28 September 2012

Help for Understanding and Translating German Handwriting

I was approached by a gentleman named Peter who is part of a small family business located in Berlin, Germany that specializes in transcribing and translating old handwritten German documents into English. Peter asked if he could possibly be a guest author and write a post for The Educated Genealogist.  Sounding a little too good to be true, I snooped around and checked this company out.  The company is called "Metascriptum" and found they have a great rep for  accuracy and excellent customer service.  With few Germans capable of translating the Old German handwriting known as Sütterlin script, many are turning to this company for help.

German Writing:  The Difference in Time

As anyone who has seen an older German document and a newer one can tell you, German writing has undergone many changes throughout a vast span of time. What is now considered to be standard German was only recently developed out of the ashes of older German dialects. Understanding older German documents can be quite trying to the unpracticed mind.

There are actually many different variations of the German language, some of which are no longer spoken or used in the written word. As such, there are many cases of German writing that cannot be read by fluent speakers and readers of standard German. A brief history of the German language can be very interesting and worthwhile to learn.

Low and High German

Before the middle ages, the German language went through what is called the Second Germanic Sound Shift. This sound shift was only adopted by the Southern half of Germany. The Northern lowlands did not adopt the sound shift. Therefore, low and high German was born. It was called Low German due to the lowlands.

Low German is now rarely used. It has been losing popularity over the last several hundred years, and there are many who can no longer speak or read it. Low German dialects are still sometimes found in the Northern lowlands, however, although the more common standard German is used throughout Germany.

Old, Middle and New High German

High German went through many different stages. Old high German was spoken until around the tenth century. This form of German has many differences in how articles are used, or actually not used in Old High German, as well as verb conjugation and other features of the language. Middle high German was used by minstrels in speaking and particularly in writing. It overlaps with both the old and the new High German, but is distinctly different from both. Finally, new High German developed out of Middle High German, near the end of the middle ages.

The German You Hear Today

Today’s German language is called standard German. This is now the language that all German writing is in. It has been the language of writing for the country as a whole for some years. The development of standard German was slow, with important steps being taken in the thirteenth century and each century thereafter until the 1800’s. As such, there are many older forms of German writing that are difficult to read or understand.

If you have writings that are clearly written in a dialect or form of German, and you cannot understand them, there are those that can help. Professional transcribers who have a grasp of the old and new Germanic languages can transcribe older forms of German to the new German. Alternatively, you can also have those writings translated into English, although this may take a bit more time. In this way, the German writing of the past need not be lost or misunderstood. The meaning can easily be restored and studied, giving older German writing back to the masses, or simply back to a united family. 

DISCLOSURE:  I have not received any compensation nor services from this company in return for the guest post.  EVEN MORE DISCLOSURE:  I have been really busy lately and my blog needed a post and he happened to approach me at the right time so I used him.  


  1. Just that small table of German letters and their equivalents - boggles my mind! I can see how helpful this would be. Thanks for the guest post.

  2. Sheri, thanks for publishing this guest article. Actually, the Low German is not as removed from modern life as one might think. I have an aunt whose nickname is derived from the Low German. We still call her by that nickname now, though it was her family that started calling her that when she was a small child.

    I've often heard the warning that help would be needed whenever those old German documents would need to be deciphered. In my case, by the time I get to that point in my research, I'll be looking at documents from the 1600s. Nice to know there is a resource.

  3. hi, this is very intersting and i really like it, nice info about german language. as a translator i really like your post and your blog.

    Eid Khashan