Language is an essential element of everyday life and it is reflected in the records kept throughout history. Italian records of genealogical value have been recorded in several different languages. Most records were written in Latin because, as official records, they were created mainly by the government, the clergy and notaries, all of whom were trained and required to write in this language. However, even the records written in Italian include variations from the Italian used today, because of different spoken languages and Latin influences.
Italy has only been a unified nation since the second half of the nineteenth century. Before then, the territory that makes up modern Italy was occupied by a group of smaller nation states. The people in these mini-nations spoke many different languages or dialects. The records reflected these various languages. For this reason, a wide variety of vocabulary and spelling appears in records created during the same time period, across several regions of Italy.
The following map shows a simplified classification of the main dialects found in Italy today, even though most of the Italian population speaks and writes the official Italian language. This diversity has existed for hundreds of years and has decreased, only in part, since the unification of Italy during the 1860s.
The following Italian words and their corresponding versions in several dialects were taken from Mario Corte's Dialetti d'Italia-Dizionario essenziale comparato. The reason for including these samples is to help the reader understand the potential for spelling variations and language switching throughout the records.
The abbreviations used next to each word correspond to different regions in Italy. Here we include their meaning:
This dialectic diversity can complicate the reading of documents by those who are beginning their study of historical records, especially if they are not very familiar with standard Italian. To illustrate this challenge, below are examples of parish records and their corresponding transcriptions with the variations of words highlighted. It is important to note that these records are not necessarily written in a particular dialect, but the Italian used is influenced by the dialect.
Palermo 1518 - Death Record
p[er] la m[orti] di Unu spagnolu
ch[i] fu mortu a la ruga di
li chavicterj S[epultu] a li n[ost]rj
...in ItalianStesso [giorno]
Per la morte di uno spagnolo
che fu morto a la ruga
dei Chiaveteri. Sepolto nelle nostre
fosse comuni ----------
...In EnglishSame [day]
For the death of a Spaniard
who died on the street of
the Chavieteri. Buried in our
common graves ----------
Palermo 1518 - Annointing Record
Per Uliari la mugleri ch[i] fu di co
la diandria ----------
...in ItalianStesso [giorno]
Per oliare la moglie che fu di [Ni]co-
la Di Andrea ----------
...in EnglishSame [day]
For annointing the wife that was of [Ni]co-
la Di Andrea ----------
Firenze 1481 - Christening Record
Matedì adì primo digenaio 1481
Piero et Mariocto di Giovanni di piero p[o]p[o]lo di San Nicholo nacq[ue] adi 31 ahor[e] 19 bat[e]z[a]to di 1
Philippo et Jacopo di Domenicho di Spinello p[opolo] di Sancto Andrea amosciano nacq[ue] adi 29 didice[m]bre ba[tezato] di 1
§ Silvestro et domenicho portato allo spedale deglinnocenti Baptezato adi p[ri]mo didecto ba[tezato] di 1
Jacopo et pasquino di fruosino di giovanni p[opolo] di Sampiero scheraggio nacq[ue] adi p[ri]mo ho[e] 13 ba[tezato] di 1
Raphaleo et silvestro di nicholo di giovanni p[opolo] di San Lorenzo nacq[ue] adi 31 didice[m]bre hor[e] 5 ba[tezato] di 1
Martedì a dì primo di gennaio 1481
Piero Mariotto di Giovanni di Piero parrocchia di San Niccolò nacque a dì 31 alle ore 19 battezzato a dì 1
Filippo Jacopo di Domenico di Spinello parrocchia di Sant'Andrea a Mosciano nacque a dì 29 di dicembre battezzato a dì 1
§ Silvestro Domenico portato all'ospedale degli innocenti battezzato a dì primo di detto battezzato a dì 1
Jacopo Pasquino di Fruosino di Giovanni parrocchia di San Pier Scheraggio nacque a dì primo alle ore 13 battezzato a dì 1
Rafaello Silvestro di Niccolò di Giovanni parrocchia di San Lorenzo nacque a dì 31 di dicembre alle ore 5 battezzato a dì 1
Tuesday first day of January 1481
Piero Mariotto, [son] of Giovanni [son] of Piero, parish of San Niccolò, was born on the 31st at 7 pm, baptized on the 1st
Filippo Jacopo, [son] of Domenico [son] of Spinello, parish of Sant'Andrea a Mosciano, was born on the 29th of December, baptized on the 1st
§ Silvestro Domenico taken to the hospital of abandoned children, baptized on the first of the said [month], baptized on the 1st
Jacopo Pasquino, [son] of Fruosino [son] of Giovanni, parish of San Pier Scheraggio, was born on the first at 1 pm, baptized on the 1st
Rafaello Silvestro, [son] of Niccolò [son] of Giovanni, parish of San Lorenzo, was born on the 31st of December at 5 am, baptized on the 1st
Lutrano 1759 - Burial Record
Adi i7 Ap[ri]le i759
Jeri alle ore i5 c[irc]a passò al altra Vita l'Anima di Tizzian Corrier,
jl quale la notte antecedente fù sorpreso da un certo male
jmproviso, che lo privò totalmente di favella, e sentimenti; fù
munito del S[antis]s[i]mo Sacramento del Oglio Santo, Assolucioni del S[antis]s[i]mo Rosario
, e Pontificia, ed jn questa sera fù sepolto jl suo cadavere sopra
questo Cemiterio, d'anni 35 c[irc]a
