Names: I can’t read that!

Names: I can’t read that!

Contributing author Schelly Talalay Dardashti is the US Genealogy Advisor for

As family historians, we must be prepared for many languages that impact our research.

When we must deal with foreign languages, unfamiliar alphabets or archaic handwriting, we need to know where to find help. As we learn to read these alphabets and handwriting, we can understand how and where mistakes were made in our names.

Reading through transcribed online passenger manifests and census images for the names we know can be enlightening. I skipped over someone named Menchel Tallelsy until I looked at the actual manifest image – It was our cousin Mendel Talalay. The D was scrawled and the transcriber thought it was a separate C and H, instead of the correct D. I recognized TALLELSY immediately as TALALAY, but then I’ve been looking at even stranger forms of this name for a long time.

Click to view photo in full size

The more you look at old handwriting, the better you’ll be able to read it. There are also some excellent online resources for this task, listed at the end of this article.

If you can, start with records or documents in a language you already know to become familiar with the challenges.


No matter how good you think your eyes are, use a magnifying glass. I never understood why people in the library always had them. After some major eye strain, I went out and bought one.

A journalist’s motto – and a genealogist’s – is always “Do Not Assume.” Read carefully and slowly to decipher the words. Ask others to read a listing and see if they can decipher it. Several pairs of eyes are always better than one.

Check your document for confusing letters and see if other words on the same page might have them. If the letter form is in a word you can read, use it to decode the others. If days and months are indicated, they can be useful in decoding letter combinations to unravel the other puzzles.

If possible, scan the document and use a photo-editing program to enlarge specific words and then crop individual letters to print out. You’ll have a handy-dandy poster to hang on your wall. Sometimes reversing the colors also helps, so try using white letters on a black background.

I’ve participated in transcription projects of cemeteries totaling 85,000 burials in two major cemeteries. The records were in Hebrew and needed to be transliterated into English for an online worldwide cemetery registry. The golden rule is always to transcribe whatever is there, exactly as-is, complete with errors, but since Hebrew is a phonetic language and usually written without vowels, the names are open to interpretation.

When the names were recorded, the often Eastern European clerks were faced with names to record and spell in Amharic (Ethiopian), Farsi (Persian), Greek or Spanish. In our transliterations, we needed to try to discover the ethnic origins of unusual names, the pronunciation and a more correct English spelling.

In general, transcribers in large projects need to be familiar with common names and places with competency in historic handwriting (paleography). Those who are familiar with certain ethnic common names and handwriting may see the letters clearly and unambiguously. Others, with no frame of reference, have a more difficult time. However, the errors may eventually help and provide more information. Keep your original documents saved, so you  can always refer to the original – and the problem – when analyzing your findings.

For good practice, read through a wide variety of passenger manifests. Some are beautiful examples of calligraphy; others are scribbled with leaky pens, complete with ink blotches. With many names on each manifest, review them and train your eyes. If you come across a familiar name or place, use those clues to decipher other names.

Check online and at specialty websites for handwriting aids and transcription manuals for different languages. Local family history centers have finding aids, alphabet charts, abbreviation lists and more. Collect those pertinent to the countries and languages you are searching. Join Facebook groups specializing in ethnic research or translation, and another great source is the MyHeritage Community Forum with many global members. You might find experts who can easily read the words with which you are having trouble.


Confusing letters are not only found in the middle of words. The initial letter may also be hard to read and lead to running up the wrong research road or coming to a brick wall. Over the years, and when dealing with the Ellis Island database, I discovered these letter groups are often confused when trying to read old documents or handwriting:


Also, think about what certain letters sounded like in various languages, particularly when the speaker had an accent: B-P; D-T; F-P, F-V, G-K, J-Y, S-Z, V-B, V-W, W-R. C-S, CH-SH, R-RR, L-LL.

Vowels are also a problem. I, IE. EY, J and Y can be substituted for each other. AI-AY-AJ all sound the same. A name that begins with an A can begin with an O or a U, so check each spelling.

