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Remembered Today:

Learning to read Sütterlin


knittinganddeath

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Over the course of the past 18 months, I have acquired several pandemic skills. Most of them are of questionable utility. I doubt that any prospective employer, for example, will care that I have learned to make lasagna from scratch or knit Shetland lace. (Of course, who knows. My next job could be at a yarn shop, in which case the ability to make beautiful and complex shawls might be a major asset.)

By far the most arcane skill that I acquired, however, is the ability to read Sütterlin. In this article I will explain how I learned to read it and offer some tips and tricks in the event that you wish to do the same.

What is Sütterlin?

According to Wikipedia, Sütterlin is a simplified version of Kurrent script, the latter being “an old form of German-language handwriting based on late medieval cursive writing, also known as Kurrentschrift ('cursive script'), deutsche Schrift ('German script') and German cursive.”

This excerpt from a letter written in 1915 is a wonderfully clear example of this type of script. As you can see, some letters look the same as their Roman counterparts, others are visibly different but share a similar general form, and still others are altogether unrecognisable. (“Roman” refers to the alphabet form developed initially in Ancient Rome and now widespread in Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe. This article, for example, is written with Roman letters.)

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“Auf baldiges Wiedersehen. Es Grüsst dich deine Schwester Maria.” Letter from Maria Beising to her brother Josef, April 1915. Courtesy of GROBBY.

Now for a quick overview of terminology. A transcription is a rendering of the original text in the original language with no editorial interpolations. All spelling mistakes, (lack of) punctuation, and capitalisation should be given as they appear in the original. A translation involves making the original text over into another language. 

Script refers to the ideal shape of the letters: a perfect form. Hand, by contrast, refers to the individual writer’s idiosyncrasies and style. Some writers have no hand in that they write perfect script; this can be seen, for example, in presentation Bibles from the Middle Ages, but is much less common among modern writers.

How I did it

First, I printed out this chart of the Sütterlin alphabet to keep on hand like a key to a secret code.

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The Sütterlin alphabet with Roman equivalents. Source: http://www.suetterlinschrift.de/Englisch/Sutterlin.htm

Then I chose some letters that were easily identifiable and committed them to memory. I would use them to help me “find my place,” so to speak, within words.

Of the lower-case letters I chose H, S, D, U, and R.

Of the upper-case letters I chose S, B, D, and Z.

In the beginning, I referred constantly to the chart. Deciphering die (“the”) was a major achievement. Eventually, my brain began to attach significance to small combinations of letters—der, die, das, ich, du, es. Medium-sized combinations followed — noch, nicht, recht, lieber, herzlich. Then came nouns and verbs — gestern, heute, erhalten, geschrieben, Dank, Paket, Brief, wiedersehen, Gruss. These words actually make up the bulk of many soldiers' postcard messages, so after a short time it was possible to read relatively a lot while still only possessing a low skill level.

I also practiced writing the script myself. You can, of course, do this with a pencil or ball-point or rollerball pen, but I found that it felt most natural to form the letters with a fountain pen with a narrow nib. I wrote a bunch of shopping lists as well as some letters to a German-speaking friend. He couldn’t read them. Nor could I, after a day or two had elapsed. So this exercise allowed me to practice reading & transcribing too.

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Some common German words written (by me) in Sütterlin

It is helpful, but probably not entirely necessary, to have some knowledge of German. However, familiarity with German spelling rules and grammar makes it easier to guess a word based on only a few letters.

My First “Assignment”

Armed with the alphabet chart and no experience, I decided that my first task would be to transcribe the wartime journal of Dr Theodor Zuhöne. Never mind the fact that a transcription already exists, complete with a contextualizing introduction, footnotes, maps, and index. Zuhöne served as a doctor with Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment №73 and I wanted to read his journal in order to compare his experiences with those of his contemporary, the American army surgeon Harvey Cushing. (Cushing’s diary can be read here at the Internet Archive.)

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The first entry in Dr Theodor Zuhöne’s journal: 2 August 1914. Source: http://digital.wlb-stuttgart.de/purl/bsz42987880X

To put it bluntly, transcribing Zuhöne’s journal was overly ambitious for a beginner and, in retrospect, the perfect way to thoroughly intimidate myself. Zuhöne’s hand is actually quite readable, but because of my lack of familiarity with the alphabet I spent over an hour on the first few sentences and then gave up.

Don’t be like me. Choose something small and sweet. Marriage registers, military service records, and other government documents can serve as a good introduction, as the writers often had a rigidly legible hand and the context is both limited and clear.

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Extract from the marriage certificate of Unteroffizier im Infanterie Regiment 4, Max Paul Zieske, and Edith Dorothea Elfrieda Sielaff. Source: Ancestry.

A few months after my failed attempt to decode Zuhöne’s journal, I was lucky enough to stumble across this post by GROBBY in the forums. Emil Kotte’s postcard to his father contained a very good example of Sütterlin script. Crucially, it was short enough to seem feasible for a first transcription.

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Postcard written by Emil Kotte to his father, 15 April 1917. Courtesy of GROBBY.

