Can you read difficult German handwriting?

by Greg Mayer

WEIT readers are a fairly polyglot bunch, and so I’m calling upon readers to help with a problem. It involves difficult German handwriting—difficult in the sense that the writer was writing in pencil over an irregularly curved and hard surface. The writing is on the outside of the mandible of a Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), one of the two native species of British deer, which is also widespread on the Continent, including in Germany and other German-speaking areas.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), exterior of mandible, with handwriting in German. (no flash)

And now with flash (click to enlarge this and the first photo).

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), exterior of mandible, with handwriting in German. (with flash)

The lower line of writing is, by the interpretation of a more German competent colleague and myself, “Alter 6-7 Jahre.” So it’s a male (we already knew this from the antlers on the associated skull), aged 6-7 years (deer can be aged by the condition of their teeth). But what does the top line, of apparently two words, say? This is what I’m asking readers for help on. There’s clearly an “i”, and I think a “ch” in the second word. My colleague is not fluent in German, and I studied German for a single semester.

The skull and mandible were present in the teaching collection when I arrived in 1992. The skull has two short, unbranched antlers, and I long thought of it as of interest mostly for this feature, thinking it to be a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), a very common species in Wisconsin and throughout eastern North America. But last year, another colleague, who is a deer hunter, remarked that it was not a white-tail. It was then that I noticed that the writing was in German, and, identifying it by the teeth (instead of assuming it must be a local deer, and hence a white tail), I determined it was Cervus elaphus. This species, under the vernacular name Wapiti, also occurs in North America, but the German writing makes me think this must be the European form. Our teaching collection is mostly of local or at least Wisconsin species, but we do have a warthog (no idea how we got it!), so a German deer doesn’t seem beyond the pale of plausibility.

So, any help greatly appreciated!

70 Comments

  1. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    A partial suggestion: the second word is HIRSCH, which means deer

    • Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know German but Google Translate tells me that the German for red deer is “rotwild”. So perhaps it is some other kind of “hirsch” in the inscription.

      • Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Rotwild is a more general term, more likely to be used by hunters.

        • Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          I was concerned that might be the case but I reversed the translation and “rotwild” translated to “red deer”. Also, “rot” in “rotwild” means “red”, doesn’t it?

          • Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            It’s a bit tricky. “Wild” really means “game” in this sense, and “red” narrows it down to a red deer. A Schwarzwild is a wild boar, but only hunters would call it that. Everyone else would call it a Wildschwein. –It’s taken me 20 years of living in Germany to get this much of a grip on the language!

    • Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      “hirsch” makes total sense, and fits the text well. The first letter of the second word, under greater magnification, does have a higher ascender than I first thought, and could be an “h”.

      I’ve seen Red Deer as both Rotwild and Rothirsch on German websites.

      Thanks to Aldo and all, and keep making suggestions!

      GCM

  2. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    The Cervus elaphus or (European) red deer is closely related to the North American Wapiti Elaphus Canadensis. I’m in no position to classify the jaw though.
    And I’m not positive about the inscription either.
    [I just hope that in the oncoming discussion we can avoid ‘elk’, a confusing name, since in Europe that is a moose.]

  3. Jacques Hausser
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    The last word in the firsat line is probably Hirsch, meaning (male) deer.
    The first word(s)…

  4. Mark R.
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Red deer auf Deutsch is Rotwild. I can’t tell if that’s the first word. But I don’t think it’s proper to say “Rotwild Hirsch”…it’s redundant.

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      In German Switzerland it is called Rothirsch.

  5. Albert Habichdobinge
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    … Hirsch
    Alter … 7 Jahre

    Deer
    Age 7 years

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 22, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think you read it correctly.

  6. Mark R.
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I posted this already, but I think I forgot to fill out the form.

    Red deer is “Rotwild” in German. I can’t tell if that’s the first word, but Rotwild Hirsch is redundant so that’s probably not correct.

    • Mark R.
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      WordPress is making me crazy.

  7. Joe Hahn
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I would agree with the “Alter 6-7 Jahren” description. Anything else is totally unreadable.

  8. merilee
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Keine Ahnung

  9. Albert Habichdobinge
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Kiefer which means jaw in German.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Now why did Donald Sutherland name his son “jaw” in German?

      • merilee
        Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        I was thinking the same thing, Jenny 😬

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      I doubt somebody would write jaw on a jaw. Even a olecular biologist would recognized it as being a jaw.

      • Pierluigi Ballabeni
        Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        molecular

        • Anonymous
          Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          I think this was written for cataloguing purposes. The writing is quite sloppy, and not destined for the general public.

