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Remembered Today:

Socks, Sütterlin, & Other Musings

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AI, Kurrentschrift, and Gertrud von Richthofen



A few years ago, I spent several months learning to read German cursive writing aka Kurrentschrift/Sütterlin. It took concerted effort, and much help from generous GWF members, to reach a level that I consider adequate, and in my opinion the learning process is still ongoing. But no worries, right? This is the age of AI. ChatGPT can read Kurrent for me!

Here is a sample of what it's up against:


Letter written by Christian Ahrens. Courtesy of Mick/GROBBY.

That letter was written by Christian Ahrens in the autumn of 1915. I transcribed and translated it in this post, and remember being particularly pleased with the result because Christian's handwriting was not particularly easy for me to read. After successfully deciphering it, I felt, in the words of today's youth, as if I had leveled up.

Perhaps, though, I was wasting my time. AI programs to read Kurrent are already being built (although users say that results vary) and ChatGPT can decode regular handwriting. However, having previously seen ChatGPT spew nonsense when confronted with Kurrent, I have been somewhat reassured that, for the next few months at least, the ability of humans to read Kurrent will still be a worthwhile skill.

I was therefore intrigued, as well as somewhat apprehensive, when an enthusiastic young gentleman on another forum announced a few days ago that he had used ChatGPT to transcribe his great-grandfather's diary written in Kurrent. Call me a skeptic, a cynic, or just a party pooper -- I'll admit to being all three -- but I felt that extraordinary claims called for extraordinary evidence. In this case, I asked whether the OP had cross-checked the actual text of the diary with ChatGPT's transcriptions. In reply, he gave me a page from the diary along with ChatGPT's interpretation.

ChatGPT had not managed to read a single word properly. I mean that literally. It had produced grammatically correct sentences, but those linguistically logical constructions had no basis in reality. Yet the young man, not knowing even the rudiments of Kurrent, had no idea. He thought that he was reading his great-grandfather's words when in fact he was reading a fantasy written by AI.

To me, this story is a cautionary tale: namely, we don't know what we don't know. It is also a story of greed and laziness. I don't mean to impugn the young man in particular; he is only indicative of a wider trend in society. History, and more broadly the humanities, is a popular target of ire from both politicians and the public. Who cares about the politics of the English grain trade 1315-1815? Why should we bother ourselves about how people expressed care and love in wartime? In other words, why dwell on the past when the future lies ahead, so beguiling with its promise that we can acquire anything we want without any effort at all? We don't need to learn to read Kurrent, because AI will do it for us -- but if we can't check whether AI has done it correctly, we end up believing that our great-grandfather wrote about visiting Wilhelm in Stuttgart when in fact the text was written by one of his friends and consists of a quote by Goethe "to keep you company throughout 1945."

While I think that AI has ethical issues and that it will usually lead one down the wrong path if relied upon while abdicating one's critical faculties, I also don't think that it's good for nothing. AI-written computer code has transformed my husband's work life for the better. He can ask the AI pointed questions to produce code to solve specific problems. He also has more than 20 years of programming experience that allows him to evaluate the AI's answers and to either tweak his initial queries or change track entirely to guide the AI towards the right solution. For him, AI is a tool, not a crystal ball. I hope that it will eventually be seen and used as such by the general public too.

As I don't want to leave you on such a depressing note, let us turn our attention now to Manfred von Richthofen and his sister Gertrud.


Manfred is, of course, well-known; Gertrud less so, which is sad because, as a member of the German women's air squadron, she deserves a measure of fame in her own right. Recruited by her brother Lothar, she soon proved herself a skilled pilot and was eventually awarded the same decorations as Manfred. There are even indications that she may have taken his place in the skies for a few weeks after he was shot down in the spring of 1918; the War Ministry seem to have been reticent to announce his death and cause a loss of morale. However, no conclusive evidence exists on this point.

This photograph of Gertrud was taken in the summer of 1918. In a recently-discovered diary (written in Kurrent, of course), she describes how she decided to assume the same pose as her dead brother in a conscious attempt to remember him and honour his sacrifice.

Her house was bombed in World War II; neither she, her husband, or their four children survived.





There was no Gertrud von Richthofen who flew airplanes in the Great War, there was no German women's air squadron, and there was no conspiracy to cover up Manfred's death. (The latter would have been particularly difficult given that he was buried by Australian troops.) The photograph of "Gertrud" was produced using an AI technique called inpainting. It's based on a real photograph of Manfred, and only the face has been changed. She's a bit too glamorous and a bit too modern, but I also didn't try very hard to make her look historically accurate.

Edited by knittinganddeath


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A thought provoking post, thank you. Being advised not to trust AI blindly is nothing new, 40 years ago when I was undergoing a training course one of my fellow students asked the maths lecturer if it was permitted to use a pocket calculator (a sort of AI). His answer was yes but one also needs the knowledge to know that the answer is correct.

Intrigued by your link to the Kurrentschrift translator I gave it a try, neither example I gave it was particularly hard to read, the programme did rather better with a letter than with a list of names. 

I think picture postcards of Gertrud as Fräulein Feldgrau would have sold rather well ! :)




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2 hours ago, charlie2 said:

the programme did rather better with a letter than with a list of names. 

Maybe it´s because the reverse of the postcard is written on in Latin Kurrent, not German Kurrent.


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3 hours ago, charlie2 said:

the programme did rather better with a letter than with a list of names. 

The script (Kurrent or Latin) notwithstanding, AI needs context to work well. I think it might struggle with lists of names regardless since deciphering one name doesn't give any extra information that could help to reason out the next one. If I remember correctly, it works in a way similar to predictive text on a mobile phone so it'll have an easier time working out a phrase like "ich bin gesund und munter" than e.g. a list like Langenbrunner, Pfefferli, Heindl, und Lichnowski.

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An excelent post Knittingandeath ,So I will need a couple of years yet before I can translate my postcards and letters myself (sobbing quietly) .Thank you for the ones you have done before and if you need more practice I have lots more.

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On 04/04/2024 at 17:20, GROBBY said:

An excelent post Knittingandeath ,So I will need a couple of years yet before I can translate my postcards and letters myself (sobbing quietly) .Thank you for the ones you have done before and if you need more practice I have lots more.

Sorry for the late reply @GROBBY, I can definitely start up with the cards again -- let me know when you post them :)

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