Online Tuition in the Palaeography of Scottish Documents

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Phonetic spelling

Bear in mind when reading Scottish documents that what we think of as standard, 'correct' spelling of words was, to a great extent, an eighteenth century invention. Therefore, when reading historical documents prior to 1850 do not expect consistency in spelling.

Many words were written phonetically, and this is particularly true of personal names and place names. This explains why names of people and places are spelt in a variety of ways, sometimes in the same document. It is a common anachronism to say that 'spelling was bad' in such and such a time.

This also means that, while there is room for intuition in reading old handwriting, you should always check the word you think you have seen, and make sure of the spelling. It may be a familiar word spelt slightly differently, or it may be a different word spelt in a way that makes it look like another, more familiar, word.

The word in figure 1 has often been misread in palaeography classes. Students reading too quickly and relying too much on intuition have sometimes misread it as figure. Only by looking more carefully do they realise that then word begins with a long s and is actually the word signe. Perfectly straightforward words can confuse readers because they are written in a way which appears odd. The word in figure 2 is Contayneing.

the words signe and Contayneing

Some people who read sixteenth and seventeenth century documents on a regular basis, sometimes find that their own spelling deteriorates as a result, perhaps because they successfully suppress the part of the brain which identifies what to the modern eye are misspellings.

Soe, if you want to improove your abilitie to rede handrittin documents, gett yoused to seaing wurds rittin foaneticallie.

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