Showing posts with label genealogical terms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genealogical terms. Show all posts

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 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.

Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

How to Build a Professional-Quality Family Tree

I began writing this blog to encourage other genealogy hobbyists to take their family trees to a new level. My first several articles focus on the basics of a reliable, valuable family tree:
  1. Gather multiple pieces of evidence for each fact. People make mistakes. It could be the census taker or the person providing information for someone's death certificate. Because of human error, one piece of evidence does not make proof.
  2. Cite your sources. It's critical to be able to retrace your research steps. If you cite your source for a fact as the 1930 U.S. Federal Census, give the location right down to the sheet number, and provide a link to where you found it online, it's reproducible. If it's reproducible, it's more reliable.
  3. Analyze your facts for discrepancies. My family tree has many people with the exact same name. I found a situation where I gave the same birth date to two different men with the same name. I needed more investigation to fix the error.
  4. Ensure you're recording facts for the right person or people. For example, are you sure the census form you're looking at is for the specific family you think it is?
  5. Research historical events as they pertain to your ancestor. One of my ancestor's hometown changed its name after World War II. If I hadn't discovered that, I wouldn't have been able to visit the town years ago. And I wouldn't be able to find the town's vital records today.

It all boils down to this: You've got to do the legwork. Do not trust information that falls into your lap. Use someone else's tree, for example, as a series of leads for you to investigate.
The New York City Municipal Archives at 31 Chambers Street in downtown Manhattan. It's the Taj Mahal of research for New York City families.

How Professional Genealogists Work

Professional genealogists follow a standard of proof to deliver accurate research to their customers. Maybe you've seen references to the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Let's look at how the five elements of this standard can improve your family tree research.
  1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive research. This goes back to my first point above of gathering multiple pieces of evidence. It also involves conducting searches that may not yield any results. For example, let's say you expected to find a family at a particular address in the 1930 census, but they're not there. To be thorough, you may need to go through every page in that census. If you still haven't found them, you may need to check out the surrounding enumeration districts.
  2. Maintain complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each piece of information. This was my second point above. You want to make your steps retraceable and show the quality of the sources. For example, the 1930 U.S. Census seems more reliable than "my cousin's father". Citing your sources can also show how many sources you've used. Several excellent sources make a fact very reliable.
  3. Test your information. This relates to my third point above about analyzing your family tree for discrepancies. If you find an error, you may need to test the validity of one of your sources.
  4. Resolution of conflicts among evidence items. This would be the logical conclusion to your analysis of discrepancies. When you resolve a discrepancy, make a note about the steps you took, and why you made your decision.
  5. A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion. When you resolve a discrepancy or find something in your tree that you don't have a lot of confidence in, make notes. I like to flag questionable facts in my family tree by adding a bookmark (a feature in Family Tree Maker) and a note. This alerts me to facts with a lower level of confidence so I can treat them with the proper amount of faith.
You may not have the funds to hire a professional genealogist. You may prefer to do the work yourself because the hunt is what makes it so enjoyable.

But if you can adopt these practices, you can have a professional-quality family tree.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Before Grandpa Came Here, How Did He Get There?

In my last post I spoke about how diverse my DNA results are despite having roots only in Italy going back at least to the 1600s. I've also written about why our ancestors may have left their homeland.

Today I found a wonderful Map of Human Migration, courtesy of the National Geographic Society. It supports several other sources I've read about how Italy (and Europe) was long ago populated by people from the Middle East—an area National Geographic refers to as the Fertile Crescent.

Map of Human Migration

It's a useful map for so many ethnicities, and if you choose your ancient ancestors' most likely route (I chose the one pointing to Italy), it also tells you your probable haplogroups. Particular similarities in DNA strands can be inherited together, meaning that they can be passed down generation after generation. Ethnic groups can retain this DNA similarity for so long that you may have markers in common with people who are native to a particular region today.

The National Geographic site tells me that the Middle East to Europe migration path may indicate the following haplogroups: H, J, K, N, T, W, G, E. The Family Tree DNA site provides detailed explanations of each haplogroup. The letters above point to Europe and pan-Eurasia, but G and E are not defined on this page.

Be sure to explore the Map of Human Migration and see who populated your ancestor's homeland.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What Language Barrier?

I've spent countless hours harvesting information from old Italian vital records. It was a little intimidating at first, but once I became comfortable with the most important genealogical words—and completely memorized my numbers—I stopped seeing these documents as being written in a foreign language. To me they are fairly straightforward documents filled with highly valuable data.

1804 Italian death record. No big thang.

You can achieve this familiarity with foreign languages, too. You can learn the key words you need to identify in a foreign document. And once you look at enough documents to get comfortable with the strange, archaic handwriting, you will be fine.

Here are several free wiki entries from to help you get accustomed to genealogical words in the language of your ancestors:

Find more languages by clicking the map on this FamilySearch page:

There is much more country-specific information available in the wiki, so if you don't see the language you want here, or if you need to understand how vital records work in another part of the world, start at the world map. My list above is very European focused because I did not find language help for African, Middle Eastern or East Asian countries. But there is plenty of critical information available about how records are kept, marriage practices, and more. Take advantage of it!