It is a challenge to decipher other people’s handwriting, especially in our day and age when the art of writing letters has greatly diminished. We are generally no longer required to read documents of yesteryear when typewriters and computers were not available. It is therefore not surprising when pieces of handwriting come into our possession that have us baffled. I have always wondered how a doctor’s prescription is accurately deciphered by the pharmacist. The skill lies in the style of the alphabet, the language, vocabulary, and grammar, among other features. Such expertise can be acquired and extended into foreign languages.
A family historian dealing with German records would have to determine what type of document she is looking at. Vital records, for instance, have their own distinct vocabulary. It is very limited, pertaining to given and family names, dates, time, professions, age, relationships, and events. What these mean in German can be picked up through any good genealogical word list. For example, see the German Genealogical Word List at FamilySearch.org. Click Research Helps, then click Articles, then choose G for German, and click on German Genealogical Word List.
Be aware that a text can be written in the present or appear in the past tense! See an explanation of this in the “Deciphering German Script” article in the FamilySearch Research Wiki.
Now that you have gained this knowledge, it is on to the next step! What do the words look like in Kurrentschrift (German Gothic)? The online German Script Tutorial class on the BYU Web site provides a good opportunity to practice German Gothic script. Click on German Script Tutorial, then click on Gothic Handwriting, then click on any letter in the alphabet. You will learn how each letter is formed and what it looks like in context.
Also, see the German Handwriting course at FamilySearch.org. Click Free Online Classes, then click Reading Handwritten Records Series, then click on the first of the three German lessons on how to read Kurrent script.
If you like to practice words from your vocabulary list or if you have a word that you would like to see in Gothic handwriting, click here. Click on Schreibübung, enter your text in box, click on umwandeln, then scroll down to see the converted word.
You are now able to establish your own alphabet from the words of your document you are able to read already. Begin with the letters of given and family names or the place names! With this list you have a base, can compare letters, and can line them up and compare the word against your word list.
If you have no time to practice, send an attachment of your document in the FamilySearch Forums and an expert can help you decipher your record. In the “Localities” section, click Europe, then click German Empire, then click New Thread.
Good luck reading German script. With practice, you can do it!