Online Tuition in the Palaeography of Scottish Documents

// Home Phonetic Spelling /contact /site map /help
/ About Us
/ What's New
/ Tutorials
/ Coaching
  / Before You Start
  / Letter Finder
  / Numbers
  / Problem Solver
    / Problem Letters
    / Problem Words
      / Phonetic Spelling
      / Scots, Legal and Latin words
      / Sums of Money
      / Dates
      / Abbreviations
  / Bibliography
  / Links

Is the problem Phonetic spelling?
Bear in mind when reading Scottish documents written before the nineteenth century, that what we think of as standard or '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 Therefore, when reading historical documents prior to 1850 do not expect consistency in spelling.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. Sometimes it’s worth trying to imagine the word pronounced in a Scots accent or particular Scottish dialect. A poor register from the 1860s notes a woman’s husband as being ‘in chail’. The register is from the Highlands so saying the phrase in a Highland accent reveals that the husband is ‘in jail’.

It is a common anachronism to say that 'spelling was bad' in such and such a time. Instead the palaeographer must imagine himself or herself back in a time of phonetic spelling: of clerks spelling unfamiliar words as they heard them.

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 signe, which is often misread as figure

The word above 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.

If this hasn’t solved the problem try another option:

Scots, Legal and Latin words
Sums of Money

Return to the Problem Words page.