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

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Genealogy and Language

Genealogy is a multi-discipline interest and as such, it not only has its own jargon, but must adapt to the jargon from many other areas of interest. Jargon is defined as particular words or expressions used by a identifiable profession or group. Usually, the jargon terms are specialized and difficult for "outsiders" to understand. Often, those within the group or profession are unaware that they are using jargon when talking to those who are not part of the group.

At times, jargons are so impenetrable as to be classified as separate languages altogether technically, they should be referred to as an "argot."  The term "argot" is sometimes restricted to languages that develop independently of the main societal culture and are often spoken by those who operate outside of the laws of that culture. The classification of these types of language usage are defined by broad categories that include alternative expressions, called slang,  specialized expressions referred to as jargon, colloquialisms that are identified with a geographic region, vulgarities and argots that seem to be completely different languages.

These linguistic forms arise spontaneously and are sometimes used to exclude anyone who is not part of the group or organization. Over time, as these regionalisms and specialized languages continue to develop, if the communities as sufficiently isolated, a new "language" can develop. Classification of languages as dialects or full-blown languages is very arbitrary and linguists are constantly arguing about and re-aligning and re-classifying languages and their dialectic subdivisions.

Genealogists get all this both coming and going. Not only do we have our own specialized language, we also have to deal with records that reflect a huge variety of languages and patterns of language over a rather long time scale. For example, when I use a simple expression, such as "family group record," I may be speaking to someone who has no concept of what that is or what it implies. There is a specialized area of the general study of linguistics that concentrates on these types of language usage called "sociolinguistics." (See, another jargon word).

Here are some of the challenges genealogists face when dealing with genealogically specialized language situations:
  • Specialized words and terminology within the genealogical community
  • Specialized terms associated with the collection and preservation of records
  • Library terminology (jargon). 
  • Terminology that has changed over time and some of which is obsolete
  • The natural tendency for languages to change over time. 
You might be surprised at how difficult it would be for you to converse with one of your ancestors who lived only 100 years or so ago. The issue of language change becomes much more apparent as you move back more than two hundred years until, in the 1600s and before, you might think you were reading and listening to a new language. For questions about the English language, you might want to refer to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Here is a citation to one of the more recent editions:

Weiner, E. S. C, and J. A Simpson, Oxford University Press. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford; Oxford; Oxford University Press: Clarendon Press ; Melbourne ;, 2004. 20 vols.

When I was a lot younger, I used to be fascinated by the huge OED on a special stand in some of the libraries. As genealogists, we need to remember that the OED is out there to resolve many of the conundrums caused by our linguistic heritage. You may wish to review this article about the history of the English language: Middle English - an overview. There is also a much shorter Third Edition of the OED:

Little, William, C. T Onions, Henry Watson Fowler, Jessie Coulson, and George Washington Salisbury Friedrichsen. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

The English language is usually classified into three main divisions: Old English before 1100 AD, Middle English from 1100 AD to 1500 AD, and Modern English since 1500. As I mentioned, these divisions are somewhat arbitrary and pushing your genealogy back into the 1600s can be a real linguistic challenge. If it is any comfort, every spoken language faces the same challenges.

An additional challenge in European, Catholic-dominated countries is the use of Latin for most documents. Depending on the context, there may also be a mixture of the local language and Latin. If you are tempted to sail off into the seas of Latin, here is a place to start:

Gosden, David. Starting to Read Medieval Latin Manuscript: An Introduction for Students of Medieval History and Genealogists Who Wish to Venture into Latin Texts. Lampter, Dyfed: Llanerch, 1993.

This is one area of genealogy, languages both old and new, that is sadly ignored by many researchers. In the "old days" we had convenient list of genealogically related terms in many languages. These lists still exist, but many researchers are unaware of their existence or use Google Translate as a substitute. Here is a smattering of books on various linguistic subjects that might be of interest to you if you are really determined to research into non-English languages or old records before 1600.

