Reading Latin

You are eager to research your family tree.

Perhaps you have already found or plan to search for your Christian ancestors in church registers written in Latin.

Maybe you have already found your ancestors in the searchable database of Familysearch, in the vital records collections on Ancestry or any local database by searching for their surname. If the entry is indexed, you may have the full name, location and date.

But did you look at the record itself? Is it indexed correctly? Not always! (Did you know that indexing volunteers often don’t speak the language of the records they are indexing?)

And even if it is indexed correctly, could there be anything else in the record? Definitely yes!

We at Historia Translation believe that a genealogist’s final goal is to get to know the real persons and life stories behind the names and dates as well as possible. Often you won’t be able to get around reading Latin church records, especially if your ancestors were Catholics in Europe. Apart from your ancestors’ names, the birth / marriage / death date and place, from the register entries you can learn their death cause, place of origin, nickname, profession or rank and many other facts if provided.

So you should read the old Latin record itself and understand all the genealogical data that you find.

For this, you would need to be able to decipher the handwriting and understand the phrases, the words and their endings in centuries-old Latin register entries.

By the way, did you know that Latin is an inflected language? This means words like nouns and verbs change and get endings in sentences. One can learn from these very endings or suffixes the role of a noun or a name in a sentence: is this the baptizing clergy or the infant or the father?

How could you decipher and understand these Latin sentences? The same way as any unknown foreign language: it is no use to know the letters or even transcribe a manuscript if you don’t know the words. If you try to transcribe the handwriting without further knowledge you can make lots of errors if you have no idea about the Latin words. This will look like an English text with countless typos. Now try to figure out the words based on this and find them in a dictionary! Hmmm….

Let’s look at this the other way round: how do you read in a known language? How did you read this blog post? Did you read out every single letter? Did you observe the words one at a time?

Did you? No?

So how do you read a text?

In a known language (after second grade) we read whole phrases or sentences. Because we have an anticipation how words can look like, what words can take what role in a sentence, how the order of the words can be.

We know what to expect.

The same applies for reading Latin church records: if you know what to expect, it is way easier to decipher and understand them.

I know you are keen on deciphering everything once you have found a manuscript.

But you should begin with the words.

How to learn the words? Click here to read on.

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We wish you the best of luck in your research,

Judit and István

Historia Translation

P.S. Have you found a Hungarian, Latin or German text and don't know whether it is worth translating? We can make you an abstract from it! You can learn who wrote it and to whom, when and where it was written, as well as what it’s about, so that you can decide whether or not you want to have it translated. For details, see our webpage:

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Topics from reading Latin, German and Hungarian manuscripts to genealogy, research and heraldry.