A dì 17 aprile 1759
Ieri alle ore 15 circa passò all'altra vita l'anima di Tizzian Corrier,
il quale la notte antecedente fù sorpreso da un certo male
improvviso, che lo privò totalmente di favella, e sentimenti; fù
munito del Santissimo Sacramento del Olio Santo, Assoluzioni del Santissimo Rosario,
e Pontificia, e in questa sera fù sepolto il suo cadavere sopra
questo cimitero, d'anni 35 circa
On the 17th of April 1759
Yesterday at around 3pm the soul of Tizzian Corrier passed on to the other life,
who, the preceding night, was surprised by a certain sudden illness,
which deprived him completely of speech and senses; [he] was
provided with the Holy Sacrament of the Holy Oil, absolutions of the Holy Rosary,
and Pontifical, and on this evening his body was buried in
this cemetery, of about 35 years [of age]
First, recognize that this problem may be more prevalent in earlier years; that is, the earlier the date of the records, the greater the chances of diversity in the language used in the record. There is no magic way to deal with the problem of linguistic diversity in historical records, but using a combination of resources you can overcome what might seem at the beginning to be an insurmountable problem.
1. Determine the language in which the record is written. There are several possibilities: Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, a dialect or regional language, or a mixture of Italian and those dialects, all of which may also be influenced by Latin. For a record that appears to be written in a dialect, you can initially assume that the dialect belongs to one of categories showed on the dialect map above.
How can you determine the language of the record?
Remember that most records will follow the same format in all those languages. Knowing the format in one of those languages will help you determine whether the record is written in Italian or not. Being able to identify the endings of the words will allow you to easily recognize one of the languages mentioned above. For example, a christening record will include the name of the individual being christened and his or her father or parents, besides the verb "baptize" in one of its forms, such as:
English: "Giuseppe legitimate son of Giovanni Vendrame baptized yesterday…"
Italian: "Giuseppe figlio legittimo di Giovanni Vendrame battezzato ieri…"
Latin: "Joseph filius legitimus Johannis Vendrame baptizatus fuit heri…"
Spanish: "Giuseppe hijo legítimo de Giovanni Vendrame bautizado ayer..."
French: "Giuseppe fils légitime de Giovanni Vendrame baptisé hier..."
Dialect: "Zusepe filio legitimo di Zuanne Vendrame batezato jeri..."
2. Look for Language Resources. Once the language has been identified, look for resources to aid you in reading the document. Dictionaries, lists of genealogical words, specific books on records from a particular area, etc. may prove invaluable in your work. It is important to read the records remembering that spelling will not be uniform, even within the records written by the same person or within the same record.
There are many dictionaries and other language resources available in libraries and many of them available online free of charge. Using a search engine, try searching for the name of the language or dialect in English and in Italian or the name of the dialect. For example: "Sicilian dictionary" or "dizionario siciliano" or "dizziunariu sicilianu." Finding dialect resources in English is not going to be as easy as finding those in Italian. Therefore, a basic knowledge of Italian will greatly facilitate your research.
To illustrate the difficulty introduced by the lack of uniformity in spelling, here is an actual example of reading a record from sixteenth century Palermo in Sicily.
This record, created in 1518 before the Council of Trent (1545-1563), does not follow the standard Tridentine format for parish records; therefore, the first line includes two unfamiliar words that identify the language of the record:
p Inguaiarj et spusarj = per inguaiari e spusari
The word "spusari" looks like "sposare" or marry in Italian. An online Sicilian-Italian dictionary search confirms its meaning (to take as a wife or husband - marry). See image below.
Not knowing the meaning of "inguaiari", the dictionary was consulted again. No matches were found under the letter "I". However, on the same page where the words starting with "ingua" should be, there were other words that showed an alternative spelling with the letter "I" missing. See image below.
A subsequent search was performed under the letter "N" for the word with the variant spelling "nguaiari". The image below shows the content of that page of the dictionary.
Not finding "nguaiari" and reading the words in that section of the dictionary, one finds the word "nguaggiari" with the meaning "marry or get married" (congiungere in matrimonio - maritare)
As seen in this example, a simple search for the exact spelling of a word extracted from the record may give no results. However, paying attention to similar and nearby words, as well as knowing the meaning or likely meaning of the word based on context, such as with "spusari" above, allows us to determine the exact meaning. An initial thorough search trying to understand some linguistic aspects of this dialect will help the reading of subsequent records.