Abbreviations of Christian Names and Latin Words and Their Translation in English and German, 1947.
Andrews, Tara L, and Caroline Macé, eds. Analysis of Ancient and Medieval Texts and Manuscripts: Digital Approaches, 2014.
Augustan Society. “Spanish Genealogical Helper.” Spanish Genealogical Helper.
Bailey, Kent P, and Ransom B True, Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. A Guide to Seventeenth-Century Virginia Court Handwriting. [Richmond]: Virginia Genealogical Society, 2001.
Briggs, Elizabeth, and Boyd Speer, Manitoba Genealogical Society. Handbook for Reading & Interpreting Old Documents: With Examples from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. Winnipeg: Manitoba Genealogical Society, 1992.
Buck, W. S. B, Society of Genealogists (Great Britain). Examples of Handwriting, 1550-1650. London: Society of Genealogists, 2005.
Chambers, Paul. Early Modern Genealogy: Researching Your Family History 1600-1838. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2006.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Genealogical Department. Basic Portuguese Paleography. Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.: The Department, 1978.
———. Danish-Norwegian Paleography. Salt Lake City: Genealogical Dept. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978.
Clifford, Karen. Digging Deeper: Using Essential Pre-1850 Records : An Intermediate Genealogy Guidebook, 2011.
Cornwall (England : County) and County Record Office. How to Read English/Cornish Documents. [Truro]: [Cornwall County Record Office].
Danish Research Information. S.l.: s.n.]., ///.
Dearden, Fay S. Deciphering Gothic Records: Useful Hints for Helping You Read “Old German” Script. Scottsdale, AZ: Family Tree Press, 1996.
Durie, Bruce. Understanding Documents for Genealogy & Local History. Stroud, Gloucestershire: History Press, 2013.
Durning, William P, and Mary Durning. A Guide to Irish Roots: Collected from Oral Tradition and Ancient Records during Visits to Ireland, Other Parts of Europe, and North America. La Mesa, Calif.: Irish Family Names Society, 1986.
Eakle, Arlene H. European Ancestors: A Handbook of Alphabets, Maps, Naming Patterns. [Salt Lake City]: Family History World, 1988.
———. European Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Family History World, 1996.
Earnest, Corinne P, and Beverly Repass Hoch. The Genealogist’s Guide to Fraktur: For Genealogists Researching German-American Families. Albuquerque, N.M.: R.D. Earnest Associates : B.R. Hoch, 1990.
Evans, Barbara Jean. A to ZAX: A Glossary of Terminology for Genealogists and Social Historians. Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphic, 1978.
FitzHugh, Terrick V. H, and Susan Lumas, Society of Genealogists (Great Britain). The Dictionary of Genealogy. London: A & C Black, 1994.
Gardner, David E, and Frank Smith. Old English Handwriting, Latin, Research Standards and Procedures. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966.
Genealogical Institute (Salt Lake City, Utah). How to Read Old Documents. Tremonton, UT: Genealogical Institute, 1999.
Gosden, David. Starting to Read Medieval Latin Manuscript: An Introduction for Students of Medieval History and Genealogists Who Wish to Venture into Latin Texts. Lampter, Dyfed: Llanerch, 1993.
Grieve, Hilda E. P. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750: With Transcripts and Translations. [Essex, Eng.]: Essex Education Committee, 1954.
Howell, Martha C, and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Interactive Album of Mediaeval Palaeography Collection of Transcription Exercises on Medieval Documents. Lyon: [Université Lyon].
Kirkham, E. Kay. How to Read the Handwriting and Records of Early America. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965.
Minert, Roger P. Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Historical Manuscripts, 2013.
———. Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany. Woods Cross, Utah: GRT Publications, 2001.
O’Laughlin, Michael C. Special Report: The Genealogists Guide to the Various Spellings of Irish Names Including Old Irish, English, Scots, Welsh, Huguenot, and Other Settler Names in Ireland; Master Lists of 20,000 Irish Surname Spellings and 3,000 Variant Spelling Groups from the Archives of the Irish Genealogical Foundation/ by Michael C. O’Laughlin. Kansas City, MO ; Irish Genealogical Foundation; c2002, 2002.
Pine, L. G. Genealogist’s Encyclopedia. New York: Collier Books - Macmillan Pub. Co., 1977.
Platt, Lyman De. Genealogical Historical Guide to Latin America. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978.
Reading Languages Transliterated into Hebrew. [Hobart, Ind.]: Repeat Performance, 2003.
Shea, Jonathan D, and William F Hoffman. In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents. New Britain, CT: Language & Lineage Press, 2000.
Smith, Kenneth L. German Church Books: Beyond the Basics. Rockport, Me.: Picton Press, 1999.
Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1998.
———. Reading Early American Handwriting. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1998.
Storrer, Norman J, and Larry O Jensen. A Genealogical and Demographic Handbook of German Handwriting, 17th-19th Centuries. Pleasant Grove, Utah: Storrer, 1977.
Stryker-Rodda, Harriet. Understanding Colonial Handwriting. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1986.
Stuart, Denis. Manorial Records an Introduction to Their Transcription and Translation. Chichester: Phillimore, 2004.
Thoyts, Emma Elizabeth. How to Read Old Documents. London: Phillimore, 1980.


  1. James, what a sound and useful post. Abbreviations (say, "GPS") also need to be included in the group, particularly when used in titles. For some time I was stymied by "POE" in the title of a widely-cited article until I actually could find the text and learn that it stood for "Preponderance of the Evidence," not something that any beginner would ever guess on their own.

  2. Good subject, James, but you haven't mentioned computers and software. One of the biggest modern challenges is sharing and understanding the terms and concepts of genealogy/history/archives/etc with those of computer/software technology. Whereas legal-speak is impenetrable to most of us (smiley), it is well-established when compared to the equally-perplexing but continually-evolving terms and concepts involved in computer and software technologies. As new technologies are developed, and existing technologies applied to ever-more application areas (e.g. genealogy), then the terms and concepts grow in an unrestrained manner. This was one of the guiding thoughts when FHISO produced its "lexicon" -- a snapshot of which can be found at

    1. Of course, I could just keep writing forever. I usually write until I run out of time. Some topics require quite a bit of research. Thanks for the comment.