by Carolyn L. Barkley
I attended junior and senior high school in the 1960s, a decade in which Latin was an accepted part of the curriculum. (Is it even offered any more?) I took Latin for three years and can still remember selected sentences of Julius Caesar – selected because my rather predictable teacher went up and down the rows with each student translating, in turn, a sentence in the text. This practice allowed me to count heads and sentences and concentrate on the translation of “my” sentence without paying any attention to those that preceded it. Definitely not a good way to learn, but it did get me through those translation exercises with a minimum of stress. My Latin experiences, however, made the years of Spanish that followed seem easy by comparison, and even later, provided me with a facility to decipher crossword puzzle clues. More importantly, however, my (now somewhat diminishing) Latin vocabulary knowledge also prepared me for genealogical research.
Many individuals are doing modern-era research with limited forays into medieval documents. Knowledge of Latin, however, is important in reading accurately many legal documents. I am reminded of the story about an individual who, when completing a pedigree chart, entered the mother’s name as “Uxor,” not realizing that the James et uxor statement in the will meant James and wife! The example speaks for itself.
There are many resources available to genealogical researchers who want to learn basic Latin terminology to assist them with legal documents. In all likelihood, we may all be familiar with the meaning of such more common Latin phrases or words such as “anno Domini,” “pater,” and “mater.” But, were you aware that “signum fecit” means he/she made a mark or signed [a document], or that “ultimo” means of the preceding month, or that “spurious” means illegitimate? Cyndi’s List provides links to several useful sites with lists of Latin terms with genealogical applications, including GenProxy Internet Services for Genealogists, Genlinks – Genealogy Help, and Genealogy Quest. If you are confused by the content included in an original document, and you believe it to be a Latin phrase or word, one of these lists may prove very helpful. To further complicate your work, the Latin word or phrase may also be abbreviated. “Etc.” and “et al.” are familiar terms, but how about “dsp” (decessit sine prole: died without issue) or “dvp” (decessit vita patris: died in the lifetime of the father)? Two helpful sites that explain Latin abbreviations are “Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Contractions in Genealogical Documents Written in Latin,” found on Steve’s Genealogy Blog, and Wikipedia’s “List of Latin Abbreviations,” although the latter offers a more general treatment (i.e., not just genealogically-related abbreviations).
If your research leads you into documents written totally in Latin (the years will differ depending on the country), several other sources will provide more in-depth assistance. A good place to start is the “Latin Genealogical Word List” found on the FamilySearch Research Wiki. In addition to the actual word list, this site also discusses basic grammar, word variations, key words, numbers, and dates and times. If you are interested in still more, check out “Beginners’ Latin,” an online tutorial for beginners offered by the National Archives (UK). This twelve-lesson practicum is described as “a beginner’s guide to the Latin used in documents [in England] between 1086 and 1733.” It requires no previous knowledge of Latin and includes translation exercises from actual documents. Another possibility is Latin 121: Latin for Genealogists offered as an online course by the BYU Independent Study Program. The fourteen-lesson course is described as “Development of a reading knowledge of simple Latin prose found in parish, notarial, and other records of interest to genealogists, family historians, and archivists; introduction to the organization, structure, and content of such records.” An additional instructional source is Denis Stuart’s Latin for Local and Family Historians. (I bought my copy (1995, Phillimore, reprinted 2000) in England several years ago, but the title is available on Amazon (History Press, 2010).) This book is quite detailed with many translation exercises (with answers in the back of the book). By the time you finish this book, you will be able to translate easily such Latin text as “Dominus ecclesie dedit prata que in parochial tenebat” (“The lord gave the lands which he held in the parish to the church”).
If you decide to forgo the joy of translating a document yourself, translation services are available. One example is The Latin Translator which charges $25.00 for 100 words (discounts available for longer documents) and offers a twenty-four-hour response time. I was amused to find that this site proclaims “Latin, the language of the Roman Empire; Latin, the noblest tongue known to man; Latin, the first word language; Latin, the language of scientific and artistic endeavour; Latin, still after two and a half thousand years, the official language of a sovereign state!” I have also found helpful books such as Peter Goldesbrough’s Formulary of Old Scots Legal Documents (Stair Society, 1985), which provides translations of the “boiler-plate” language of many different legal documents, with the original Latin on one page and the translation on the facing page. I discovered this title while researching in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and found it to be very helpful. With its help, I was able to quickly identify the unique information (name, date, place) in a document without having to translate every word myself to find this information. A similar title is John Thorley’s Documents in Medieval Latin (University of Michigan Press, 1998).
Whether you just need a quick translation of a Latin term or abbreviation that appears in the middle of your otherwise English-language document, or whether you want to be able to read and analyze documents in their original Latin, resources are available to assist you. Now, trusting in an online English to Latin translator: Spero vos mos tendo illa facundia quod amplio vestri potestas ut lego Latin tabellae. I’m also trusting that some of you will be able to read that sentence and will let me know if I’ve actually said something bizarre! Have fun!