Reading the Unreadable.

Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura about a woman with an unusual specialty:

On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They’re close to impossible to read. […]

For hundreds of years, history was handwritten. The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use. Understanding them takes both patience and skill. “I see the job as a cross between a crossword puzzle and a jigsaw puzzle,” says Watson. […]

Some of the documents Watson transcribes are written by a trained hand; others are scrawled by people with limited literacy, with handwriting she compares to “a spider walking across the page.” Older scripts—court hand, for instance, which was used by lawyers and clerks beginning in the medieval period (and eventually became stylized into illegibility)—have long, narrow strokes and letters jammed together to save space, making it a challenge to find where one word ends and another begins. Some styles of writing lean heavily on space-saving abbreviations: An extra flourish on a letter “p” can turn it into a “per” or “par,” a “pro” or “pre,” depending on the exact position of the extra line. Other documents rely on phonetic spelling and are impossible to understand without reading aloud. Sometimes a manuscript is damaged, or ink has bled through from one side to the other. In these cases, the clearest portions can act as a decoder for the rest: An indistinct word might have the same shape as a legible one—a clue to puzzle out what was written all those years ago.

Since she first started specializing in old documents, Watson has expanded beyond things written in English. She now has a stable of collaborators who can tackle manuscripts in Latin, German, Spanish, and more. She can only remember two instances that left her and her colleagues stumped. One was a Tibetan manuscript, and she couldn’t find anyone who knew the alphabet. The other was in such bad shape that she had to admit defeat.

i have to say, I’m surprised she couldn’t find anyone who knew Tibetan; she must not have looked very hard. Thanks, David!


  1. marie-lucie says

    In France there is a “grande école”, a high level government school for training specialists in precisely this sort of problems: l’École des Chartes (as in Magna Carta ‘la Grande Charte’ or ‘Great Charter’ – written in Latin of course).

  2. There are a number of cursive forms of the Tibetan alphabet that look quite different from the uchen (dbu-can) script used for formal manuscripts. But all the Tibetan manuscripts I’ve seen in museums and such have only ever been in uchen that I can remember.

  3. David Marjanović says

    There’s been a Wikipedia article specifically on Tibetan calligraphy, mentioning uchen and several other styles, since 2007.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Why is Jane Austen’s handwriting so similar to Charles Darwin’s…?

  5. marie-lucie says

    Most likely because that was the style taught at the time.

  6. Actually, now that I’ve written that, I seem to remember seeing a Tibetan manuscript in a different style quite recently. I’ll have to dig through my photo library…

  7. Why is Jane Austen’s handwriting so similar to Charles Darwin’s…?

    Were they ever seen in the same room together?

  8. “Tibetan” might mean the country of origin of the manuscript, as opposed to the language it was written in.
    Maybe the script was actually Tangut?

  9. I’m assuming she’s paid, and vouches for the transcriptions and/or translations. So the issue may not be that she couldn’t find anyone who could read Tibetan, but rather, that she didn’t know any such scholar well enough, and felt those wanting the document read could probably google for one on their own and come up with the same results.

  10. The same can also go for old (or not so old) manuscripts in Chinese, Japanese, etc. People trained in calligraphy can read them. Untrained moderns have a harder time.

    The past really is a foreign country.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Why is Jane Austen’s handwriting so similar to Charles Darwin’s…?

    That may be, but Charles Darwin had better drawings.

  12. Actually, looking at the site itself, they specify “Transcription of old documents written in English, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch”.

    So anything from Tibet might have been seen as being outside of their wheelhouse.

    This page is fun:

    Obsolete and unfamiliar words from Wills, Probate Inventories

    The mark in England was not a unit of currency but a unit of money of account, equal to 13s 4d (i.e. 2/3 of £1).

    Although the mark did not exist as a coin in England, the gold noble when first issued under Edward III in 1344-46 was valued at 6s 8d (= 1/2 mark), later increased to 8s 4d. The gold angel when introduced under Edward IV in 1464-70 was also worth 6s 8d, but also changed as the value of all gold coins tended to change over time.
    The term noble continued to be used as a word meaning “1/2 mark” long after the noble itself had ceased to be in circulation as a coin. For example, we have seen a cash bequest of one noble in an English Will of 1581 when no such coin existed.