          • Posted February 21, 2019 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

            As a museum person, I can assure you that writing for cataloging is done much more carefully than writing for exhibit purposes. A former colleague, whose chief job was writing in the catalog, approached it as carrying out the rituals of a sacred office.

            Also, to Pierluigi, I love the notion of an “olecular biologist” as a baseline for knowledge and cognitive ability!

            GCM

      • Anonymous
        Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Kiefer Hirsch makes no sens. You would write Hirschkiefer.

  10. Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    The modifier of Hirsch should be Rot (for red) but too many letters. We have a German graduate student but she wasn’t at her desk just now.

  11. Posted February 21, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Fairly certain that it’s

    Hirsch
    Alter 6-7 Jahre

    perhaps “Pr. (Prinz) Alfred Hirsch”

    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prinz-Alfred-Hirsch
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visayan_spotted_deer

    or less likely
    “Davids Hirsch” (with an s missing)

    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davidshirsch
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A8re_David%27s_deer

  12. Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Going though all the comments my best guess for the first line would be Rotwild Hirsch.

  13. Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Cervus elaphus is variously referred to as “Rothirsch, Edelhirsch, Rotwild, Edelwild” but neither fits. It could be a subspecies, possibly. The “Jarkand Hirsch” might fit for the first line (no warranty). I agree with the above, that “Alter 6-7 Jahre” is the second line.

    • Dexter Edge
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Looking through all the species and subspecies names here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echte_Hirsche

      The only name that seems even to be a candidate for possible match with the first word is “Jarkent”, as it is spelled in the Wikipedia article. It’s not a perfect match by any means, but it was the only one that caught my eye as even being worth a closer look. But perhaps a variant spelling.

      The word is very indistinct, and much of the graphite seems to have worn away. But it’s clear that the initial letter can’t be ‘R’, ‘D’, or ‘P’, as in some of the other suggestions here. On the other hand, the initial letter of the mystery word is not a good match for the ‘J’ in “Jahre” in the lower line of the inscription. As a first reaction, I was inclined to read the first letter as ‘G’ (it does have the upper and lower loops of an uppercase ‘G’ in Kurrentschrift), and the last letter may be ‘t’.

  14. Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Cervus elaphus is variously referred to as “Rothirsch, Edelhirsch, Rotwild, Edelwild” but neither fits. It could be a subspecies, possibly. The “Jarkand Hirsch” might fit for the first line. Or just “Irland Hirsch” for the provenance.

  15. Petra Sierwald
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I am sure it is
    Rotwild Hirsch
    Alter 6-7 Jahre.
    A big period behind Jahre.
    My grandmother wrote like this

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 22, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that makes it complete: problem of the inscription solved.

      • alexander
        Posted February 22, 2019 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        I doubt this, I don’t see any trace of “ld” in the proposed word “Rotwild” on the object.

  16. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Here is a pic of the first grouping on the first line – the two original pics now in one – one above the other:

    deer1

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      The picture click expands
      The very first character looks like it is lower case with a lopping tail as we see in joined up writing with a

      g j p q y or z

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        lopping looping tail

      • Joachim Dagg
        Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        ow about “Irland” as an indication of the provenance of the speciment?

        • Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          “Irland” was the first thing I saw too. If that fits the context, that would be the most plausible, I think.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Here is German cursive writing
      The first letter looks most like a lower case j

      nhttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Deutsche_normalschrift_ab_01091941.jpg

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

  17. alexander
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    The first line could read “Mund Hirsch.”

    Jaw bone in German is Kiefer, which it is not, but Mund (mouth) with capital M (nouns are capitalized in German) may be a possibility. “u” and “n” are indistinguishable in German traditional handwriting.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted February 22, 2019 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Given the comments above about the normal care with which museum specimens are labelled it seems most unlikely that it would have been labelled as ‘mouth’. Surely no anatomist would do that?

  18. grasshopper
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately it’s too late to ask Mark Twain; reports of his death have not been exaggerated. He studied German during his travels, although he hadn’t quite mastered it by the time he visited Heidelberg Castle.

    I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to add it to his museum.

    https://www.cs.utah.edu/~gback/awfgrmlg.html

    • merilee
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      The Twain is wonderful!! Love the De……..parted. Like the up-the-street-pulling-with-its-swayback horse…only worse.

    • merilee
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      The Twain is wonderful!! Love the De……..parted. Like the up-the-street-pulling-with-its-swayback horse…only worse.

