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There has been some debate recently about a specific kind of question that appears, very occasionally, on the main site: questions asking to identify a word in a text that isn't written clearly and cannot be easily understood.

The two main sides of the debate have been:

  • We should not accept them because those questions are not related to the Spanish language, they are about recognizing characters or words (palaeography: the study of ancient and historical handwriting) and that is not dependent of the language.
  • We should accept them because the texts are written in Spanish, and knowing the language and the context may help identifying the word, even if we have no knowledge of palaeography.

Fact is, we already have a tag , that says it is used for "identifying terms [in cases of] bad handwriting or audio". Of course, the existence of the tag does not mean that those questions are on-topic: that's what we want to discuss here. (If it is decided that such questions are off-topic the tag will be removed or warned against its use in such cases.)

Examples of these kind of questions:

So, what's your take on questions about recognizing or identifying words or expressions in handwritten Spanish texts?

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In paleography, domain knowledge of the language is crucial for identifying manuscript words like antique abbreviations or spellings that predate a vowel shift. Notice how the Wikipedia article on paleography is organized: by language. The specialization of this site makes it a very valuable resource for anyone that can get transcription help.

I would propose that paleographic questions be on-topic provided that they show research effort (asking about one or two words instead of a whole document).

Disclaimer: I am responsible for several such posts. I don't have a lot of friends who read manuscripts that I can ask instead. The help I have gotten here has been invaluable!

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I was of the opinion that kind of questions are not questions about the Spanish language: they don't discuss grammar or orthography, they don't discuss etymology, they don't discuss pronunciation, they don't even discuss the meaning of what is written. They just ask to identify some letters. And because of that, I used to VTC them as off-topic.

However, I've come to realize some things:

  • We've had the tag for questions like these since 2017. A mod created it specifically for the first question that asked to identify a handwritten word: Reconocer una palabra manuscrita de 1824 (check the dates). So it seems like mods are OK with them.
  • Questions about identifying handwritten terms are usually well received. The one linked above has an outstanding score of 10, and later questions always get some upvotes. Also, whenever I try to close one of them as off-topic I always find strong opposition from some users. So, it looks like the community is also OK with them, and wants them to be on-topic.
  • The argument given by Aaron and others is sound: handwritten Early Modern English (15th c. to 17th c.) would be hard to decipher by people without a strong English background, and anything earlier than that —like Middle English from Canterbury Tales or Old English from Beowulf, would probably look alien to anybody but English experts. I cannot but assume that old handwritten Spanish texts look the same to the eyes of those unfamiliar with the Spanish language.
  • We've had some questions asking to identify words from an audio recording, and nobody seemed to have a problem with those. Not even me. And I can't really see a reason why we should accept questions about identifying mouth-pronounced words but not questions about identifying hand-written words 🤷‍♂️

Because of the above, my view has changed. I am now of the opinion that these questions should be allowed, as long as they ask for specific terms and not the whole text — but that is already covered by the "no effort" clause.

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