Latin Language and Script:
Resources for the Genealogist.
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Our motto: NO MORE JOHEMS!
Most genealogists will eventually encounter records written in Latin, or that use Latin phrases. In particular, many Roman Catholic church records were
written in Latin until fairly recent times, and Latin was sometimes used by other denominations as well. Court and other legal records were kept in Latin in the United
Kingdom. Prior to the Reformation, and sometimes even later than that, legal documents and correspondence were usually in Latin.
Commonly Encountered Difficulties in Latin Documents.
Documents written in Latin frequently present problems for genealogists and historians. Among these difficulties, the following
are probably the most common:
- Latin is an "inflected language", with a well-developed case system. Some knowledge of the word endings (declension of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives,
conjugation of verbs) and Latin grammar is essential. See our list of many excellent resources on the internet!
Examples: How Place Names Change with Grammatical Case.
How Personal Names Change with Grammatical Case.
An interesting consequence of the case system is that it is possible to rearrange the word order drastically without altering the meaning of the
sentence. That's another reason to pay attention to the word endings, to be sure you have correctly identified the subject of the verb!
- The script used for Latin documents from about the 18th Century forward will generally look familiar, very similar to modern handwriting. The farther
back you go, the more you will encounter unfamiliar forms of letters. The art of reading old writing is called
paleography (or palaeography).
- In the past, most scribes did not capitalize proper names, but they often capitalized other words, especially when beginning a new phrase, or for no
apparent reason whatsoever. Punctuation is rarely seen in early documents, or else used inconsistently. This practice sometimes leads to
genealogical ambiguities. It's up to you to look out for this situation and to think carefully before you jump to genealogical conclusions!
- Latin script also has a 2,000 year history of abbreviations, by means of various signs, symbols, and practices that are almost
unknown today. The abbreviations, rather than the script or even the language itself, usually cause the most problems, for beginners and experts alike.
- Latin spelling has changed over the centuries, but most dictionaries use only the spellings from academic, "Classical" Latin. A significant spelling
change occurred somewhere between "Classical" and "Medieval" Latin: words that used to be spelled with the dipthong ae or æ
were simplified by changing the vowel to e. (There are other changes, but this is the by far the most common one.) This change affects especially the
genitive ending for the first declension (thus Annæ became Anne), and a huge number of words with the prefix præ- (præsidens became
presidens, from which we get our modern word president). Much later (18th Century and beyond), and probably depending on how they were taught, some people
went back to the Classical spellings. There are two consequences: first, most Latin dictionaries use the Classical spellings, so you won't find the
word you are looking for unless can you guess the old spelling, and second, you can easily mistake a script æ for the letter a, which will send you off
in the wrong direction for spelling and grammar.
- Place names that were unknown to the ancient Romans have been "Latinized" in various ways in the documents that genealogists need to
understand. It is sometimes very difficult to match up the Latinized versions of these names with the modern place names. The same problem occurs with
personal names. Further complicating the difficulties, place names and family names are sometimes translated into a real Latin word, so that the German
family name Weber might become Textor, for example.
- The old Latin script generally made no distinction between i and j, and between u and v. But it doesn't stop there! In the old script, the letters u,
v, and n were frequently formed exactly alike, and some other letters can be confusing as well. Many scribes didn't dot the i (or j). Sometimes
entire words are just a long series of identical strokes: imagine the word "minimum" with no dots and all the strokes exactly alike!
(The short strokes used in these letters are called "minims".)
- Words may have been "borrowed" from other languages, or simply invented as the need arose, to create new Latin words that will not be found in
dictionaries. A favorite example of an invented Latin word is the adjective "hujatus", meaning "of this place", which many genealogists have mistaken
for a place name that they were unable to find on local maps.
- Church records contain an amazing number of flowery, poetical, or "polite" ways of saying things in Latin, especially when referring to children born
outside of marriage. Check this church records unusual words list, and please send us any additional examples that
How to Conquer Your Latin Documents.
The first step in understanding a document written in Latin is to make an exact transcription of the original. This is sometimes a difficult task in
itself, if there are abbrevations, ambiguous letters, etc. The art of reading old writing is called paleography. There are some well-known principles of
paleography that will help the beginner.
With an accurate transcript in hand, the process of translation can begin. Because so many words (nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs) will have
endings that depend on the grammatical context, most of the words in any document will not be found in a Latin dictionary, which generally lists only the
root words (nominative case, or first person singular present indicative tense of verbs). Today, however, we get around this problem by using Google and
the Wiktionary site. For most Latin words, you can find all the forms in the Wiktionary, clearly labeled as to their grammatical properties. Also,
Google Translate handles Latin texts fairly well.
Place names and personal names often require further study. For church records or local legal documents, comparison with later documents from the same
region or community that are not written in Latin will often solve the problem.
