Genealogists have learned a great deal about their ancestors by being able to find, read and transcribe old documents, in particular church registers with birth, marriage and death information. Anything older than a hundred years will almost always have been hand-written.
We know there have always been problems with interpreting what some scribe recorded centuries ago. I have found there were as many poor writers in the 18th century as there are now and it has been sometimes very challenging to figure out what exactly they were trying to record. Not to mention that the names of our ancestors were often spelled differently depending on who heard them or where they lived.
Most of us have been able to get a handle on what information was written because we learned cursive writing in school – many decades ago. We continue to be able to read and write in that style.
The old styles of writing were, in many respects, much different from how we show letters of the alphabet today. But our experience with penmanship at least has allowed us to see the patterns of how words were constructed. Having then familiarized ourselves with those old styles, sometimes with the assistance of the one of the many courses available to genealogist online, we could recognize the names of our ancestors and put together the stories around their births, marriages and burials.
Marriage entries from the 1630 Plympton St. Mary, Devon parish register showing, among other unions, the marriage of my 8th great-grandparents, Nicholas Shepheard (surname spelled exactly the same way it is today) and Margerit Lee.
Technology is being developed to read handwriting through optical character recognition. That will be a great boon to anyone dealing with old documents but it is likely still a long ways off before we have such a program on our own computers.
Schools across North America are phasing out, or have completely removed courses on cursive handwriting. Our own grandchildren have great difficulty in reading anything that has been hand-written. What that means down the road is that there will be fewer of us who will have the ability to read those old records. And the latest generation may be totally unable to do it. There may come a time when all those old letters you are keeping for posterity and as records of family events might be totally unrecognizable.
Have a read of one parent’s lament about children not being taught how to write using a pen or pencil in Karen Green’s article, published a few years ago on the Canadian Family website, Should Students Still Be Taught Cursive Writing? Her words still ring true.
It seems like the world now revolves around technology and communication involving the written word is increasingly being lost to brief outbursts through texting or Twitter – not a lot of it understandable or even polite.
As genealogists studying old documents for information about our ancestors, we may be the last of our kind. So be sure to keep handy all those transcriptions you have made for your family members in the future. They may need them.
Wayne Shepheard is a retired geologist and active genealogist. He volunteers with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. Wayne has also served as an editor of two such publications. He provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.