I’ve listed some examples of language aids online. There are many more. Try to look at some that focus on your family origins. I’m interested in hearing your comments and what you’ve found. If the database you are searching has the option for “contains,” try using the name written without the first letter.


Denmark – Alphabets & Handwriting Styles
Danish documents may be written in heavy black German-style Gothic letters. Try this link for assistance.

English Handwriting 1500-1700
A Cambridge University free class with high-resolution document images and exercises.

UK National Archives – Paleography
England again, this time 1500-1800, with assistance for reading and transcribing old documents in an online interactive tutorial.

The Polish Genealogy Project
Very useful page with many additional links

Scottish Handwriting
Tutorial on historical handwriting, 1500-1750, and assistance with other problems.

Moravians – German Script Tutorial
German script from Moravia.

Old German Handwritten Scripts
Although the site is in German, it isn’t that hard to navigate. There are documents, alphabet fonts and other helps to read old German handwriting.


The email address is kept private and will not be shown

  • Mary

    December 9, 2016

    Glad there is help to fine answers

  • Shelly L. Henderson

    December 9, 2016

    You also need to realize that sometimes their names may be shortened (i.e Thos. For Thomas) I ran into this problem and it took me over a year to realize Thos. Was Thomas and the same person

  • Linda Graham

    December 10, 2016

    I have found , in researching old German parish records, that it often helps to go to the beginning of a time when the parish priest started his record.. See if you can find some common abbreviations he uses, such as “conf” for confirmation, Ge for “born” and Get for Getauft, or baptized. One of the hardest words I’ve found is”ehelich” for “legitimate”. It’s in almost every birth record, and finding out how the priest or scribe writes that word makes it a lot easier to decipher the rest of the words. l It then becomes a little easier to read the priest’s record. And, if you find a scribe with unusually good penmanship, you hope that he lives for many, many years, because the next priest or scribe may be a lot worse!

  • Jarmila Nálepová

    December 12, 2016

    vypadá to že tobude dobrý pomocník v dalším bádání.

  • Michael E. Pollock

    December 12, 2016

    I have found that many times being unable to read a word has much to do with it being spelled phonetically or a word that is used in a different context than it is typically used today. I believe I am often helped in the former instance by my familiarity with the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet where many letters resemble our Latin alphabetic, but are actually different characters. In trial transcript of State v. Reed (Davidson County, North Carolina Criminal Action Papers CR 032.32620), portions of the testimony were impossible to read what was written until one realized that the words were actually profanity condensed to the first letter of each word! In other instances, it has been possible for me to read portions of documents by recognizing when standard phrasing was being used, e.g., “being of sound mind but weak in body” within a will.

  • Gina Enrique

    December 16, 2016

    This is so helpful and I will certainly put it to good use! Thank you for sharing these tips.

  • Mikey

    January 31, 2017

    I did some research a year or two ago after finding 1910 census records of my family. i couldnt find the rest of the census records in the subsequent decades. Eventually it dawned on me that there might be spelling differences. My great grandpas name in 1910 was misspelled Monnie instead of Morris in the transcription, but looking at the script original, I can see how the software got confused! I was then able to work backwards with bits and pieces of info I had from that census record and two draft cards. The draft card for WW1 showed a change of address in between the two censuses! I was then able to find the other three records one by one. Each time, my last name had a completely different spelling, only one of them correct. We still have no idea where that name came from or exactly when they arrived due to conflicting immigration info on the census forms, and I havent found any further data before 1910. I know some of the family was here, but who know where here and they were not together at that point.

    Then there is the question of the country of origin in that 1910 census. Its not really clear what it says at all. Now I am sending away for my great great grandfathers death certificate (he was buried here) and hopefully that will solve the mystery.

  • Doris

    May 12, 2017

    I have often found other family members in the family I am researching that I would not have found otherwise. I have found twins, infants that died and the children of other siblings. It has given me good perspective, not to mention is is rather fun to decipher the handwriting.