Deciphering Sütterlin

The Archaeology Archives would like to welcome guest blogger Dr. Helgard Ulmschneider, who has been helping us with the translation of German letters from the Jacobsthal archive.

Letters are not always easy to decipher, as those dealing with handwritten correspondence doubtlessly have experienced at one time or another. Some authors write with great precision and even artistic flair, while others would have been well advised to resort to computers, typewriters, or scribes. Add to this the natural decay processes, ink slowly fading, damage caused by water and general neglect, or – more common in the past – hungry mice, and the results can be less than straightforward.

While most of the letters in the Jacobsthal archive thankfully have been relatively well preserved, one special challenge  is trying to make sense of the old German “Kurrent” script used by some of Jacobsthal’s German correspondents. Kurrent, a blackletter typeface also known as Gothic script, was commonly taught in schools in German-speaking areas during the 19th and up to the mid-20th centuries.

Example of the Kurrent alphabet c.1865

Kurrent is often – though not entirely correctly – referred to as “Sütterlin” (in 1911 the graphic artist Ludwig Sütterlin in fact had invented a very similar but more easily readable variation of the Kurrent script, which was taught in some German-speaking areas from the 1920s).  The main problem with the Kurrent / Sütterlin script however is – as the letter below shows – the difficulty it provided for readers.

Letter written by Alexander Langsdorff in 1928 (page 1)

Letter written by Alexander Langsdorff in 1928 (page 2)

In 1941 Kurrent / Sütterlin was officially ‘banned’ by Martin Bormann, later private secretary to Adolf Hitler. Instead, teaching was now to focus exclusively on the Latin (“round”) script (Antiqua) or so-called Normalschrift (“normal script”), which had been taught alongside Sütterlin, and which is in use to this day.

Kurrent, however, continued to be taught in school arts classes as an example of “a beautiful script to be executed with a quill” until 1952. As much as I disliked learning it in those days, knowledge of these old German scripts, which is fast dwindling, has proved to be enormously useful – be it while searching old catalogue entries in libraries, or more recently helping to read letters in the Jacobsthal archive.

Advertisements

About Archaeology Archives Administrator

Researchers in the archives of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Home of the Historic Environment Image Resource. Passionate about old photographs and fresh biscuits.
This entry was posted in Jacobsthal and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s