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Most materials used in French research are written in French. However, you do not need to speak or read French to do research in French records. You merely need to know some key numbers, words, and phrases to understand the records.
Infrequently you may find other languages in French records. These include Latin, German, Italian, and Breton. Latin is sometimes found in Roman Catholic parish registers, but it is unusual to find it in baptism, marriage, and burial records, except in Alsace-Lorraine. German is also frequently found in records from Alsace-Lorraine. Records from Corse, especially before 1768, may be in Italian. Some records from Savoie and Nice are in Italian, especially before 1792 and from 1815-1859. Breton is spoken in Bretagne but is only rarely found in records useful to family historians.
French grammar and customs may affect the way names appear in genealogical records. For example, the names of your ancestor may vary from record to record in French. For help in understanding name variations, see the "Names, Personal" section.
The Family History Library has genealogical word lists for French, German, and Latin. The French Word list is found below at the end of this section and contains French words of value in genealogical research translated into English.
The Family History Library's separate Germany Research Topics includes an example of the German (Gothic) alphabet in print and handwriting.
The following books and English-French dictionaries can also help you in your research. You can find these and similar material at many research libraries.
French records extraction. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, [198-?]. (FHL book 944 D27f; fiche 6068523.) Text in English. Shows examples of French civil and parish records, translations of common words found in them, personal name lists, and handwriting examples.
New Cassell's French dictionary: French-English, English-French. New York, NY, USA: Funk & Wagnalls, 1970. (FHL book 443.21 C272; not on microfilm.)
Additional language aids (including dictionaries of various dialects and time periods) are listed in the Family History Library Catalog in the Place search under FRANCE - LANGUAGE AND LANGUAGES or in the Subject search under FRENCH LANGUAGE - DICTIONARIES.
French Word List
This list contains French words with their English translations. The words included here are those you are likely to find in genealogical sources. If the word you are looking for is not on this list, please consult a French-English dictionary. (See the "Additional Resources" section below.)
The French language is a Romance language derived from Latin. Although English is a Germanic language, it has many words of Latin and French derivation. Thus, many French words are similar to words in English but often have different meanings.
French is spoken in France; Quebec and other areas of Canada; Luxembourg; southern Belgium; southwestern Switzerland; northern and central Africa; some islands in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Caribbean Sea; southeast Asia; and other areas formerly colonized or influenced by the French.
Between about 1800 and 1812, French was also used in records of the Rhineland area of Germany, northern Belgium, and the Netherlands. In addition, French is found in some early records of Louisiana and a few other places in the United States. Since about 1680, the grammar, if not the spelling, of official written French has been fairly well standardized throughout the world, even though there are many different forms of spoken French.
French words for persons, places, and things (nouns) are classified as masculine or feminine. Generally, adjectives used to describe feminine words end with e.
Le (masculine form of the) is used with masculine words. La (feminine form of the) is used with feminine words. But l’ is used with either if the word begins with a vowel. For example, the word enfant means child or infant, either masculine or feminine. But l’enfant est né (the child is born) is used with a male child, and l’enfant est née with a female child.
Variant Forms of Words
In French, as in English, the forms of some words will vary according to how they are used in a sentence. Who—whose—whom or marry—marries— married are examples of words in English with variant forms. This word list gives the standard form of each French word. As you read French records, you will need to be aware that some words vary with usage.
Plural forms of French words are usually created by adding s or x to the singular word. Thus frère becomes frères, and beau becomes beaux. The plural of beau-frère (brother-in-law) is beaux-frères (brothers-in-law).
In French there are five diacritical (accent) marks. These are placed over vowels or under the letter c to indicate a change in pronunciation. The following diacritical marks are used in French: à, â, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, ö, û, ù and ç. The ç is pronounced as an s. These diacritical marks do not affect alphabetical order.
Spelling rules were not fixed in earlier centuries. In French the following spelling variations are common:
- bv used for v février spelled febvrier
- c used for ss aussi spelled auci
- ct used for t faites spelled faictes
- es used for é témoins spelled tesmoins
- I used for j jour spelled iour
- o used for ou tournier spelled tornier
- os used for ô nôtre spelled nostre
- sç used for s savoir spelled sçavoir
- t used for tt cette spelled cete
- y used for i hier spelled hyer
- y used for ill filleul spelled fyeul
- z used for s baptisé spelled baptizé
This word list includes only words most commonly found in genealogical sources. For further help, consult a French-English dictionary. You can obtain a French-English dictionary at most public libraries and through many bookstores.
Several French-English dictionaries are available at the Family History Library. These are in the European collection. Their call numbers begin with 443.21.
The following dictionary is available on microfilm for use in Family History Centers:
A. Spiers. The Standard Pronouncing Dictionary of the French and English Languages. New York, NY, USA: Appleton, 1900. (FHL book 443.21 Sp44s, film 1181694 item 4.)
Additional dictionaries are listed in the Subject search of the Family History Library Catalog under FRENCH LANGUAGE—DICTIONARIES.
A helpful guide for reading genealogical records written in French is:
French Records Extraction. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d. (FHLfiche 6068523.) In addition to being a glossary of names and genealogical words, this guide includes examples of French documents and instructions in reading the handwriting.
To find and use specific types of French records, you will need to know some key words in French. This section gives key genealogical terms in English and the French words with the same or similar meanings.
For example, in the first column you will find the English word marriage. In the second column you will find French words with meanings such as marry, marriage, wedding, wedlock, unite, legitimate, joined, and other words used in French records to indicate marriage.
|birth||naissance, né, née|
|'burial||'sépulture, enterrement, enterré, inhumé, enseveli, funèbre|
|civil registry||registres de l’état civil, mairie, maison communale, hôtel deville|
|death||décès, mort, expiré, inanimé, défunt|
|husband||mari, époux, marié|
|Jewish||juif, juive, israélite, hébreu|
|marriage||mariage, alliance, unir, épouser|
|name, given||prénom, nom de baptême|
|name, surname||nom, nom de famille|
|parents||parents, père et mère|
|parish||paroisse, paroissiaux, paroissiale|
|Protestant||protestant, réformé, huguenot, R.P.R., luthérien, calviniste|
|town, village||ville, village, hameau, commune|
|wife||femme, épouse, mariée|
|year||an, année, annuel|