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

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Old Languages of Europe for Genealogists -- Introduction

"Deseret second book" by University of Deseret - The Deseret second book, University of Deseret, 1868. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
If you continue your genealogical research back in time far enough, you will inevitably reach a point where the current language begins to change to an older version. Language changes are a continuum. They proceed by slow shifts in sound patterns called linguistic drift. See the following:

Sapir, Edward. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1949.

It is important to understand that the written word is not "language." Writing, no matter the language, is nothing more or less than a representation of speech. The symbols used to represent speech are, in a real sense, arbitrary. A local Utah example is the Deseret Alphabet, reproduced in part, in the image above. The text happens to be in English and the first four words are "One of the worst habit(s)." It is very common for unsophisticated speakers of a language to confuse the written word with the spoken language. However, as languages change over time, so the writing systems which are much more conservative, also change over time. By the way, all languages are about equal in complexity. All human languages have certain things in common. These are called "language universals" and have been the subject of  a great deal of controversy among those who study languages as languages (linguists). The study of language, as language, is called linguistics. One prominent American linguist named Joseph Greenberg (1915-2001) proposed a set of linguistic universals based on a set of 30 languages. Another prominent linguist, Noam Chomsky, differed in his approach to the some of the same issues explored by Greenberg. Learning a new language means that you must adapt to the differences between your native language and the learned language. The ability of a person to learn a new, non-native, language is dependent on a complex, only partially understood, set of learned and inherent abilities.

Now, why is this pertinent to genealogy? Simple. Since languages change over time and since writing systems also evolve (at a slower pace than the spoken language) it is very apparent to the genealogical researcher that as you go back in time, there are certain things about the language in any location that you must confront and learn. In essence, as you go back in time, you must learn a new language. Fortunately, for genealogists, there is usually no reason to learn the entire language, but there are substantial portions of these old languages that require learning. So genealogical researchers have three major challenges:
  • Temporal changes in language
  • Temporal changes in writing systems
  • Temporal changes in handwriting or script
Even if we start out doing research in a single country, as we go back in time, the language, the writing system and the script will all change. Now, if that were not enough, languages also change geographically. This means that as you move across any given geographic area, you will find variations in speech patterns; words, pronunciation and phrases with change. We usually refer to these internal language variations as "dialects." Dialects can be so changed from the "standard" language, as to be unable to be understood by those from another geographic region. There is always an issue as to whether or not any particular dialect qualifies as a separate language, therefore, any statement about the number of languages spoken in the world is always subject to personal opinion and some controversy.

Today, we live in a world where the spoken word is available at the click of mouse (or the poke of a finger or whatever). Audio communication has helped to standardize speech around the world. But this is small consolation to those whose main activity is historical research. Translating languages, even old, unused ones, is another complex activity. The older the language, the greater the challenge.

Because I am writing in English, let's start with that language. If we go back in time, when does English become harder to understand? When does it change so much, that we have to consider it a different language? There are some commonly held conventions that answer these questions. There are lot of publications, both in print and online, that explain the history of the English language in detail. When I got my Masters Degree from the University of Utah, I had a minor in the History of the English Language. The basic textbook I used was the following:

Pyles, Thomas. The Origins and Development of the English Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

The nice thing about history books is that they do not go out-of-date quickly (or ever). But I will refer to a timeline of the history of the English language from the British Library called Learning Changing Language.

One important fact about English is that from 1066 A.D. and the Norman invasion, until around the mid-1400s, the ruling class of the country spoke French and thousands of French words became part of the English vocabulary. This date, 1066 A.D. becomes a convenient dividing point for the English language and usually, English is divided into three distinct periods: Old English (OE or Anglo-Saxon) from the 400s through 1066, Middle English (ME) from 1066 to the mid-1400s, and Modern English (MnE) from the late 1400s onward.

Unfortunately we do not have any actual recordings of spoken English before the 1800s, so we really don't know what it sounded like. All we have is the historical record of the people in books and manuscripts. We base our present historical view of the language on the changes in texts. But there is some degree of consensus as to the changes that occurred. Here is a sample of Old English from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - Peterborough Version written in about 1066 as reproduced by a website from Arizona State University:

An. M.LXVI. On þyssum geare man halgode þet mynster æt Westmynstre on Cyldamæsse dæg 7 se cyng Eadward forðferde on Twelfts mæsse æfen 7 hine mann bebyrgede on Twelftan mæssedæg innan þære niwa halgodre circean on Westmyntre 7 Harold eorl feng to Englalandes cynerice swa swa se cyng hit him geuðe 7 eac men hine þærto gecuron 7 wæs gebletsod to cynge on Twelftan mæssedæg 7 þa ylcan geare þe he cyng wæs he for ut mid sciphere togeanes Willelme ... 7 þa hwile com Willelm eorl upp æt Hestingan on Sce Michaeles mæssedæg 7 Harold com norðan 7 him wið gefeaht ear þan þe his here com eall 7 þær he feoll 7 his twægen gebroðra Gyrð 7 Leofwine and Willelm þis land geeode 7 com to Westmynstre 7 Ealdred arceb hine to cynge gehalgode 7 menn guldon him gyld 7 gislas sealdon 7 syððan heora land bohtan.
By the way, I can almost read this without a dictionary. Now, what you would see in a text from that time period would not be in Roman letters. It would be handwritten and likely look something like this:
"Beowulf Cotton MS Vitellius A XV f. 132r" by anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet - This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections.It is also made available on a British Library website.Catalogue entry: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, ff 94r–209vThis tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.Deutsch | English | Español | Français | Македонски | 中文 | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - 
Now I am not going to do a series on language, but I am going to write about the challenges of doing genealogical research posed by language changes, from time to time. Why am I doing this? Because there are a whole lot of people who fancy themselves genealogists who rely on copies of old pedigrees that they (the researchers) could not read in their original form! If you can't read the original, don't rely on the copy. How do you know what was originally written is correct and how do you what the copy says is correct?

There are reliable copies (transcriptions) of old documents, but do you know what is reliable and what is not? What about Proto-German, Old Norse or Old Church Slavonic, would you know what was reliable and what was not? My point is that either you seek competent help or you leave it alone. Of course, you can always bite the bullet and start learning what you need to know to do research back in these ancient times. That is always an option.

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