Because Emil Kotte used both Roman and Sütterlin letters, this message immediately seemed less intimidating. For example, Abs., Depot, Komp., and Deutsche Feldpost are all written in Roman letters, as is the closing greeting: Dein Sohn Emil. Having read all that, I felt both productive and (for no logical reason) more confident. 

Next I looked at the word before the date. It starts with G. Context allowed me to make an educated guess: Geschrieben. This was useful because it taught me how Emil formed some of his letters: in particular, E, R, and -sch- dipthong.

Most correspondence of this sort starts with Liebe or Lieber. In this case it is the latter, so   I made another guess about the following word: Vater.

The next line begins Ich habe schon and then comes a word that seemed to make no sense in this context: lunge. I have become very familiar with this type of mistake, namely using “Roman eyes” to look at Sütterlin words. It took a while to remember that lower-case U in Sütterlin should have a swoosh over it (not an umlaut), and then what was once lunge became, in fact, lange.

A few lines later, my Roman eyes again deceived me and had me puzzling over Znit until I remembered that lower-case N and E look very similar. Of course — it was Zeit.

And so on, until the whole card was more or less successfully transcribed.

Soldiers’ postcards are not, for the most part, very imaginative. They contain the same sentiments and often the same stock phrases. (Their letters, on the other hand, can be quite full of personality.) I know that some people, perhaps even many people, find this type of correspondence boring. However, in my experience these repetitious missives are a very good way to practice and gain confidence.

My Techniques for Transcribing

I transcribe by hand with an A5 notebook and a pencil. For each postcard I use one page. Each line of the postcard corresponds to one line on the page. This is how I was taught to transcribe medieval manuscripts at university, and has the advantage of allowing you to easily find your place in both the original text and transcription.

First I do an initial reading of the text without writing anything down. This allows me to grasp the basic content of the text. On the second pass, I commit words to paper. If I cannot recognise a word, I skip it and represent its omission with a succession of dots or underscores. Subsequent readings allow me to focus on these omissions, while the rest of the sentence can offer contextual clues as to what the mystery word might be. Basically, you act as a human version of predictive text.

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A typical transcription-in-progress. The “underlined” parts are actually blanks that have been filled in over the course of several days.

I also use “Wortbild” a lot. This involves recognising words by their shape rather than by deciphering each individual letter. Sometimes this goes terribly wrong, so context and proofreading are quite important here. 

If I can’t read a word, I sometimes copy it out in Sütterlin and try to guess, based on how I form the letters, which word the writer intended. Or if I have a vague idea of what a word might be, I write it out — sometimes multiple times — in order to see if I can make my version of the word match the writer’s.

As is to be expected, constant practice has improved my reading ability, but with particularly tricky hands I still find it useful to rest my brain for a day or so and come back to the text with fresh eyes. 

Use the Internet

My German is decent, but given my many vocabulary-related deficiencies I have no shame in using Google Translate and the Cambridge Dictionary as well as Duden. One of the benefits of these online tools is that they make suggestions based on partial inputs of letters, so if you can only read part of the word these auto-fill mechanisms will help you to guess what the whole word might be. They also offer corrections/suggestions for misspelled words, so sometimes if I cannot read a whole word I will put in all the letters that are legible and see if a reasonable suggestion comes up.

To confirm that I have correctly read place names and street names, I use Google Maps.

Personal names, especially surnames, remain my nemesis. When confronted with an unusual surname, I usually enter it into the official Germany casualty lists, the Verlustlisten, and if it does not appear at least once then I assume that my reading was wrong. This doesn't always work because some people simply have very uncommon names.

I am also very lucky to have Sütterlin experts here on the forum, especially GreyC, proofread and correct my transcriptions.

Trust your feelings (but not all the time)

Some soldiers were not very literate correspondents; stress also affected their ability to formulate logical sentences. Misspellings abound and they make surprising grammatical errors. You need to have enough confidence to override the always-sneaking sensation that you have read a word incorrectly when in fact it is the writer who has made a mistake: “mahl” instead of “mal,” for example, or, as in the card from Emil Kotte pictured above, “haßt” instead of “hast.”

There is, however, a limit to how much you ought to trust yourself. I tend to overread and to impute humour or irony where there is none. This leads to overly complicated translations that have no basis in reality.

Final Thoughts

I prefer to work with a series of letters or cards from the same writer because it allows me to learn the idiosyncrasies of that person’s hand. Context can also become clearer over several pieces of correspondence.

As one of my friends observed, this is quite a tragic hobby to have because of the circumstances (i.e. the war) that surround these messages. If I can decipher the name of the sender, I always check the casualty lists to see if they were ever wounded or killed in action. A surprising number of them seem to have survived the war physically unscathed, but I always mourn a little bit for the ones who died and when I see pictures of battlefield dead I often wonder if one of “my” men is among them.

My tender heart notwithstanding, I quite enjoy playing historical secret agent and decoding postcards from a hundred years ago.

You can follow my Sütterlin adventures and see more postcards from GROBBY's collection in this thread in the forums: Coucy Le Chateau (which contains cards not only from Coucy but many other places as well).

Edited by knittinganddeath

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