Showing posts with label foreign words. Show all posts
Showing posts with label foreign words. Show all posts

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Single Best Technique for Reading Old Genealogy Records: Immersion

You may have started dabbling in genealogy years ago or months ago. Think back to the first documents you found for your family. What was the toughest hurdle for you?

For most people, it's the handwriting—and for some of us, the handwriting in a foreign language.

Do not let that slow you down! Every day I see people requesting document translations in Facebook genealogy groups. And there are always people ready to jump in to help. I'm one of them.

But we don't type out the translation because we're fluent in the other language. Or because we were raised to read and write in an old-fashioned style.

No. We can read and understand these birth, marriage and death records, census forms, ship manifests and more because we swim in them every day.

I've written articles about understanding foreign-language documents before. You'll find them at the bottom of this article. Much like "The Blues Brothers", I'm "on a mission from God." My mission: To throw you into the old-fashioned and foreign handwriting water and show you that you can swim!

Ten years ago this document was a ball of confusion. No it's all painfully obvious to me.
Ten years ago this document was a ball of confusion. No it's all painfully obvious to me.

A few days ago I realized the power of the immersion technique. I was hunting through some very old email I'd saved, trying to find the source document for some people in my tree. In a 10-year-old email, I found an 1886 parish marriage document for someone with my maiden name.

My reply to the email surprised me. I asked my friend, "Why are there so many names on this document? What does it all mean? Who are they all?"

As I look at the document now, it's perfectly obvious who they all are. They are the groom and his parents, the bride and her parents, and the witnesses.

Why was I confused by that? The answer is simple. Ten years ago I hadn't seen any 19th-century Italian marriage documents. Now I've viewed and transcribed thousands of them.

Familiarity is the main thing you need. You do not need to know the translation for each word on the page. You need to know the key words for things like:
  • born
  • died
  • son/daughter
  • husband/wife/widow
  • dates/numbers
Below are 4 articles with links to resources for helping you understand those old documents.

The single best technique for reading old genealogy documents is to expose yourself to lots and lots of them. Looking for your 2nd great grandmother's birth record? Look at the other documents before and after hers. Use them to help you figure out that one word or letter you cannot decipher.

You'll also see for yourself which names are common in the town. After you see it written 10 times, that difficult last name becomes so easy to pick out.

The obstacle of foreign languages and old-fashioned handwriting will disappear.

Use the tools available to you. Spend time looking closely at similar documents. Familiarity is your best teacher. You can do this!


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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

You Can Read Foreign-Language Genealogy Records

"I don't understand the language" is not an excuse. You can find the facts you need on a foreign-language vital record.

The reason why you can is the format. Official records from your ancestor's town are usually written on a pre-printed form, or in a standard style. In most cases, it isn't hard to find the keywords: born, died, father, daughter, the twenty-third of May 1859. Find these words and you'll find the facts you need for your family tree.

Understand the Form or Format

As usual, I'm going to focus on Italian documents. That's where all my non-English document experience is.

Here are two examples of the basic formats you may find.

Annotated Italian-language vital record

On this 1813 birth record (download a larger version), the handwriting is easier to read than the pre-printed words. The basic format includes:
  • Document number
  • Date
  • Town official's name and town name
  • Keyword: comparso. Look for the word comparso (appeared). It's followed by the name of the person reporting this event. Let's call them the declarant because they are declaring a baby was born. On a birth record, the declarant is usually the father of the new baby, but it may be the midwife or a close relative. You should see their age (di anni), profession (professione), and where they live (domiciliato).
  • On this document, the next section is a paragraph that follows a format. It says on this day of this month at this time in the home of the declarant was born a baby to him and his legitimate wife. The sentence may include the baby's mother's name, age and profession. The sex of the baby is written as masculine (maschio) or feminine (feminina).
  • The name given to the baby
  • The names, ages and professions of two witnesses who are familiar with this family
  • Signatures (or a mark, if a person is illiterate), including that of the mayor.
My takeaways from this birth record? Antonio Iamarino was born on 3 April 1813 to Giorgio Iamarino, a 21-year-old farmer, and his wife Pietronilla Cocca, age 20. They lived on Strada li Tufi in my grandfather's town of Colle. One of the witnesses has the same last name as the baby's mother. He may be a relative.

