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Making sense of old handwriting








Latin is an ancient language that is not in widespread use in any modern population. However, it was used for a long time and is still used in many functions, such as a language of literature, academia, law, medicine, and official documentation, especially within the Roman Catholic Church. Because of this, many people may come across this language often but do not know how it works and how to translate it. While the avid researcher can obtain much information from Latin documents without knowing the language, particularly if the document follows a short, repetitive format, having a working knowledge of the Latin language will significantly help to increase understanding and avoid many possible mistranslations.

This section of the Latin tutorial will provide basic information and concepts about the grammar of the Latin language, with a focus on translating parish records written in Latin. It also includes a brief tutorial on how to read and use Latin dictionaries and resources to further comprehension.

The Latin Langauge

Before going into the individual parts of speech, such as nouns and verbs, there are a few linguistic concepts to understand. Because of the complex nature of Latin, it is often necessary to learn some linguistic terminology used to talk about Latin. The following is an introduction to some basic linguistic concepts that are reflected in the language. These concepts will then be described in more detail later.


The first concept to understand is that of inflection. Latin is a highly inflected language, meaning that words can change their shape or form based on how they are used in a sentence to perform different functions. English has very little inflection, except in English verbs and some pronouns. Below are some examples:

In English, verbs are inflected or conjugated to show person and time. For example, if we take the verb to talk we can see the following:

I talk

We talk

You talk

You (all) talk

He, She, It talks

They talk

Now, in general, there are not many changes to the verb; however, notice that when the verb to talk is used in the He, She, & It the form of the verb changes from talk to talks. The addition of that /s/ is an inflection based on the person of the verb and gives the English speaker a clue that talks is referring to a He, She, or It.

Inflection becomes more obvious in English verbs when we look at changes related to time. Let's take the same verb to talk and conjugate it for time:

I talk

I was talking

I talked

I had talked

I will talk

I will have talked

In these examples, the person (I) remained the same. This time, the verb was inflected to show that the action happened in different times.

While English speakers are more used to the concept of inflection appearing in the use of verbs, nouns can also be inflected. Old English used to inflect its nouns, but this was lost over time; however, we can still see traces of this in our pronouns. For example, with the pronoun I: I, Me, My, Myself.

In this case, all these words are different, but they refer to the same person: I. What changes is the role that the I plays in the sentence. For example, I is used when it is the doer of the action: I eat, I read; meanwhile, Me is used as a receiver of the action: the lady greets me, the man sees me. When nouns, adjectives, or pronouns are inflected, the inflection process is called declension; meanwhile, when verbs are inflected, the process is called conjugation.


Latin is a highly inflected language, and this has consequences on the language's syntax. Syntax is the system that languages use to structure a sentence in a way that makes sense.

Since English does not have a lot of inflection, syntax, or the order of the words in our sentences, carries a lot of meaning. The most basic English sentence will nearly always follow an SVO structure, or a Subject, Verb, Object structure. For example:

The girl (S) sees (V) the boy (O)

If we were to change the syntax or the order of the words to, say, "the boy sees the girl," then the meaning of the sentence is radically changed.

On the other hand, because Latin is so heavily inflected, to the point that nearly every word has some inflection, the syntax is not as important, and this allows Latin a great deal of flexibility. To use the previous sentence as an example, "The girl sees the boy," in Latin, would be Puella videt puerum (the girl sees the boy) if taken word for word in the same syntactical order.


However, the following forms can also be used without ever changing the meaning of the sentence:

Puerum videt puella

Puella puerum videt

Videt puella puerum

Puerum puella videt

Videt puerum puella

While Latin does usually follow an SOV word order (Subject, Object, Verb), the example above demonstrates that this is not always the order Latin follows. For this reason, it is important to have an understanding of how the parts of Latin speech work and how they inflect, thereby understanding how the different parts work together.

The Latin Language

In the following sections, there will be a more in-depth discussion about parts of Latin speech, namely, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, and verbs. Furthermore, there is also a section to help the Latin researcher use other resources like Dictionaries and paradigms. These sections will arm you with the tools to avoid common mistakes and understand documents written in one of the great and commonly encountered languages of Western culture. And always remember:

"Ita! Facere potes!"

  • Title page: unknown, Title Page, 1587 in Thomas Thomas, Dictionarium linguae Latinae et Anglicanae (Menston: Scholar Press 1972). This image is in the public domain.
  • Illumiation: Master of the Codex Manesse, Altstetten, 1305-1315, in Codex Manesse (Zürich, 1305-1315) Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 249. This image is in the public domain.

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