Words that have extra strokes over one or more letters, or over the whole word, or that include odd symbols or superscripts, are very likely abbreviations.
Names are frequently abbreviated in a way that reveals the first few letters of the name, plus the grammatical ending, with all or most of the intervening
letters omitted. Thus, the scribe may have written Johem, with a stroke over the entire word, to indicate Johannem (the name
Johannes, in the accusative case); Johem is not a name in Latin, it is simply an abbreviation. Or, the scribe may have written An̅a for Anna, the
stroke over the n indicating that the letter should be doubled. While real documents contain many variations, there are
excellent resources for deciphering the most commonly encountered forms of Latin abbreviations.
Getting Help: Use the Free Message Boards!
When you have trouble reading a document in Latin, probably the fastest way to get help is to use the
Latin message board at Rootsweb.com (your query will
also be seen on the same message board on Ancestry.com). The Rootweb message boards are free, you only have to register so you will have an ID and
password. The message boards are easy to use, and you will get an e-mail whenever there is a reply to your queries. You can ATTACH a picture or
document to your query, and you can add internet links in the text of your query. So, for the purposes of getting someone to take a look at the Latin
documents that are giving you trouble, the Latin message board gives you a place to post a picture of the document and ask for help reading the script,
understanding the text, etc. This is by far the simplest and most productive message board for this purpose.
Resources for Latin Word Endings, Grammar, and the Declension of Names
- Excellent summary of Latin grammar for beginners as well as those who have forgotten what they learned in school: UK National Archives
- If you want to get serious about Latin genealogical documents, I highly recommend a good pocket dictionary: John C. Traupman, The New
College Latin and English Dictionary, third edition (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), especially valuable for the summary of the declensions,
conjugations, grammar, etc. at the beginning, and the helpful reminders that point you to the Classical spellings.
- Excellent reference for the correct declension of
personal names. In spite of what you learned about the declensions of ordinary
nouns, many personal names — including very common ones such as Thomas, Andreas, and Johannes, came into Latin from Greek, and therefore don't
follow the normal rules for declension. For example, Thomas and Andreas, even though obviously masculine in gender, follow the feminine endings of the
first declension, resulting in such forms as Andrea (ablative case of Andreas), which look "feminine", but are not. Even when you think you know which
names are masculine and which are feminine, use this personal names link to be sure, before you publish your genealogy!
- For most Latin words, and for both Classical and Medieval spellings, you can find a table of the correct "inflection" (declension or conjugation), possible meanings,
idioms, etc. by searching on Google. For best results, put the Latin word in quotes, and add the search terms "latin" and "Wiktionary". The words will be
easier to find if you can guess the nominative case for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, or the first person present indicative verb form. That's because
Latin dictionaries traditionally start with those forms. There are many other sites and tools that will give similar results, but the Wiktionary
has better coverage and is most consistent in the way it presents the material.
- See Latin Handouts from The Latin Library for excellent summaries of the grammar and other helpful
The "Grammar Handouts" are excellent. There are links to many other resources through
The Classics Page of
The Latin Library, a project of the Classical Studies Program at George Mason University. These sites deal almost entirely with Classical Latin,
but the differences that will be encountered in the medieval or "neo" Latin documents of interest to genealogists are relatively minor, once you are
aware of the usual spelling changes!
- Some Classical authors used verb forms that will not be found in most dictionaries. However, they are occasionally found in much later church records
— perhaps the priest encountered these forms during his education? See this list of
"alternate" verb forms.
- See this Descriptive Latin Grammar for some different approaches to
learning Latin (and follow the links for additional resources). In particular, this was the only place we found a clear explanation of some of the
non-standard features of grammar, spelling, and vocabulary that occur in real Latin documents.
Resources for Latin Script and Paleography
- For an excellent overview of the ancient and medieval scripts used in Latin documents, see
this document, prepared by Juan-Josť
Marcos in connection with his fonts for publishing Latin texts. He discusses many of the features that make old Latin texts so difficult
to read, and gives clear examples of the major styles.
- The general method for deciphering difficult handwriting is quite simple. See our Basic Principles!
- There are many tutorials on paleography on the internet. The best place to start, in my opinion, is at the
UK National Archives. This tutorial
emphasizes the basic methods for dealing with any sample of bad handwriting, and offers a series of excellent examples. These examples are in English,
but they illustrate the same styles of writing you are likely to encounter in old Latin manuscripts. Go back to the examples from time to time
to polish your skills in reading old scripts.
