For many family historians, particularly those with German ancestry, old German scripts such as Gothic, Sütterlin, and Kurrent present a unique challenge. These scripts were widely used in German-speaking areas until the early 20th century and appear in a wide range of documents, from personal letters and diaries to official records. Learning to read these scripts is like gaining a key to the personal stories and historical contexts of our ancestors.

Introduction to Old German Script in Genealogy

For numerous genealogists, especially those tracing German roots, ancient German scripts like Gothic, Sütterlin, and Kurrent pose a distinct challenge.

Overview of the Importance of Old German Script in Genealogy

Old German script holds an invaluable place in genealogical research, especially for those tracing roots back to German-speaking regions. These scripts contain the details of everyday life, capturing everything from mundane personal purchases to significant life events like births, marriages, and deaths. The ability to read these scripts opens up a treasure trove of data that is often not available through other sources, providing a more complete picture of an ancestor’s life and times.

Brief History of German Script Usage in Historical Documents

The use of German script dates back to the medieval period, but it was during the 16th century that these writing styles became standardized with the introduction of print technology. Over the centuries, various forms of script evolved and were used concurrently, depending on the context and region. Gothic script, known for its dense and angular appearance, was predominantly found in formal texts and religious documents. By contrast, Sütterlin, introduced in the early 20th century, was taught in schools across the German Empire, making it a common sight in personal and everyday writing until its decline post World War II. Understanding these historical nuances is essential for genealogists as they approach the deciphering process.

Understanding the Different Types of German Scripts

A journey into the world of old German scripts reveals a rich tapestry of writing styles, each with its own historical and cultural significance. These scripts are not only artistic expressions but also practical tools used by our ancestors in daily communication and record-keeping. Recognizing and understanding the differences among these scripts is the first step toward unlocking the stories hidden within historical documents.

Gothic Script (Fraktur)

Gothic script, or Fraktur, is perhaps the most recognizable form of old German writing due to its dramatic, ornate letterforms. Originating in the 16th century, it became the dominant script in German printing and writing.

Characteristics and Origins

Fraktur is characterized by its bold, broken lines and elaborate embellishments. It was developed to emulate the handwritings of medieval scribes in a more scalable form for printing. Its use in religious and official documents made it a prominent script in German-speaking regions.

Common Uses in Historical Contexts

Fraktur was widely used in formal and ecclesiastical writings. It appeared in everything from biblical texts to government decrees, making it a common script in many archival materials that genealogists examine today [1].

Sütterlin Script

Sütterlin is a more modern script, developed in the early 20th century as part of an effort to reform German handwriting education. Its design makes it quite distinct from the more angular Gothic scripts.

Development and Historical Significance

Created by Ludwig Sütterlin in 1911, this script was commissioned by the Prussian Ministry of Culture. It was intended to be an easier script for schoolchildren to learn and write, which led to its widespread adoption across Germany.

Distinctive Features and How to Recognize Them

Sütterlin features rounded shapes and sharp, narrow strokes, making it somewhat easier to learn and faster to write than its predecessors. This accessibility made it prevalent in personal and informal documents, such as letters and diaries.

CKurrent Script

Kurrent is an older script used primarily for handwriting rather than printing, with a long history predating even Gothic scripts. It remained in use until the mid-20th century.

Description and Evolution

Kurrent is characterized by its tight, angular cursive style, which can be difficult to read for those unfamiliar with its forms. It evolved from medieval cursive writings and was used extensively throughout the German-speaking world.

Differences from Gothic and Sütterlin Scripts

Unlike the blocky and ornate nature of Gothic script or the rounded forms of Sütterlin, Kurrent is more flowing and dynamic. Its use in personal correspondence and everyday administrative documents makes it a frequent find in genealogical research [2].

deciphering old german

Tools and Resources for Deciphering Old German Script

To aid in the complex task of deciphering old German scripts, a variety of tools and resources are available. These resources range from traditional reference materials to modern digital tools, each designed to facilitate the understanding and interpretation of these historical writings. By leveraging these tools, genealogists can enhance their ability to read and interpret documents written in Gothic, Sütterlin, and Kurrent scripts.