Here's a harder type of record. It may look intimidating, but when you know what to look for, it isn't so scary.

A standardized but formless Italian document.

This document, written in 1820, was part of a set of marriage documents (download a larger version). It says that on 15 March 1810 Maria Viola died. She was the daughter of Gregorio and Angela Caporaso. She was the wife of the late Pietro Iamarino and 60 years old.

On a free-form document like this, start with dates. Then look at names and words for birth, death, baptism and relationships.

The key to breaking into this document is the word marzo (March) in the fourth line. The sentence begins, "A quindici marzo mille otto cento e dieci". If you study the numbers a little for the language you need, you'll recognize this as a date. It says "On 15 March 1810".

Immediately after the date is a name, Maria Viola. Then there's another keyword: figlia, meaning daughter. So the next names are her parents. Then we see moglie, meaning wife. So Maria was the wife of the next name, Pietro Iamarino who has died previously (the word fu tells us this).

Unless you're viewing a document with no idea where it came from, you have some context to help you. If you found this document, you'd know it's related to Francesco Saverio Iamarino whose parents were Pietro Iamarino and Maria Viola. The context will help you understand the document.

Locate the Keywords and the General Words

There is probably no better genealogical language resource than FamilySearch.org. You need an account to use this website, but it is free to join. The following pages offer the keywords for vital records and their English translation.
The pages above also offer the words for days, months, numbers and general words found on genealogy records. Get familiar with the language you need. It'll help you understand even more of the document. And when you're stuck on a word, try Google Translate. It may help you make sense of things.

Also check the language pages for other links to help you with handwriting, explain naming patterns in certain cultures and more.

Note: Bad handwriting or a low-quality image is a tougher challenge, but not impossible. Compare the difficult word to other words and letters on the document. If you think one letter in your problem word is a capital T, for example, compare it to another capital T in a word that is clearer to you.

I've read thousands of Italian vital records. I learned the Italian keywords quickly. I got used to the old-fashioned handwriting. Most of the time the important facts are ridiculously easy for me to understand.

You can do this! Get familiar with the important words. Find them in your document. Make sense of the facts.

Do not let your ancestor's language—the one you never learned—stop you from building your family tree.


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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

How to Build a Broad Family Tree and Unite Strangers

Results of Following Genealogy Best Practices, Part 1

A year and a half ago I didn't know I had a genealogy philosophy. That after years of working on my family tree, I'd developed sure-fire methods I rely upon. When I realized how crucial these methods are to my family tree, I decided to blog about it.

Now I'm putting my own philosophy to the test. Today let's take a look at one method I write about a lot.

Collect All the Documents

Documenting a whole town uncovers hidden relationships.
A tiny sampling of the Leone's
from my grandfather's hometown.
I believe in examining every available vital record from your ancestor's town. The benefits of this method are unbeatable.

First you'll need to find out if records from your ancestral hometown are available. They may be on FamilySearch.org or you may need to visit the collection in person. If you're Italian like me, you may find your town's documents on the Antenati website.

You may find the language and handwriting tough on documents from a different country. That problem can almost entirely disappear as you go through many, many documents.

Several years ago I set out to gather information from every vital record from my grandfather's hometown of Baselice, Italy. I visited my local Family History Center countless times to scroll through the microfilmed documents from 1809 through 1860.

I realized the only way to know who my relatives were was to document everyone.

It took me years! I sat there with a computer in my lap and typed the information I saw. I developed an efficient shorthand so I could go home with my text file and record everyone in Family Tree Maker. The result: a town-wide tree of almost 16,000 people, more than 10,000 of which had a connection to me by blood or marriage. (See Families of Baselice.)

You see, in the 1800s, people couldn't travel as easily as we do today. They married someone in town. The same families intermarried a number of times. Everyone was related!

