Jewish Language and Languages

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Eliezer Ben Jehuda (1858-1922) at work helping to restore Hebrew as a mother tongue.

Most records used in Jewish research are written in the language of the country. In past centuries Jews did not generally keep birth, marriage, and death records unless required to do so by the laws of the country of residence. These laws also dictated the language records were to be kept in. Depending on the time period, information for Jews who appear in church records may also be in Latin. You do not need to speak or read these languages to do Jewish research, but you will need to know some key words and phrases to understand the records.

Some languages have grammatical structures which may affect the way names appear in genealogical records. For example, in Polish the name Icek [Isaac] may be grammatically changed to Icka, which means "of Icek." In Czech, a female with the surname Neumann would appear as Neumannová.

Spelling problems make some records difficult to interpret. Family names and place names were often spelled phonetically, which would alter the spelling from record keeper to record keeper. This problem is further complicated by spelling names in different languages that have different spelling rules or even different alphabets. For example, foreign words with an h are generally rewritten in Russian with the letter g [г]. The Russian letter b (pronounced as a "v") is written in English as v but in German as w. The Family History Library has genealogical word lists that include suggested spelling variations. You may want to become familiar with the spelling rules of the languages in the areas you research.

Hebrew Alphabet

Jewish records may be in Yiddish, Hebrew, or the language of the country of residence. Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino are all written in the Hebrew alphabet. Synagogue records, other records kept by Jews, and tombstone inscriptions are often written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Hebrew is written from right to left. Vowels were used to mark grammatical form and were not originally written. Diacritical marks and subscript signs are now used to represent vowels. The following chart shows the 22 Hebrew consonants and how the letters are transcribed into the Roman alphabet. Each of the 22 consonants also represents a number value, which is also shown.

Jewish 1

Thousands are designated by a single quote next to the letter:

Jewish 2

A double quote between the last two letters signifies a year:

Jewish 3

Vowels are indicated by modifying the preceding consonant. The following example, using the first letter of the alphabet, shows how this is done:

Jewish 4

Hebrew months are written as follows:

Jewish 5

A few other Hebrew abbreviations you often find on tombstones include:

Jewish 6

Language Aids

The Family History Library has genealogical word lists for many languages, including German, Polish, and Latin. For information about the Russian language, click here. These can be very helpful in reading the records that pertain to your ancestors. The Library also has a good collection of dictionaries. Those that have not been microfilmed cannot circulate. Check for dictionaries for the countries you are researching in the Family History Library Catalog. Foreign dictionaries are also available at many bookstores, including bookstores on the Internet.

If there is a research outline for the country or state where your ancestor lived, see the "Language and Languages" section of the outline.