German Genealogy, Double-page from the baptismal record of the catholic St. Johann church in Sigmaringen, 1851 # 23-31

But I can’t speak German! The challenge of German Genealogy

Editor’s note: The following post on the challenge facing an English speaker deciphering his or her own German Genealogy is written by professional genealogist Ernest Thode. Mr. Thode is an author, columnist, librarian and German translator with degrees from Purdue and Stanford.

You, the family genealogist, have a dilemma. You have discovered that your ancestry is German. Those old family letters in your possession are written in some kind of hen scratching that no sane person could possibly interpret, even though you have a vague feeling that those Germans of a century or two ago may have been successfully communicating with one another. To top it off, now you have researched back to your German-speaking immigrant ancestor couple. You can’t even read the pre-printed part of that form you found in the attic that you think might be a passport, let alone the hand-written words that fill in the blanks. Why, for all you know, that passport might not be a passport at all, but a graduation certificate or a marriage license.

What do you, the designated family historian, do now? You don’t know German other than “Gesundheit” and “Auf wiedersehen.” You face a daunting task, probably an impossible task, or so it would appear to any reasonable person. Even though you have traced your English lines back to the 1600s with much satisfaction at your genealogical prowess, you are practically ready to abandon your German immigrants prior to the moment they set foot on American soil at Castle Garden in 1881 because of the language barrier.

Fortunately, there is help. Even though I had the advantage of at least knowing the German language as I did my research, I became frustrated by the many different reference books I had to look through to find explanations of the words I found in genealogical documents. I had surname books, given-name books, gazetteers for place names, German genealogical guides and word lists, Latin word lists, French word lists, lists of weights and measures, lists of diseases, and guides to the old script. With such a plethora of aids, I saw the need for a “one-stop” German-English genealogical dictionary that could be used in conjunction with a basic German-English dictionary.

For nearly a decade, I pored through records that I had translated, genealogical periodicals, passenger lists, village chronicles, and historical documents, gleaning words and definitions, exhausting numerous German genealogical word lists. Finally, I compiled a reference book that I actually still use myself (you should see the notes in my desk copy!). My reference book, the German-English Genealogical Dictionary, includes the genealogy-related words that regular dictionaries either miss or don’t define in a way that applies to genealogy. There are no etymologies, pronunciation guides, parts of speech, etc. – just pure meanings for somebody translating, literally, word by word. It is just what someone needs to make sense out of a German genealogical document.

Image credit: By baptismal record of the catholic church in Sigmaringen 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons