Deciphering Latin Documents: A Guide to Reading and Understanding Historical Records

Why is reading a Latin document difficult for most individuals? While you might assume this difficulty stems from not having studied Latin in school, in reality some words may appear foreign and unfamiliar to you. On the plus side, you likely already possess enough Latin vocabulary to include some in a document. These familiar Latin terms share similarities with words from English language literature. Have you ever found yourself frustrated when reading a document because a Latin dictionary wasn’t showing words spelled the way they appear? Sometimes interpreting Latin documents can be challenging because you do not fully grasp their purpose or the words used to achieve that end goal. Sometimes the handwriting in these documents can be hard to read or you do not recognize certain abbreviated words, symbols and signs used as shorthand for commonly spoken terms or phrases.

These difficulties are manageable; all it requires is some study of Latin, and following a method or process when translating documents written in Latin.

Method for Translating Latin Documents

How Can You Discover the Document’s Purpose There are a variety of ways you can determine the purpose of a document’s creation. A microfilm can provide some clues; sometimes its title target indicates what type of record was being filmed, while document listings or inventories often identify documents by title which reveal their contents. When all else fails, look for headings at the top or first line that contain words familiar from another document such as testamentum, nuptias celebraverunt/celebrarunt, baptismio confirmatorum nomina infantes etc that reveal its contents.

List Words Expected
In some instances, using an English to Latin dictionary or word list to compile a list of the expected words you expect to encounter when researching wills, marriages, christenings or deaths could prove useful – words such as son/daughter, wife, church/land property ownership details; bridegroom/bridesmaid and parents occupation residence as well as child, christening witnesses causes of death age spouse widowers are just some examples.

Read Each Line Searching for Familiar Words or Word Stems
As you find a familiar word or stem, write its common meaning above it. Sometimes you will recognize an unfamiliar ending or prefixes being added that might remind you of familiar ones: nuptias=nuptials; defunctorum=dead; cognomina=names; celebraverunt/celabrarunt=celebrated etc… If this occurs to you as you read along the text, write out whatever meaning the stem conveys while ignoring any ending or prefix that does not make sense to you based on its meaning alone.

Discovering Nouns
Now is where your Latin grammar journey starts! Identify the Nouns
In a document, nouns represent people and things you are most interested in. People named will be easy to spot – for instance Willelmus, Johannes Robertus Raymundus Maria Anna will all appear. These words indicate subjects in sentences or clauses with verbs that end in “-us, es and a”. Sometimes their ending may differ: Willelmi, Roberti Raymundi Mariae Annae These examples demonstrate how names can be modified to be in the genitive case, singular: William, John, Robert, Raymond Raymond Mary Ann etc. Additionally these endings also serve as plural forms e.g Willelmi = two Williams Other nouns may not be so readily identifiable: pater, mater, filius, filia, uxor, sponsus and vir (father, mother, son daughter wife bridegroom man/husband). When searching your dictionary, look for words with the same root–the beginning letters–such as pat, mat, fili and fili fili. Uxorus Spontarius Sponarius are examples. In general nouns appear in nominative case dictionaries like they would in sentences and clauses. Documents may show pater as patris, patrem or patri. Removing its ending results in pat-; add one or more suffixes such as an -a, -us, -er or -um followed by either –s, is or e and then consult your dictionary to look up nouns that use that spelling pattern. Normaly only one or two nouns will appear with meaning relevant to the document in front of you, with endings added to their noun stems to indicate their role within a sentence: subject, direct object, indirect object, preposition object etc.

Identification of Pronouns and Adjectives
Like nouns, pronouns appear in dictionaries in their nominative forms: I, Tu, Nos. Other forms include mei, mihi and me as alternate forms for I in English language: Of Me, To Me and Me. Pronouns such as qui, quae, or quod can be seen in their nominative cases as nouns (i.e. in nominative case). Other uses can be indicated by changing either the ending of qu–stem (quem, quam and quod as examples) or by switching qu- for cu– and adding an ending. Short words with qui- or cu- stems typically represent forms of the pronoun who. Sometimes you will come across words with an aliqu- stem – this stands for someone or something who shares similar endings to pronoun qui. Their dictionary nominative forms include aliquis. Possessive pronouns/adjectives like me/mine/your/our have Latin equivalents in nominative case: meus, mea, meum vester vestra noster nostra; their possessive forms his/hers/its are suus/ sua/ suum

Find Verbs
Your documents will most likely feature more nouns, pronouns, adjectives, articles and conjunctions than verbs; verbs can be formed by adding an ending to a verb stem which indicates person, number or tense of the verb. Most documents you read will likely use either present, past perfect or future tenses in their writing. Take the following verb as an example: celebro-are-avi-atum Dictionary entries of verbs typically display in their first person singular present tense form–I celebrate–followed by either its infinitive (“to celebrate”), perfect form (Celebrated, Celebrated), or past participle form (“celebrated”. As you research unfamiliar word stems, some will not appear as nouns but only as participle forms with the ending -tus. Others only exist as verb stems: celebro is celebr-, which allows for many ending options than can be added directly onto noun stems. When looking up verbs in a dictionary, if there is no -n- in their ending it indicates they are singular forms; all plural endings contain this letter: unt, int, ant antent and ent -ntur. When looking up words using these criteria to find verbs that best suit what you need interpreting such as documents then look through each verb with similar spelling to see which has an interpretation that fits with document you are translating or reading.

Interpret a Document
Record all the words you have interpreted, in the order they appear in the document, on paper in their current state. At first this string may make little sense; once done rearrange them until each sentence makes sense; finally read over all sentences together to see if all relate back to each other and seem relevant; adjust any meaning given incorrectly so they fit with what appears to be their purpose in life.

Reading Old Handwriting and Abbreviations
Sometimes documents can be challenging to decipher due to unclear handwriting. Here are a few hints to assist: Start with the first sentence and trace it using white paper. After tracing the words, do any letters, groups of letters, or words stand out? Create an alphabet for this document by noting down what letters were found in the first line and using that process for reading through each other line. After you have finished creating the document, it should include examples of most upper and lower case letters used within it. With this alphabet handy, go back through each line again and copy out what words the letters appear to spell before looking them up in a dictionary to complete this step of your task.

To save space and time, many scribes shortened words by leaving off endings or leaving out letters in the middle. As a warning for readers, they would usually place a line or comma above or at the end of each word to indicate how it should be read; often one or two consonants or vowels were taken out while keeping its stem intact so you could look it up in a dictionary; otherwise use its stem as a guide towards similar words from similar pages in a dictionary to see what can be found; some books were even listed as references within bibliographies to aid readers when reading abbreviations and symbols more effectively than normal!

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