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Most records used in English research are in English. They may, however, be difficult to read because of the use of Latin words or different handwriting styles or because of changes in the spelling or meaning of words.

Palaeography

Handwriting styles have changed over time. In early records the handwriting is quite different from what it is today. You may want to study some of the sources available for help in reading the old handwriting.

    • Before 1900 spelling was not standardized.
    • Family and place-names were often spelled as they sounded.
    • Given names were often abbreviated.
    • The meanings of many English words changed over time.

To find how words were used at different times, use:

Murray, Sir James A. H., ed. Oxford English Dictionary. 13 Volumes. plus supplements. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1933. (FHL book 423 M964o.)

Milward, Rosemary. A Glossary of Household, Farming, and Trade Terms from Sixteenth Century Probate Inventories. Third Edition. Chesterfield, England: Derby Record Society, 1986. (FHL book 942.51 H25deo No. 1.)

Handwriting Aids

The following resources may help you learn to read old records.

Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500-1800 A practical online tutorial.

Gardner, David E., and Frank Smith. Genealogical Research in England and Wales. Volume 3. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Bookcraft Publishers, 1956–64. (FHL book 929.142 G172g.) Volume three contains a list of Latin words and names and handwriting samples.

McLaughlin, Eve. Reading Old Handwriting. Second Edition. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Limited, 1987. (FHL book 417.7 M222.) This is a basic explanation of techniques for reading old handwriting.

Petti, Anthony G. English Literary Hands from Chaucer to Dryden. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977. (FHL 942 G3p.) This book gives a background and explanation of handwriting with samples from records.

Language Aids

Until 1733 many records were kept in Latin. Sometimes records written in English contain some Latin words. Knowing some Latin will help you read these records. For help with Latin words, see the Latin Genealogical Word List.

In-depth guides for learning Latin, prepared by experts at The National Archives, England

Beginners' Latin: Latin 1086-1733: a practical online tutorial for beginners

Advanced Latin  A step-by-step online tutorial with twelve lessons.

Books

Ainsworth, Robert. Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendiarius. London, England: F. Westly and A.H. Davis, 1836. (FHL book 473 Ai65a 1836; film 599788.) This is a Latin dictionary. Most libraries have similar works.


 

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