I began posting my enormous town tree on several websites. To this day, people with roots in that town are contacting me and adding 4 or 5 generations to their own family trees.

Here's how going through an entire town's records can help you:

Name recognition

In small towns, or city neighborhoods, you'll see a lot of the same names repeated. You wouldn't believe how fast I got at typing names like Mariantonia, Michelarcangelo, Lapastoressa and Gianquitto because of the repetition.

But speed isn't the benefit. It's knowing the town's names so well that you can read them no matter how bad the handwriting or how damaged the document.

Language comprehension

I see lots of people on Facebook asking others to interpret old records because they don't understand Italian. They don't know yet that you don't have to speak the language to understand the names, dates and facts on a vital record.

The more foreign-language records you view, the more that language becomes second nature. You'll learn the words for born, married, died, spouse, all the numbers and months of the year. And you'll know where on the document to look for them.

Scope of relationships

When I started looking at Baselice records, I was searching for anyone named Leone. Right away I realized I couldn't tell how any of them were related to me unless I spread out. I had to find other children born to the couple I learned was my great grandfather's parents. Then I had to see who those other children married. And then I went back more generations.

It was documenting everyone that gained me 10,000 relatives. And that's why my tree continues to find delighted Baselice descendants to this day.

Today I can download those Italian records to my computer. The clarity blows those ancient microfilm projectors out of the water. So I am doing for my other ancestors' towns what I did for Baselice. In one weekend I added 4 generations to my cousin's tree. It was amazingly easy.

So I will continue to recommend you don't stay on the straight and narrow path of your direct-line ancestors. Your family tree has an endless amount of rich data to gain by spending time with all the documents you can find.


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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How to Handle Foreign Words in Your Family Tree

My great great grandfather was a domenstico, or servant.
I record occupations in my ancestor's language.
Years ago I dove headfirst into transcribing Italian vital records for my family tree. I visited a Family History Center, viewed the microfilm, and typed into my laptop. I memorized the Italian words for numbers, months and family members.

When a document included a person's occupation, I typed the Italian word and kept going. I didn't translate the words on the spot, but later I created a file of Italian occupations and their English definitions.

It's so helpful to make a translation list for yourself.
My Italian occupations cheat-sheet.
The translation file helped me memorize many words, but I entered only the Italian occupation in my family tree. I felt it made sense for my ancestors who never left Italy.

But now I'm thinking more about my family tree as a legacy. If someone else continues my work, these Italian words may not be understood.

Wouldn't it be better to include the Italian word and its English translation? Uh oh. How can I make this sweeping change to my tree of more than 19,000 people?

Find and Replace is in the FTM Edit menu.
Hiding in plain sight.
I decided to try the Find and Replace feature in Family Tree Maker. It's in the Edit menu.

You can use find and replace to makes lots of improvements and corrections. But be careful. Think hard about unintended changes that might happen. For example, if you wanted to replace "Smith" because you found out your ancestors were actually named Smythe, what would happen to your cousin who was born in Smithtown, Long Island?

I did a test changing "calzolaio" to "calzolaio (shoemaker)". I checked the boxes to find whole words only and look only in facts and notes. Then I clicked Replace All.

It was a success.

My Find and Replace changed 180 entries.
Click once, fix 180 entries. Not bad!
Now I can work through the most common Italian occupations in my family tree. Then I'll look at some other facts I wish I'd recorded differently. For example, long ago I recorded every immigration fact the same way, beginning with the words, "Arrived aboard the..." followed by the ship name. Later I changed where I put the ship name. Maybe I can use find and replace to bring more uniformity to my facts.

The finished product: My ancestor's job in Italian and English.
It's more useful with the English translation.
The lion's share of the people in my family tree were born and died in Italy. I believe in preserving some of their facts in Italian. Aside from occupations, I record the Italian names of the churches where they married. Chiesa di San Leonardo Abate and Chiesa di San Giorgio Martire.

Think about two things:
  • Which original-language facts do you want to preserve?
  • How can you prevent that foreign-language information from losing its meaning?
Does your family tree software have a find and replace feature?


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