If a genealogist is lucky enough to be able to trace his/her ancestors back far enough in time, he/she is likely to encounter documents written in the Latin language – the language of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the partitions in the last decades of the 18th century, church and court documents were frequently recorded in Latin and, in the Austrian Partition, the records were usually written in Latin even after the partitions.
There are several factors that make these records difficult to read, including the facts that:
- the priests or scribes who wrote the documents used Medieval Latin, not the Classical Latin usually taught in schools,
- the scribes who recorded the documents were not always fluent in Latin, and they sometimes misspelled words and made grammatical errors,
- the scribes sometimes used words and grammatical forms from their own native language, mixed in with Latin,
- the scribes frequently used abbreviations and contractions in the documents they wrote, and
- the scribes often included titles and postnomials while describing the people named in the documents and often abbreviated those titles and postnomials.
In my own research, the contractions, abbreviations, titles, and postnomials have often confounded my ability to transcribe and translate the documents I encounter.
The postnomial “C.R.L.” had me confused until I saw a document that wrote the term out in full as “Canonicus Regularis Lateranensis”, which I could translate as “Canon Regular of the Lateran” (an order of priests).
The abbreviations “N.” and “Nblius” seemed to me to be an abbreviation for “Nobilis”, meaning “Noble”, but the abbreviations “G.” and “Gnosis” had me stumped until I learned that these abbreviations stood for “Generosis”, again meaning “Noble”, albiet a Noble of higher status than one with only the title “Nobilis”.
Among the most difficult words to understand in Latin manuscripts are those that elide or suspend entire groups of letters within a word, such as the examples of Nblius and Gnosis shown above. Commonly, such contractions appear at the end of a word and they sometimes include a stroke to indicate that letters are missing.
When encountering the abbreviation “c” with what appeared to be an apostrophe above the letter, one might suspect it to be a contraction of “cum” meaning “with”, and indeed that is the case. The abbreviation “conjug- legitt-” can also easily be transcribed as “conjugum legitimorum”, meaning “lawfully married”, if one has previously seen this term written out in full.
But, many other documents, court records in particular, include an abundance of abbreviations that may be a mystery to the casual reader of Latin documents, especially when one’s Latin vocabulary is limited.
Fortunately, a growing number of online books and websites address these issues of Latin contractions and abbreviations.
In particular, Lindsay’s book on Latin contractions (Lindsay, W. M. 1908. Contractions in early Latin miniscule mss. Oxford: J. Parker.) provides a wealth of information about Latin contractions and abbreviations. This book is out of copyright and available for download for free as a PDF file from the Internet Archive.
Wikipedia has a list of Latin abbreviations, with links to other Wikipedia pages on abbreviations, including a list of classical abbreviations and a list of ecclesiatical abbreviations. The Catholic Encyclopedia also has a list of ecclesiastical abbreviations and All-Acronymns.com includes a list of Latin Acronyms and Abbreviations.
Moving beyond acronyms, abbreviations, and contractions, the Polish Roots website has tips for translating Latin documents, and includes the Latin words to describe various classes of nobles and peasants, along with their Polish equivalents. Also included are lists of the months of the year, days of the week, and abbreviations.
Finally, the FamilySearch website includes a list of Latin Genealogical Word List, providing a concise online source of the most frequently encountered Latin terms in genealogical documents.
Latin documents may be difficult to read and interpret at the best of times, but with an increasing number of online resources, the translation of documents in Latin need not be an impossible task.
Written for the Carnival of Eastern European Genealogy.
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen J. Danko