Sunday, March 25, 2012

A tip for identifying the language of a document

When approaching a new document, the first thing you need to do is identify the language it is written in. Then, you'll be able to find an appropriate dictionary and other tools that will let you make sense of it. There are a number of ways to do this, but you often need look no further than the first three or four words.  Many records like birth, baptism and marriage records follow very common formats.  One feature of these documents is that they often begin with the date the event occurred or was recorded.  So, simply by knowing a few common expressions you can quickly and easily identify the language of a document.

My Schoendorf line lived for several generations in Peppenkum . Although now a part of Germany, this area was ruled at various times by both France and Bavaria.  Records for this predominantly Catholic area are written in at least three different languages, Latin, French and German, depending on the period and context of the document. For example, I have three different documents (all available at the Family History Library).  The first is from a marriage record in a church register from 1782 for Johann Georg Schoendorf and Catherine Conrad.
Source: Film 351837
The first words are "L'an mil".  L'an is a contraction of the French words Le, which is the definite article "the", and an, the word for "year". Mil is the word for "thousand".

Next is the marriage record for their son Johann Schoendorf and his wife Anna Maria Klinlger from 1817.

Source: Film 351839
The language has changed; in place of French we find the Latin phrase "Anno Domini milesimo".  Anno means "in the year".  If you just wanted to say "the year", you would use annus, but Latin has special endings that tell you what function the word plays (see this post).  In this case, the ending -o tells us that it means "in the year".  Domini means "of the Lord". Here the ending -i tell us that Dominus has a possessive function.  Finally, we have the word milesimo (usually millesimo).  For now, let's just say it means "thousand".  I have a post planned for dealing with Latin numbers, which are a bit complicated.

You may have noticed the similarities between the French and Latin words for year an and anno and those for thousand mil  and millesimo.  This is because French, like all Romance languages, descends from Latin.

The final record, from 1866, is the civil registration of the birth of Caspar Schoendorf, the grandson and great grandson of the above couples.

Source : Film 1057430
Once again we encounter a new language.  This time it's German.  The first four words are "Im Jahr ein tausend", which translates as "In the year one thousand".  This is almost a word-for-word translation of the English.  The only tricky part is the word "im" which combines the preposition in "in" with the definite article dem "the".

Because English is a Germanic language, you will notice the similarities between German and English.  The word Jahr, where the initial J is pronounced like English Y, is similar to the English word year, and tausend is very close to thousand.

The first few words in all three documents contain the same two words, "year" and "thousand".  Think of these as keywords; since you are very likely to encounter them in a document, they can help you identify the language.  It may not help for every record, but it is at least one way of narrowing down the possibilities.

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