Several years ago, I was giving tours at Independence Hall when one of the guests approached me outside Congress Hall to ask questions about the Articles of Confederations (BTW, volunteers love to be asked questions, that’s why we do this so don’t hold back.  If you ask us a question that we don’t know the answer to, we’ll tell you.  Otherwise, we love to share what we know.)  Most of these questions were pretty straightforward:  why was it written, who wrote it, etc.?  One question, however, dumbfounded me.  She asked me what language it was written in (obviously English).  It turns out that in the 21st Century, there are reasonably educated, intelligent people who are not familiar with or comfortable with cursive writing.  She literally could not decipher the letters.

Now this hit me as strange (yes, you can call me old) because when I was in Grammar School (yes, children, this is what we called Elementary School in the 1960’s), they TAUGHT penmanship.  To look at my handwriting you would not believe it but we literally spent hours at a desk, with pens and inkwells (though sadly no little girls with pigtails) learning to make those cursive letters that this woman could not read.  I constantly write things out longhand but today people type and text.  What little is handwritten is often in discrete printed letters so when they see flowing cursive writing, it appears foreign.

Before the advent of typewriters and computers, however, we wrote things out longhand and cursive lettering a much more comfortable and efficient means of writing than block printing. Still, 18th Century English and its penmanship styles are different enough that it sometimes takes a bit of study to decipher these documents.  British-American spoke English, yet they used words that we do not, and we use words and grammatical constructs that did not even exist in 18th Century.  Word pronunciation was different from ours, and many of the rules of writing and word usage differed as well.

The first thing you must understand is that not everyone could read, even print, fluently.  Even fewer people could write. While it is thought that almost all adult men in New England could read to some degree in the 1770’s. Maybe half of those could write. Like today, the ability to read the printed word did not necessarily result in the ability to read handwriting but it was more pronounced, sort of like the difference between reading printed and script Hebrew.  There were also many “standard” writing styles so letter shapes (even in print) could vary wildly.

Reading and writing were taught as separate skills. The skill you were expected to attain in reading or writing depended on your class, occupation, and gender. In British colonial America, reading was taught so that both males and females could read the Bible (in English). Males were taught read in order to carry on business but only the upper classes became literate enough to read for pleasure.  While the elite (eg Thomas Jefferson) were schooled in the fine arts of verse and prose, and even educated in multiple languages, most people knew just enough to maybe read signs and short articles.

Writing in colonial America was also a predominantly male skill, tied strongly to occupation.  Lawyers and their clerks, scholars, physicians, clergy, and business people needed to be able to write. It was felt that most women did not need to know how to write, nor did farmers, artisans, non-whites, and the lower classes. Most Black slaves were kept illiterate as a means of social control.  After the American Revolution, the idea of Republican Motherhood invited more schooling for girls. It was argued that women would be the mothers and first teachers of the republic’s future (male) citizens, so they needed to be educated. Eventually, this expanded to include all the new citizens of the republic (but not slaves) as in order to participate in a democracy, one must read newspapers and vote.

Penmanship in the eighteenth century demanded that the writer (and hence ultimate reader) learn many calligraphic styles. Like in the middle of the 20th Century, there were penmanship books that showed alphabets, sayings, and business forms in different hands. Students learned these styles by copying directly from these books for practice and reference.  In many giftshops today, one can find George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour.  This is not a book that George Washington authored but rather a reprinting of his penmanship practice.  George copied a book by Francis Hawkins who translated 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in 1640.  The skills George learned copying out this book served him well in the House of Burgesses and later as General.   

The different calligraphic hands were considered proper and appropriate according to style, class, gender, and occupation. For example, women typically used the Italiante hand, which was considered more elegant and appropriate for letters and invitations as well as more feminine in appearance. Men in commerce were expected to use block printing that was easier to read.  Lawyers and government officials (including those in the army) used a round-hand script that inspired confidence and demonstrated self-assurance. There were also different rules for how words were written including:

  • Like German, upper case letters were used to begin nouns as well as to begin sentences. 
  • The lower case was written in elongated form at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and when written twice, as in pass. The elongated s can be mistaken for an f, and ss can look something like a p.
  • Shortened versions of words were indicated by beginning the word in regular-sized letters and ending with superscript letters, maybe with a line underneath where the missing letters would be.  This was especially common in signatures.
  • Spelling was not standardized. Writers would spell words differently, even within a single document.
  • In words like thecould stand for the th and the e was added in superscript. The y was pronounced as we pronounce a th today.
  • In some hands, upper case KP, and R can look similar, as can J and T. Also, at times L and will be confusing because of similarities.

So, in retrospect, that question by our tourist, when you really think about it, isn’t so far off.  It is written in a language we no longer speak in a form that we rarely see.  It might well have been Latin or German as she could not read it. 

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

One reply on “What Language is that written in? Understanding 18th Century Handwriting”

  1. As someone who has read numerous primary source documents from the 18th Century, I can testify that the visual appearance of 18th Century cursive script can be difficult to read at times. In many cases, the writing looks more like Mongolian turned horizontally, or even Elvish, rather than the Latin alphabet. As you pointed out, different letters can be extremely difficult to distinguish from one another, especially if the writer didn’t focus too much on proper penmanship. I often have to read the same sentence several times in order to understand what’s written there. This, compounded by the fact that these sentences are often very long-winded and rambling and punctuated by a series of commas and semi-colons, make it all the more difficult.

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