England Language and Languages
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.
Medieval Latin became the official language used in documents In England from the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Some informal documents were written in English from as early as the 15th century.
During the Protectorate, by a statute of 22 November 1650, English replaced Latin.
With the Restoration in 1660, Latin once again became the official language to be used in documents, however, many documents were written in English.
By an Act of Parliament (4 George II, c.26) English replaced Latin to record all official information from Lady Day, 25 March 1733. Although this Act was later repealed this did not revive Latin.
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.)
The following resources may help you learn to read old records.
- Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 - 1800 - a practical online tutorial from The National Archives
- 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. BYU Family History LIbrary book CS 414 .G3 1956 vol.1.) 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. BYU Family History Library book Z 115 .M35x 2007.) 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. BYU Harold B Lee Library book Z 115 .E5 P47.) This book gives a background and explanation of handwriting with samples from records.
- Further information: England Handwriting
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 1086-1733 - a practical online tutorial for beginners
- Advanced Latin - A step-by-step online tutorial with twelve lessons.
- Ainsworth, Robert. Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendiarius. London, England: F. Westly and A.H. Davis, 1836. (FHL book 473 Ai65a 1836; film 599788. Available in the BYU Harold B Lee Library as an online resource.) This is a Latin dictionary. Most libraries have similar works.
- Parker, John. Reading Latin Epitaphs: A Handbook for Beginners selected from West Country Churches. Exeter, England: The Exeter Press, Ltd. 2008. Good introductory Latin grammar for translating phrases, with 52 epitaphs that build upon each other from simple to more complex. Very practical way to learn.
- J.H. Baker, "The Three Languages of the Common Law", (1998) 43 McGill L.J. 5