Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Church Latin and Genealogy

If you are fortunate enough to compile a family history extending back into the 1800s, and if your family has European roots, then you will probably encounter records written in Latin at some point in your research. Latin is considered a language in the Indo-European family and the predecessor of the modern Romance languages. Most linguistic historians agree that Latin was spoken primarily along the lower Tiber River in what is now Italy. From approximately 600 A.D. until the 1600s Latin was the official written language of most Western European countries. When I was in high school taking Latin was still an option. According to current news accounts, Latin is making a comeback in U.S. high schools.

Fortunately genealogical research does not require a conversational ability with the Latin language. To do adequate research in old records, you probably would need to know some basics and a few hundred words. From my standpoint learning Spanish at an early age has been of immeasurable value in doing Western European research. With the aid of a dictionary, I can usually read most of the pertinent Latin in church records. It is not uncommon for me to find a mixture of Spanish and Latin in the Catholic church records of the 1800s.

In my high school days, Spanish was considered an easy language to learn and so I took French and German. I was a miserable student of both languages even though I took two years of French and two years of German. To this day, I still cannot understand why I took second year of both languages when I did so poorly in both. My language career started when I was called as an LDS missionary to Argentina. This began both my interest in languages, as such, and my ability to learn and speak them. After obtaining a B.A. degree in Spanish and a Masters degree in linguistics, I spent two more years in Panama. However it was not until I taught five years of Spanish at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona that I really began to learn the grammar. I would not expect that you would want to go through all this just to do genealogical research.

Now back to Latin. One slight complication of the Latin language is that it borrowed a lot of words from Greek. It also has a significant number of Germanic loan-words and a measurable number of words borrowed from Arabic. Languages derived from Latin are spoken throughout southern Europe and are the national languages of Spain, Italy, Romania, France and portions of many other countries. English has a heavy influence from French due to the Norman invasion in 1066.

When approaching any foreign language in your genealogical research, it is important to understand that you do not have to learn to speak the language to do research. In Catholic Church records for example, you will find the same phrases repeated over and over again. In my opinion, you will have much more difficulty reading the handwriting than you will in translating the language. Fortunately, because of our common European heritage in the Latin language, there are a lot of helpful online resources for translating enough Latin to do research. You can always use Google Translate to go from Latin to English (or any other of its 60+ languages) or English to Latin.

Here are a few websites I would suggest for basic reference on the Latin language.

If you would like a book on the subject, there are lots of Latin textbooks. You can probably find one, as I have, in a used bookstore or online on Here are a few for starters:

Coles, Elisha. Syncrisis, Or, The Most Natural and Easie Method of Learning Latin by Comparing It with English Together with The Holy History of Scripture-War, Or, The Sacred Art, Militarie: Illustrated in Fourteen Copper-Plates, with the Rude Translation Opposite for the Exercise of Those That Begin to Make Latin. London: Printed by H.L. for Tho. Dram ... and Tho. Lacey ..., 1675.

Foster, J. C. B, and D. F Kennedy. Learning Latin: An Introductory Course for Adults. Liverpool: Cairns, 1986.

Hanlin, Jayne I, and Beverly E Lichtenstein. Learning Latin through Mythology. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Harwood, Natalie. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Latin. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2006.

Hunt, Tony. Teaching and Learning Latin in Thirteenth-Century England. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 1991.

Maltby, Robert, and Kenneth Belcher. Wiley’s Real Latin Learning Latin from the Source. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

Prior, Richard E. The Everything Learning Latin Book: Read and Write This Classical Language and Apply It to Modern English Grammer, Usage, and Vocabulary. Avon, Mass.: Adams Media Corp., 2003.


  1. The Tiber River is not on the Iberian Peninsula!

    1. Correct, so much for sources. I should have been thinking rather than writing.