    2 GILLS = 1 CUP
    2 CUPS = 1 PINT
    2 PINTS = 1 QUART

    ALMARY a safe
    BEVWDEKYN rich stuff of silk interwoven with threads of gold
    BULTYNG-PIPE strainer
    CARTBOTE the right to use wood taken from common ground to make or repair a cart
    DAGSWAYNE rough coverlet for beds, tobies, or floors
    HUVVER a ridge separating one tenant’s land from another in the medieval open farm system
    LECHYNG-KNIFE slicing-knife
    MYNHES fur of a weasel
    KNOCKNOBBLER a person appointed to drive dogs out of church
    WONG an enclosed meadow or low-lying land

    Also links to similarly interesting resources, like the “Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820”

  13. Stu Clayton says

    The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use.

    There is a similar problem with our ancestors’ printed words. It is exacerbated by their very legibility, in that the reader has no visual clue that he does not understand what was meant. The meanings of homographs are not always constant over time.

  14. An issue of Kuranty (Courant) – 17th century Russian hand-written newspaper.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Interesting to see α, ε, ι unchanged from Greek in the same words as modern в, я.

  16. & (@Stu) even words we can decipher and recognize have sometimes wildly changed their meanings over time. “Mere” transliteration is just fun.

  17. I’ve read that since cursive writing is no longer taught in US schools, younger people are unable to read cursive.

    I can understand that, because I can read printed Cyrillic (just the alphabet, I don’t speak any language), but I don’t get cursive Cyrillic. My wife has a few notebooks from 1930s Germany written in Sütterlinschrift. She can read it, but I can’t, even though I can deal with Fraktur.

    I can see that going back a few hundred years, things could get difficult.

  18. The palaeography tutorial Hat linked to in 2005 seems to be still up and running.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Contemporary cursive Cyrillic doesn’t seem harder to me than contemporary cursive Latin. Sütterlin, though, is really hard. I breezed through Fraktur (apart from some of the capital letters) when I was… possibly 6, definitely under 10, but it doesn’t help with Sütterlin.

  20. I learned Sütterlin as a youngster from, of all things, The Golden Encyclopedia, a big colorful book for grade-schoolers with wonderful 1940s lithographs. It was a great help in clawing my way through English secretary hand (viz. John Dee’s Of Famous and Rich Discoveries, 1577).

  21. I have this nice example of Tibetan cursive that I’ve got from Chris Fynn (who created many free Tibetan fonts):

    What makes it especially interesting is that it’s a glossary of “contractions” (skung yig). For comparison, here is a list of contractions in dbu can from Schmidt’s grammar

    Scribal mistakes are fun when the same text is repeatedly copied. Unclear prints from bad woodblocks and transitions from dbu can to dbu med and back make for interesting puzzles sometimes. One simple but illustrative example I ran into was “bam pi ti” (or may be “pam pi ti” – it’s hard to tell) written in dbu can, which was obviously mistakenly copied from dbu med “sam si ti” where sa and pa are quite similar to each other (this is Tibetan rendition of Sanskrit “samsiddhi”).

    Dan Martin has several nice posts about such puzzles, e.g.

  22. I like his style: “Unless you’re looking for insight into reasons Tibetan is just so hard you would never want to even contemplate learning it.”

  23. “Unless you’re looking for insight into reasons Tibetan is just so hard you would never want to even contemplate learning it.”

    Hmmm. I had a brief exposure to Tibetan, enough to read the autobiography of Milarepa, so it was Classical Tibetan I guess, and it wasn’t very hard at all. The grammar is a marvel of economy and function and the vocabulary wasn’t difficult. As far as pronouncing anything, there are decently straightforward rules for getting something like the modern Lhasa spoken form from the orthography, though we didn’t pay any attention to tones or tonogenesis.

  24. Kate Bunting says

    I love the list of strange words; the last explains the mysterious name of a street in Southwell, Nottinghamshire – Lowes Wong


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