German Vocabulary & Grammar
Because vital record entries tend to be highly formulaic and often telegraphic (i.e. leaving out many predictable and repetitive elements), researchers rarely need to develop a working, memorized vocabulary of more than 100 German words. Most how-to books on German family history research feature lists of basic, high-frequency vocabulary. A standard German-English dictionary will help you with many of the other words you encounter. However, you may find that most modern German-English dictionaries are inadequate for old German document extraction since they do not include many archaic terms. A German-English dictionary from the mid-1800's, such as Adler's German and English Dictionary, may be more helpful if you have access to it. By far the best genealogical vocabulary resource for English speakers is Ernest Thode's German-English Genealogical Dictionary
One of the best ways to increase your ability in the deciphering of German handwriting in old documents is to become well acquainted with the rules of German grammar. This is difficult to do, however, without actually learning the language. If you are unfamiliar with the German language, there are many books and resources available to help you learn it, although few materials are specifically for genealogical or historical research. Roger P. Minert's book, Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany includes a brief section on grammar as it applies to genealogical documents. Howard Martin and Alan Ng's A Foundation Course in Reading German provides a more extensive guide to learning to read formal German with no previous German experience necessary and at no cost. As a supplement, the book English Grammar for Students of German by Cecile Zorach, Charlotte Melin, and Adam Oberlin, uses English grammar explanations to make understanding German grammar easier.
On our Supplementary Resources page, we include many other online and print publications that can help you with vocabulary and grammar.
Below are some lists of common terms. Though they are not nearly as extensive as some the resources referred to above and throughout this site, they should be adequate for most document extraction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You may download these lists (in Adobe PDF format) by clicking on the links below:
Discrepancies in the calendar system and variations in month names may also cause confusion when trying to decipher old documents. The Gregorian Calendar was instituted in various parts of Europe in the sixteenth century, although some countries did not adopt it until much later. Most of the German-speaking lands were using the Gregorian Calendar by the nineteenth century, so few dates in the documents of this period should pose a problem. It is possible, however, that some dates made references to old calendar styles, and this could be confusing. Below are listed variations in the names of months, which may possibly be found in old documents:
- January: Januar, Jänner, Jenner, Hartung
- February: Februar, Hornung
- March: März, Frühlingsmonat
- April: April, Ostermonat, Osteren
- May: Mai, Wonnemonat, Blütemonat
- June: Juni, Brachmonat
- July: Juli, Heuert, Heumonat, Heuet
- August: August, Erntemonat, Hitzmonat
- September: September, Fruchtmonat, Herbstmonat, Herpsten, 7ber, 7bris
- October: Oktober, Weinmonat, 8ber, 8bris
- November: November, Wintermonat, 9ber, 9bris
- December: Dezember, Christmonat, 10ber, 10bris, Xber, Xbris
The French Republican Calendar
One non-German calendar system that you may possibly encounter is the French Republican Calendar, which was instituted near the end of the eighteenth century by Napoleon and required in many parts of Europe, including the parts of Germany occupied by the French. This calendar completely revised the names and days for each month and year and started at the year "1." It was a clumsy attempt to do away with all traces of the "old" regime in France. The Republican Calendar ultimately proved unpopular, so even the French themselves discontinued it in the early years of the nineteenth century.
Some dates from the French Republican Calendar do crop up in emigration documents from time to time, especially with reference to the birthdate of an applicant from the early years of the French Republic. Sometimes the dates are also shown in the regular Gregorian calendar, but it may be necessary for you to do the conversion yourself. Here is more information about the French Republican Calendar, including instructions on how to convert dates to the Gregorian Calendar.
Much of the text on this page was adapted (with permission) from pp. 39-40 of Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany by Roger P. Minert (GRT Publications: Provo, Utah, USA, 2001). Please consult this resource for more detailed guidelines of document extraction.