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Paleography: Interpreting Handwriting in Genealogical Research

Transcription and Spelling

These resources provide strategies and best practices for addressing obsolete characters, conventions, and rules as you encounter and interpret multiple or dated spellings in original documents.


When you discover an original record that is relevant to your genealogy, it is a good idea to obtain a digital image of the original and to create a transcript of the text in modern English or typescript. The digital image of the original document ensures an important reference as you research and the transcript provides an easy-to-read version to work from. This gives you time to analyze the document and work on any puzzles in spelling or phrasing.

When transcribing historic documents, never correct spelling or substitute modern spellings, but try to create a complete and accurate duplicate of the document, as far as that is possible with the tools at hand. For further instructions, explore these sources.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.


Most genealogists encounter multiple spellings of names, places, and even ordinary vocabulary. Words were spelled differently depending on culture, education, or the interpretation of the clerk. You may discover that multiple versions of a name in Latin, English, or German all refer to the same early American ancestor.

Spelling was not standardized until the late nineteenth century in the United States. A man may appear in the same house at the same address in the same city over the course of 30 years, yet his name may be spelled differently every decade in the census. Enumerators wrote down what they heard.

Keep an open mind as to whether the person described in an original document might be the person in your family tree. Weigh the evidence of all the documents you have to try to prove or disprove that they are the same person.

Obsolete Characters

Foremost among characters no longer used in English spelling is the thorn, often interpreted as the letter Y, but pronounced th. Phrases like ye olde shoppe should be read the old shop, and transcribed with a thorn.

Likewise, the Yough resembles a long z but stands for the letter g, gh, or the letter y.

Changes in the use of language should be taken into consideration. For example, ye and you used to be plural forms of address, while thee and thou were more intimate and singular forms.

Other changes in the English language include the terms used to describe relationships. The suffix in-law had a much broader meaning in the past, as did the word cousin. Look for additional documents that describe the relationship in a different way or in more detail.