Discovering our Ancestors' Travels and Travails

I never had an ear for languages. Polish was my parents’ first language, so they regularly spoke Polish to each other while I was growing up. I could make out some of what they were saying about me and my sisters, but I never learned to speak it. As a child, I thought that all parents had a language that only adults used. They spoke English with us when they wanted us to understand.

I studied Latin in high school. Since no one living spoke Latin, I was able to approach it as a coding problem, with noun declensions and verb conjugations. I took several semesters of French in high school and college, and I studied some German in college. As an adult, I took extension courses in Polish before taking a tour of the country in 2004. I never became fluent in any of them.

Although I did not appreciate it at the time, this language exposure has helped a lot with my family history research. My ancestors were Roman Catholic, so many church records are in Latin. They spoke Polish, so knowing about declensions and cases has been very helpful in deciphering names of people and places.

My father’s ancestors were from the West Prussian part of Poland that was occupied by the Germans in the 1800s, so many official records were written in Latin, German, and Polish. Not only were they written in different languages, they were often written in different languages at the same time! The equivalent of the English name John could be written as Jan (Polish), Johann (German), Joannes or Johannes (Latin) in different places on the same page. Column headings and forms were often in the Fraktur font.

My mother’s family were from the Russian occupied area of Poland near Sandomierz. The nineteenth century records there were in the wordy Napoleonic format. Some records were written entirely in Polish, while others were in Russian (Cyrillic), often with the names repeated with Roman letters.

Since all the records were handwritten, there were variations in the legibility and even the quality of the ink that was used.

One day my grandson sat with me as I was perusing old records, and he asked me how I could read them. I was taken aback, until I realized that his is a generation of devices. While he learned his letters in preschool and he learned to print in kindergarten, his reading is often on a screen and his writing is mostly on a keypad. Cursive writing was only a small part of his third grade curriculum. While he can make out the words in script, it does not come naturally to him. While it has never been easy, deciphering old records may be becoming more of an arcane art.

Comments on: "Language Challenges in Family History Research" (3)

  1. Stan Szczepanowski said:

    Great comments on language…so true. “Cousin “Stan Sz., in Canada.


  2. My sister hand-wrote a funny note on my last birthday card, and my grandkids couldn’t read it! I’m not saying I think everyone should learn cursive, but I am curious what they are learning in the classroom time that used to be devoted to that…


  3. Marcia Lewars said:

    I applaud your deciphering skills! How confusing – to have records in three languages on the same page!


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