters by the clues they offer. While deciphering old handwriting can feel like solving an incredibly difficult puzzle, the letters themselves often provide nice little clues for us. For example:

*   “h” has a loop both above and below the line. It is easily identifiable in the word “Tochter” (daughter) below.

h tochter

*   “u” has a little “swoop” (my non-technical term) above it and “i” has a dot above it. Word of warning: sometimes the swoop or the dot can be slightly to the right of the actual letter itself. Notice also how everyone’s “swoops” can be slightly different, as seen in the real-life example of the word “gut” (good) below.

u i Kurrentschrift, old German handwriting

*   A straight line above a letter can mean that it is an “n” or an “m” and that there should be two of them. For example, “kommen” (to come) would likely be written with one “m” with a straight line above the letter. Word of warning: Sometimes the “u-swoops” are written as straight lines. Umlauts can be written as straight lines as well.

denn es

This example reads “den es” with a straight line above the “n”, which results in “denn es” (because it).

2. Use your insider information to differentiate between the letters that are agonizingly similar. Although I’m sure the inventors of Kurrentschrift weren’t trying to cause problems for 21st-century readers, they made some of those letters very, very similar to one another. However, if you are familiar with their subtle differences, you can beat the system.

*   “e” and “n”: The “n” (left image below) is written as one unit in a single stroke, while the “e” (right image) is written with two strokes. The “n” is more jagged-looking than the “e”, while the “e” is usually written as a more narrow letter. Notice how the “e” is more narrow than the “n” in the real-life image of “denn” above.

n e

*   “n” and “m”: My trick for distinguishing between “n” and “m” in a word is to count the points at the bottom of the letter. The “n” has three total points at the bottom, while the “m” has four. This sounds obvious, but when you have a word with “en” or “em”, all these letters start to look the same. It helps me to identify the “e”, separate it off from the rest of the word with a line, and then count the points at the bottom of the next letter to see how many there are. In the example below, the word is “mein” (my). You can identify the “m” at the beginning of the word by counting the four points at the bottom and the “n” at the end by noticing the two points after the “i.”

n m mein

3 . Love your letter “S”. Although “s” can be quite tricky, as there are at least three different ways to write it, it is usually pretty easy to identify as each version is somewhat unique from the other letters in the alphabet (none of this e-n-m difficulty).

s

These three letters above are all “s”. The first letter shown is used at the beginning of a lowercase word or a syllable (i.e. in “schreiben” – to write). The second “s” is used at the end of a syllable/word (i.e. in “es”- it). The final is the capital “S”, used for nouns (always capital in German) and names. See the word “es” in the example of “denn es” in Tip 1.

4. Know your abbreviations. If you come across a letter or two all by themselves, it could easily be an abbreviation. This website allows you to type the German abbreviation into its search machine to see what the German word could be. A very common example in genealogical documents is “u.” for “und” (and).

5. Keep your mind in the past. By this I mean – don’t let your brain automatically read the letters as it would a modern-day document. Many of the letters in Kurrentschrift look similar to our cursive today, but are not actually the same letter. It is easy for your mind to simply read them as the letter you learned in school, but don’t give in! The most difficult for me at the beginning was constantly thinking an “e” was an “n”.

6. Play hangman. Once you have identified as many letters in a word as you can, write them out, leaving a blank for the letter(s) you don’t know. With your knowledge of the context or of the German language, see if you can figure out what the missing letters are. I also find this website, WordMine.info, very helpful. It allows you to type in either the beginning or end of the word and then provides you a list of all the possible German words with those exact beginnings or endings.

FullSizeRender

In this example, I filled in the letters I recognized one by one, until only the tricky letter at the beginning was left. It was then obvious that this word must be “Geburtsschein” or “birth certificate.

7. Forget all you know about writing rules. Punctuation? Who needs it? Writing one word on one line? Not for our ancestors! Many historical writers simply did not use periods or commas. While this usually doesn’t make handwriting transcription too difficult, the lack of line rules does. What do I mean by that? In a letter or document, a word may start on one line, and then, without a dash or any type of punctuation, simply continue onto the next line. So if the letters at the end of the line do not seem to be forming any type of word, remember to look to the next line to see if the word continues there.

8. Google, google, google. I can’t imagine translating without it. With the possibility of old fashioned words in historical documents, you may not recognize every word you come across. If you aren’t exactly sure of your transcription, try typing variations of the word into Google search to see which version most frequently appears in other texts and see if they make sense within your document and for your current transcription. The same can be true for last names. Deciphering names can be difficult because there is no context to tell you if you are right or wrong. Try typing the name you think it could be into Google and see if other examples come up. If not, you probably have a letter wrong. This website is also a great tool, showing you the frequency of a last name in the different regions of Germany.

9. Become geographically-inclined (or just use Google Maps). If you know from the context of the document that a certain word is a city or district, but aren’t sure of the exact letters, use Google or Google maps to see if you can find a city that matches your possible transcription in the area where your document is from. The Google auto-correct “Did you mean….” is often very helpful.

10. Always let the document be your guide (Jiminy Cricket’s second piece of advice).

jiminy

Everyone’s handwriting is different, and a certain letter from an 1890 birth certificate may look completely different from the same letter in a World War II military record. If you are able to identify a letter in your current document, remember it, and then look for other occurrences of the same letter throughout the text. I recently translated a letter in which the “s” looked like our modern “r” (I know, I know, I said the “s’s” were easy-they usually are). Once I realized this was an “s” based on my hangman type game, I was able to easily identify other “s’s” in the document and therefore many other words.

So there you have it! As you have probably picked up, there are exceptions to every rule. Our ancestors were people too, meaning that their handwriting, level of education, vocabulary and so on varied immensely. Nevertheless, I hope that these ten tips can be a start for helping you with your old German handwriting challenges. And if you would like a professional to translate your documents, I’d be happy to help – contact me at language@sktranslations.com.

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Image Credit: All Kurrentschrift letter examples, including the above image, are from the Kurrentschrift wikipedia page. All real letters are either my own or published with permission of the client. Jiminy Cricket Image: disney.wikia.com