Essential Reference Books and Guides

A solid foundation in any script deciphering effort often begins with reference books and guides. These resources provide comprehensive details on script characteristics, historical contexts, and examples of the script in use.

Historical Overviews and Script Manuals

Books detailing the history of German scripts and manuals teaching how to read and write these styles are invaluable. They typically include samples of text, analyses of letter forms, and practical exercises.

Paleography Texts

Specialized paleography books focus on the study of ancient writing, offering insights into the evolution of scripts and the interpretation of historical documents. These texts are crucial for understanding the nuances of script variations over time.

Digital Tools and Software for Script Recognition

The digital revolution has introduced software tools that greatly assist in deciphering old scripts. These tools use advanced technologies like OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to convert scanned text into readable formats.

OCR Programs Tailored for Gothic Scripts

Certain OCR programs are specifically designed to handle the complexity of Gothic and other German scripts. These tools can scan old documents and provide a transcribed text that is easier to analyze [3].

Interactive Online Platforms

Online platforms offer interactive experiences where users can upload images of scripts and receive assistance in transcription and translation from other users or automated systems.

Online Forums and Communities for Collaborative Learning

Online forums and communities bring together enthusiasts and experts in the field of genealogy and old scripts. These platforms provide a space for sharing knowledge, asking questions, and receiving feedback on deciphering efforts.

Genealogy Forums Specializing in German Ancestry

These forums often have dedicated sections for discussing old German scripts where members can post images of documents and receive help in reading them.

Social Media Groups and Pages

Social media platforms host groups and pages where members share tips, tools, and techniques for reading and understanding old German scripts, fostering a collaborative learning environment.

Practical Tips and Techniques for Reading Old German Script

Deciphering old German scripts such as Gothic, Sütterlin, and Kurrent requires not only knowledge but also practice and patience. Over time, genealogists develop various strategies that enhance their efficiency and accuracy in reading these complex scripts.

Starting with Known Words and Phrases

Familiarity with common words and phrases found in historical documents can significantly ease the process of deciphering old scripts. This approach provides a foundation from which to understand less familiar words.

Building a Vocabulary List

Compile a list of frequently used words and phrases in old German documents, such as dates, names, places, and common legal terms. This list becomes a handy reference that accelerates the reading process [4].

Using Parallel Texts

Whenever possible, use documents that have been transcribed by others as a guide to understanding the script style and terminology used in similar documents of the era.

Recognizing Common Linguistic Patterns and Abbreviations

Old German scripts often contain linguistic patterns and abbreviations that, once recognized, can unlock the meaning of complex texts. Understanding these can be a game-changer in script deciphering.

Studying Common Abbreviations

Learn the most common abbreviations used in historical German documents, such as those for names, dates, and places. Recognizing these can prevent misinterpretations and errors in reading.

Analyzing Sentence Structure

Familiarize yourself with the typical sentence structures of the time period from which the documents originate. This knowledge can help anticipate the kinds of words and phrases that might appear next in a text.

Dealing with Damage and Illegibility in Historical Documents

Many old documents suffer from damage and wear, which can make reading them even more challenging. However, several methods can help mitigate these issues and enhance legibility.

Enhancing Digital Images

Use image editing software to adjust the contrast and brightness of digital photos of documents. Enhancements can make faded ink more visible and clarify obscured text.

Consulting Physical Copies

When possible, examine the physical copies of documents. Sometimes, different lighting conditions or angles can reveal details that are not visible in digital reproductions.


[1] 20 Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting
[2] The ABCs of the Old German Script
[3] Unlocking the Secrets of German Handwritten Documents
[4] Script Tutorial: German