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Making sense of old handwriting



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 after a long process which started with the Revolutions of 1848.1 Before then, the territory of modern Italy was occupied by a group of smaller nation-states. The people in these mini-nations spoke many different languages or dialects. For this reason, there was a long and large debate about what would be the 'correct' or standard Italian that should be used for a general Italian culture with various schools of thought forming, which is now known as the "Questione della lingua" or the Question of the Language. With the publication of the Prose nelle quali si ragiona della volgar lingua (Prose in which the vernacular language is discussed)2 in 1525 by Pietro Bembo, the Tuscan dialect became the foundation of modern, standard Italian, in part because some of the great Italian writers such as Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Francesco Petrarca used it in their works; however, many other dialects have contributed to language, such as perhaps the best known Italian word ciao which is derived from the Venetian word s-cia[v]o ("slave," meaning "your servant").3 Even then, this standard form would only be officially adopted as the national language of Italy in 1925.

Therefore, this rich variety of languages and dialects is reflected in documents throughout Italy, and a wide variety of vocabulary and spelling can appear in records created during the same time period across several regions of Italy. Understandably, this creates difficulties for researchers working with these documents, and often researchers will have to develop a familiarity with the dialect in which they are working. Thus, when working with Italian documents it is advised to identify the region it is from and then locate a dictionary of the dialect in that region.


This diversity has existed for hundreds of years and has decreased, only in part, since the unification of Italy during the 1860s. Even though most of the Italian population speaks and writes the official Italian language, many still speak in their local dialects, and it has been reported that only about 1% of the population has complete mastery of standard Italian. The following map shows a simplified classification of the main dialects found in Italy today.

Example of Words in Different Dialects

The following Italian words and their corresponding versions in several dialects were taken from Mario Corte's Dialetti d'Italia-Dizionario essenziale comparato. These samples should help to 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. These are:

  • Abr: Abruzzo
  • Aos: Val d'Aosta
  • Bas: Basilicata
  • Cal: Calabria
  • Cam: Campania
  • Emi: Emilia
  • Fri: Friuli Venezia Giulia

  • Laz: Lazio
  • Lig: Liguria
  • Lom: Lombardia
  • Mar: Marche
  • Pie: Piemonte
  • Pug: Puglia

  • Rom: Romagna
  • Sar: Sardinia
  • Sic: Sicilia
  • Tre: Trentino
  • Umb: Umbria
  • Ven: Veneto

    Effects on Record Keeping

    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.

    How to Deal with the Problem?

    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 the categories shown 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 the 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 the 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.

    Dialects Spoken in Italy and Around the World.

    While not as diffuse as other romance languages, Italian is a global language. There are many speakers in the surrounding European counties and in many islands of the Mediterranean sea. Also, there are still many speakers in Africa due to Italian colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Furthermore, due to a large amount of migration out of Italy, there are various communities of Italian speakers around the world, such as on the east coast of the United States and Australia. Italian speakers also had a major influence on Portuguese and Spanish in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.


    1. Collier, Martin, Italian unifciation, 1820-1871, (Oxford: Heinemann, 2003); see Wikipedia: Revolutions of 1848 for more information.
    2. Bembo, Pietro, Le Prose; Nelle qualli si regiona della Volgar lingua Vol 4, (Napoli: Bernardo-Michele Raillard, 1714)
    3. "ciao," Wiktionary, The free dictionary, last modified 20 January 2024.

    Paleography Introduction