In my previous posting I explained details about and differences between the main three old German scripts: the older handwriting script Kurrent, the newer handwriting script Sütterlin and the print script Fraktur. Of course there are more but the majority of those either are variations of the previously mentioned three scripts – or they go back into a time where we rarely find any documents about our ancestors – or they weren’t used in Germanic areas.
Let’s now have a closer look at each of them and learn about the letters. I’ll show you my system of how to split the letters into different letter groups to narrow down the options in case you can’t identify a letter right away.
In a final step I’ll show you the snares and traps of possible letter mix-ups.
Old German scripts: Kurrent and Sütterlin type
Kurrent is the older German handwriting type of the three already mentioned main old German scripts, Sütterlin the younger. Usually Kurrent is a cursive font, more or less, mostly depending on the writer while Sütterlin is mostly upright.
More decorative versions of Kurrent often were used in chancelleries for official documents and contracts. If you have to decipher and transcribe old German sales or testimentary contracts you’ll face “Kanzleischrift” (= chancellery script). Lots of swirls and squiggles, nice to look at, but nasty to recognize initial letters at least.
Sample sheets for the letters
While you are used to 26 letters in an alphabet this is only partially true for the old German scripts. Additionally to the a-z letters (both lower and upper case) the old German alphabet has a few more letters.
- Umlaut: ä, ö, ü (both lower and upper case)
- EsZett: ß (traditionally only lower case, though in June 2017 an upper case ß was added to the official modern German alphabet. Looks VERY much like a capital B, imho confusing and ugly…. yikes!)
- Lowercase “long s” and “round s” as well as capital S
I created a sample sheet for you with various Kurrent and Sütterlin type scripts (downloaded for free under Creative Commons 0 licence, mostly from Peter Wiegel’s website, but also one by R. G. Arens). Click on the picture to get a PDF version of the whole sample sheet.
The fonts I used for this sample sheet are:
- 18th Century Kurrent Start (Peter Wiegel)
- Cöntgen Kanzlei (Peter Wiegel)
- Goldmarie (Peter Wiegel)
- Greifswalder Deutsche Schrift (Peter Wiegel)
- Neue Rudelskopf verbunden (Peter Wiegel)
- Ottilie (Peter Wiegel)
- Rastenburg Schräg (Peter Wiegel)
- Volksschrift (Peter Wiegel)
- Wiegel Kurrent (Peter Wiegel)
- Suetterlin (R. G. Arens)
Muse a bit over this sample sheet. Pick one letter and compare all 10 versions of it to see the similarities and characteristics that all 10 of the letter’s versions share. Even though these are all computer fonts and not handwritten by a person, they’ll provide a good indication of how much letters can change without losing their characteristics.
Give the document text a first try
Sit down with your document and write down every word and every letter that you actually can decipher. It’s important that you do this in your own handwriting or a computer font you are used to.
If you can’t decipher a word or a part of a word, replace it with several underscores (_____), then continue with the next word. If you can’t read a letter within a word, replace that letter with a single underscore (_), then continue with the rest of the word. Try to read the following:
Y_ur t_xt may look somet__ng lik_ this,
def_n_tely far fr_m being perf_c_ or done.
_ut if yo_ slo_ly read __ese lines here,
you __ll notice that _our br__n
will fill in a f__ of the mi_sing l__ters,
s_llab___ _n_ wo_ds
wh_ch alr__dy are kno_n to yo_.
I’m pretty sure you were able to read at least a part of that, if not even everything. Amazing, isn’t it? A bit like the 1970s TV show “Wheel of Fortune” if you can remember it (I do, which gives away my age…). But it only works if you use your own handwriting or a computer font your brain is well accustomed to.
Replace the underscores and fill in the gaps
But how? There are so many strange old German letters to choose from. How many? Let’s do a little math first:
+ 27 lowercase letters including two versions of the lowercase s
+ 26 capital letters
+ 3 lowercase Umlaute
+ 3 capital Umlaute
+ 1 lowercase ß (we’ll skip the ugly capital ß…)
= sixty(!) different letters to give a shot if you can’t decipher a single letter, SIXTY bloomin’ options…! If there was just a way to narrow down the choices, eh?
There is a way and it mainly has to do with the so-called ascenders and descenders.
Wikipedia explains that in typography, an ascender is the portion of a lower-case letter in a Latin-type alphabet that extends above the mean line of a font, like the roof ascends over the main house.
A descender is the portion of a letter that extends below the baseline of a font, like a cellar vault descends under the main house level.
Ascenders and descenders increase the recognizability of words.
More sample sheets, this time in letter-groups
You can apply the following system to most(!) Sütterlin and Kurrent type scripts, but not to all. In these examples I picked the Sütterlin script and divided all letters into seven different letter-groups:
And here’s the question I ask myself…
… when I can’t decipher a particular letter:
- Does the letter have an ascender or arcs, dots or squiggles on top and/or a descender ?
When I’ve answered that question, I pick the particular letter-group and give each of the (now few) letters a try. Usually I find one that makes sense within the word context, tada, problem solved for me. Of course it’s more difficult for you because you don’t know the German words well enough either. But we’ll work on that in other postings.
In general you should be able to narrow your options down from 60 different letters to just 4 if you’re lucky (or 17-20 if you’re out of luck). MUCH better than the bloomin’ SIXTY options we had before, isn’t it?
And if you’d like to give a font generator for old German fonts a try, check out Michael Nülken’s website. He’s a publicly appointed and sworn expert on old German handwriting and blackletter fonts. Enter your text, switch font size by clicking on the up/down arrows, choose a font color, then click on one of the font icons. You’ll see your text in your desired font and can compare it to whatever unreadable chicken scratches a priest or clerk scribbled down a century or two ago.
Below your own text you’ll then see the first sentences of the German fairytale “Rotkäppchen und der Wolf” (“”Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf”) in the same font. Really neat…
A note on the sample sheets
The letter-group sample sheets 1-7 above only work for these particular types of font but you usually can apply this system to many documents.
BUT: if you stumble over a script or letter that doesn’t “stick to the rules” you need to adapt your letter-group sample sheets.
- A good example would be the lowercase z. In some scripts it’s a letter with a descender like in the examples above, in others it’s just a zig-zag letter with neither ascender or descender.
- Or the lowercase “round s”. In some scripts it’s a meandering worm with neither ascender or descender, in others a letter with an ascender.
If you have longer documents or numerous pages by the same writer you should probably create your own sample sheets based on that particular writer’s own handwriting style.
I have to admit that this has been a long posting, and the whole caboodle probably isn’t easy for you. But practice makes perfect, and I’m willing to give you a helping hand when you get stuck on a letter, word or phrase. Just give me a holler.
Thank you for this fantastic guide to deciphering Sutterlin writing. It is making my research much easier!