Skip to main content
Making sense of old handwriting



How could language constitute a challenge when reading records created in France or French-speaking countries? Most researchers might assume that fluency in speaking or reading French would be enough to interpret records of genealogical value. However, as people start reading older records, they quickly find out that the records are not written in a pure standard form of French, but in a variety of French influenced by other native languages and particularly by Latin, which was the main literary language used by Catholic priests.

Because rules regulating the spelling and grammar of French did not become more available and widespread until the introduction of compulsory education at the end of the 19th century, and because most people write the way they speak, spelling will prove a real challenge when reading old French documents. Adding to this challenge are factors such as the influence of Latin on the spelling of French words, and the several variations of French and the differences among them, such as differences in pronunciation resulting in different spellings.

A common example of the influence of pronunciation on the way priests used to spell words is the case of words ending in "y", which is commonly pronounced as the French "i," or the addition of "L" into certain words like ceulx (ceux). So, words like moi or aussi could appear spelled "moy" and "assuy". See the image below showing the word aujourd'hui spelled with a "y."

French/Aujourdhuyexemple (1).bmp

These French variations also came to the French colonies in Africa and the Americas as settlers and explorers arrived from all parts of France. Their writings in the Americas were also influenced by the tongues spoken by the native inhabitants, particularly in the use of native words and names.

The following map shows a simplified classification of the main languages and dialects found in France today, even though most Frenchmen speak and write the official French language.

Dialects Spoken in France


The Effect of Language Diversity on Records

This language diversity affected the spelling and grammar of records all throughout the French world to various degrees. The following French language record was created in 1757 in the town of Borce, located in the modern department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France.


Because Borce in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques is a Gascon-speaking province, we may assume that the priest spoke Gascon, and a close examination of the record shows many instances of words that have been spelled in Gascon or with Gascon influence, such as:

These translations were made possible by the Occitan-English and Occitan-French Glosbe dictionaries. Glosbe also has dictionaries for Basque, Provençal, Gallo, Breton, Picard, and Wallon.



Paleography Introduction