Resources for Understanding Latin Abbreviations
- The standard reference on this subject has long been Adriano Cappelli's Lexicon Abbreviaturarum (3rd edition, Milan, 1929). The introduction
of this compendium discusses the principles and methods of abbreviation used in medieval times and later. The introduction has been an important teaching
tool for generations of scholars. It is available in English in
The introduction by the translators, David Heimann and Richard Kay, deserves to be quoted: "Take a foreign language, write it in an unfamiliar script,
abbreviating every third word, and you have the compound puzzle that is the medieval Latin manuscript".
- A free internet copy of the 1901 edition of the Lexicon
Abbreviaturarum is available on Google Books. The main "Lexicon" or dictionary is arranged by the first letter of the abbreviation (with special
sections for the "9" symbol, representing the syllable con- or com-, etc.). This is the best place to find the more unusual abbreviations.
- An excellent summary of the tradition of "scribal abbreviations" is in the Wikipedia.
- Occasionally, a scribe will use a stroke over a vowel to indicate a change in its "quality". While many scribes would write Anna̅ for Annam (the
name Anna, in the accusative case), we found one who wrote Anna̅ to indicate that the accent has shifted to the final syllable, which in Classical Latin
occurs in the ablative case for words of the first declension. (If you know Spanish, you won't be surprised that the shift of the accent to the final
syllable can change the meaning.)
- Due to the lack of agreement among the various internet browsers regarding how fonts are managed, and due to the specialized nature of the abbreviation
symbols, there is no completely satisfactory way to discuss the symbols without resorting to images. However, a sort of shorthand has developed among
paleographers, using ordinary letters and numbers placed above or below the rest of the text.
With this method, you can represent a typical abbreviation
for the word "contra" with normal text characters,
like this: 9tra. Once you know something about the traditional abbreviation symbols, this will make perfect sense, but to the
uninitiated, it won't look much like what you see in the manuscript!
- Hint: For the abbreviation signs that can be represented in the "normal" fonts, we found Times New Roman does a reasonable job. That's the font we
first used for this web page, but if you did not have Times New Roman installed on your computer, there was no way to know what you would see! As of
January 25, 2013 we changed to a "web font", a subset of the Junicode font. However, there still may be issues with "combining characters" on some
browsers (Chrome?). Let me know if you encounter problems so we can work toward a solution!
- See our discussion of the font problem. It's more complicated than you might think!
- Our Gallery of Latin Abbreviations may have what you need! If not, please send us a picture of the abbreviations you
find in your own research, and we will add them to the gallery! (Please indicate the time and place where the abbreviations were used.)
Dates in Latin Documents
- See our new page on Dates and the Liturgical Calendar.
Let us know if you need more information about how dates are expressed in Latin!
- Dates are usually written out in words, or a combination of Roman numerals and words. For a good introduction to the way dates are expressed
in Latin, see this page from the UK National Archives Beginners'
- In medieval records and church records, dates are frequently expressed by reference to the fixed or moveable feasts of the liturgical calendar.
- Some of the events in the liturgical calendar have more than one name in Latin.
- We are developing a table of the Latin names of the feast days that should help you more quickly resolve dates.
- The date of the first day of the year has varied.
- The most common date for the new year prior to the Reformation, and until the middle of the 18th Century in England, was March 25. March
24, 1492 would be followed by March 25, 1493.
- Some ecclesiastical or secular courts used December 25 or January 1 as the first day of the year, even though other institutions in the same area
used March 25.
- The date of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar reforms (including the "loss" of some number of days) occurred at different times in
- It is frequently necessary to find the date of Easter in order to establish dates expressed by reference to the liturgical calendar.
- There are web sites that give the calendar from medieval times until the present; however, the researcher needs to try to verify the results
by examining as many documents as possible from the same period and location, to be sure that there are no inconsistencies.
- In some cases the "indiction" can be helpful.
- All sorts of additional calendars can be found in Latin documents, including regnal dates and even the French Republican Calendar.
Sample Documents From Many Centuries
- 15th Century: Division of Property, Payerne, Switzerland, 1417, in French and Latin
- 15th Century: "Reconnaissance" for feudal property, Morges, Switzerland, 1425.
- 15th Century: A Sample from Payerne, Switzerland, 1442, Showing Typical Use of Abbreviations.
- 17th Century: Death record, 1696.
- 18th Century: Marriage at Mrocza, Poland, 1748.
- 18th Century: Baptism, Steinbach, Hesse, Germany, 1791.
- 19th Century: Catholic church baptisms, Minfeld, Germany, 1802.
Our To-Do List
What would you like to see on this web site? How can we help with your Latin genealogy problems? Here is the list of features under
- Basic vocabulary for genealogy: relationship words, alternate meanings, verbs used in church records...
- Clearer procedure for interpreting documents.
- More samples, from more diverse sources! We need your help on this!
Coordinator for this site is John W. McCoy
This page last updated Thursday, 23-Apr-2015 10:01:49 MDT.