Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dealing with analytic structures in French

In my last post I talked about how understanding how languages are organized can help you make sense of a document in an unfamiliar language. Today, I want to talk about tackling a document in French, a language with many analytic structures. In analytic structures, meanings are indicated by separate words, not by changing the words.

Languages like this are generally easier to deal with, because the word you see in a document is more likely to have the same form in a dictionary. For example, possessives in Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) have the same basic pattern as English possessives with of ("the daughter of Prudence Martin"). Like English, the possessed person or thing comes before the preposition and the possessor comes after it.

The prepositions used in the Romance languages are related to each other, so you can learn several for the price of one. For example,
French de
Spanish de
Portuguese de
Italian di
This construction is especially useful for genealogists because it is often used to indicate a family relation ("the son of John Smith").

Knowing just a few small things can yield a tremendous amount of genealogical information to those willing to brave the French language and handwriting. Take, for example, a collection of records like the Drouin Collection ($ Ancestry). One doesn't need to understand everything, just be able to pick out the interesting genealogical tidbits.

The example above is taken from the marriage record of Augustin Blais and Marie-Louise Mercier in 1800. The underlined section says:
augustin blais majeur fils de jean baptiste blais
This translates word for word into English as
Augustin Blais grown son of Jean Baptiste Blais
With a good dictionary you can get a good idea of the content simply by looking up each word. The only potentially tricky part is the word majeur "major". Here the meaning is "of age" or "grown". In English we use the word minor in the same context ("a minor child"), but not so much major (although the term of majority is used somewhat archaically to mean "adulthood"). If you use Google Translate, you will simply have majeur translated as "major". However, if you use a decent online dictionary, you will see that it can also mean "of (legal) age".

Next week, we will turn to the much more complicated example of synthetic structures in Latin. In Latin, it is not enough simply to look up the words in similar cases; you have to learn something about the grammar first.

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