  19. Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m now sure of it — as Joachim Dagg suggested above, it’s–

    Irland Hirsch
    Alter 6-7 Jahre

    That’s by far the closest fit, in my opinion. (I’m not a German native speaker, but I’ve lived in Germany for 20 years now.)

  20. Posted February 21, 2019 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    The commentariat of WEIT is like having your own personal button that says “Enhance!”

  21. Posted February 21, 2019 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    The second word in the first line is “Hirsch”, which means “deer”. The second line says “age 6-7 years”. I can’t decipher the first word in the first line yet.

    Richard Jacques

  22. merilee
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Fairly OT, bUt just had to share this New York cabbie’s take on counting in French😂

  23. WERNER H BAUR
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    “Irland Hirsch” does not sound right, it should be “irischer” (unless it is a proper name, but a google search does not yield that).
    I also have problems with the crossed “d”.
    When I look at that I see “a n t”, but the first vertical line of the possible “n” is awfully short. Additionally if it were “and” we should see 6 vertical lines. But was the person per chance a sloppy writer? Possibly it is something altogether different. Unfortunalely I don’t have a better solution.

  24. Michael Sternberg
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    I read the elusive first word as “??hard”, though I could not guess what it completes to.
    For the first letter, given the very speedy hand, I would not rule out “S” (unlikely though).

    • Heidrun Wenisch
      Posted February 23, 2019 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      That was already close. At first I searched for “Schard Hirsch”, I was quite sure I saw “rd” at the end of the first word.

  25. max blancke
    Posted February 21, 2019 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    The handwriting looks postwar, if that is helpful.

    I see:

    ?????? deer
    aged 6 to 7 years

    I can exclude a bunch of words for the first one. I keep trying to read by glancing at it, instead of looking too hard.

  26. Posted February 22, 2019 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    Could that second character be an Eszett? As in iß***.

  27. Posted February 22, 2019 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    Could the first line actually be a person’s name?

  28. Bob
    Posted February 22, 2019 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I asked my wife, a native German, a former German school teacher and one who was previously married to a Forest Meister and lived in the woods, what she thought this read. Her answer:

    P-Alfred Hirsch
    Alter 6-7 Jahre

    The P- stands for Prinz.

    Written in English:
    Prince Alfred Deer
    Age 6-7 years

    See tier-arten.de/Hirscharten.php

  29. Werner H Baur
    Posted February 22, 2019 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    P. Alfred Hirsch has a good ring to it, even though it does not account for the crossed “d” that is bothering me. Could be a smudge on the bone.

    But it opens up the possibility to test the hypothesis. In the teeth there should be a little DNA. And if one finds the skeleton of one of those elusive deer on that Philippine island, that clinches it.

    • Michael Sternberg
      Posted February 22, 2019 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      The smudge on the “d” ascender is more likely due to a rougher and slightly darker streak of material on the bone. Notice how it is echoed by a smaller smudge on the (probable) “h” ascender to the left.

  30. Michael Sternberg
    Posted February 22, 2019 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Hmm, I’m skeptical about that reading – there would need to be two adjacent ascenders for “lf” and one descender for “f”, and I can’t see those.

    Could the first word be a classifier for lifecycle or rank, similar to Spießer and Platzhirsch, respectively?

    • Michael Sternberg
      Posted February 22, 2019 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      (I’m referring to “Alfred”, and meant to reply to Bob.)

  31. phar84
    Posted February 22, 2019 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    For a non-German person, wouldn’t it be easier to compare the wording to similar exhibits, and it shouldn’t vary by much.

  32. Heidrun Wenisch
    Posted February 22, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    The 2 words of the first line are Schad Hirsch. The word Schadhirsch is hunters’ jargon only and is used when speaking of an older male red deer. http://deutsches-jagd-lexikon.de/index.php?title=Schadhirsch

  33. Michael Sternberg
    Posted February 22, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Heidrun W.: Bingo!

    @GCM: How do the associated antlers look that you mentioned in the article? Branched at several points like you’d expect given the age, or just a single spike (“Spieß”) with possibly short buds, thus “defective”, as the hunter’s jargon term translates?

    • Posted February 22, 2019 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      The antlers are single spike antlers– unbranched and short. Definitely “Spieß”.

      GCM

      • Michael Sternberg
        Posted February 22, 2019 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        There you have it.

        A 2-year old Hirsch with such antlers would be said Spießer, but if the higher age is correct for this specimen (as derived from the degree of tooth grinding as you mentioned), then Schadhirsch applies and explicitly calls out that the age is higher than a first glance at the antlers would indicate.


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