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Making sense of old handwriting



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

Because rules regulating the spelling and grammar of Portuguese did not become more available and widespread until approximately the 19th century and because most people write the way they speak, spelling will prove a real challenge when reading old Portuguese documents. Adding to this challenge are factors such as the influence of Latin on the spelling of Portuguese words and the several variations of Portuguese and the differences among them, such as differences in pronunciation resulting in different spellings. For example, the interchangeable use of /i/ and /y/, and /s/ and /z/:

Portuguese Around the World

Portuguese is the official language of at least seven different countries worldwide. It is the national language of Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, while sharing a co-official title in many other countries. Because of the distance between regions, variations of the language occurred and still occur today.

World Map of Portuguese Speaking Countries

The Effect of Language Diversity on Records 

This language diversity affected the spelling and grammar of records all throughout the Portuguese world to various degrees. Below is an example of an 1875 Brazilian marriage record (top) compared with an 1874 Cape Verdian marriage record (bottom). Although many differences exist within the Portuguese language, we can see from reading both records that understanding the written word of different regions is still manageable.

Brazil 1875

Brazilian Document




Ventura e Sabina Aos seis de1Ventura and Sabina, On the sixth of
Novembro de mil oitocentos setenta e cinco, na2November of 1875, in the
Cathedral ante mim, as cinco horas e meia da3Cathedral before me, at five-thirty of the
tarde se receberam em matrimonio por pala-4afternoon they were received in marriage by wo-
-vras de presente Ventura Ferreira dos Santos, e5-rds of the present Ventura Ferreira dos Santos, and
Sabina Maria da Roza, elle viuvo por falleci-6Sabina Maria da Roza, he (being) widowed by the dea-
-mento de Antonia Maria da Conceição; e ella7-th of Antonia Maria da Conceição; and she
filha natural de Josepha Maria da Concei-8(being) a natural daughter of Josepha Maria da Concei-
-ção E logo receberam as bençaos nupciaes na9-ção. And they immediately received wedding blessings in the
forma do Ritual Romano, sendo de tudo testemu-10form of the Roman Ritual, being witness-
-nhas Raymundo Ferreira Chaves, e Manoel Ri-11-es Raymundo Ferreira Chaves, and Manuel Ri-
-beiro da Roza. Onubente é natural d’este Cura-12-beiro da Roza. The betrothed [man] is native to this parso-
-to, e a nubente de Russas, d’onde veio de terna13-nage, and the betrothed [woman] (is) from Russas, where she came of tender
idade para este, onde são moradores. Para cons-14age to this, where they are inhabitants. To con-
tar se fez este assento, em que eu assino15-sult they did this matter, in which I sign
Lomrenço da Costa Igniar16Lomrenço da Costa Igniar

Cabo Verde 1874

Cabo Verbe Document




 Aos dezoito de Abril de mil oito cento settenta1On the eighteenth of April of eighteen seventy-
 equatro na Capella da Misericordia que2-four in the Church of Mercy that
 ao presente esta servindo de Egreja Parochial3to the present is serving the Parochial Church
perante mim comparecendo Donato josé4appeared before me Donato José
de Pina e Marcellina da Veija amanceba-5de Pina and Marcellina da Veija [who are] lo-
dos, e por ordem de sua Excellencia Reverendissi-6-vers, and by order of his Excellency Most Reve- 
ma o Senhor Bispo desta diocese sem7-rend Lord Bishop of this diocese without
mais formalidades, depois de os ouvir de con-8more formalities, after hearing them in confes-
 -fição receberem a sagrada comunhão, as recibi9-sion they received the sacred communion, I received them
em matrimonio em facie ecclesiae, conforme10in marriage in front of the Church, according [to the manner]
determina o sagrado Concilio de Trento, Elle11determined by the sacred Council of Trent, He [being a]
 filho legitimo de Manoel Soccorro e Maria12legitimate son of Manoel Soccorro and Maria
de Pina naturaes desta ilha, ella filha13de Pina natives of this island, she [being a] daughter
natural de Maria da Boa Vista, natural14natural of Maria da Boa Vista, native
da ilha da Boa Vista, Epara constar15of the island of Boa Vista, & to be official
mandei faser este termo que assjno com16I ordered to be done this end which I sign with
 as testemunhas presentes Higgino josé Barbados17the witnesses present Higino José Barbados
 e José Joaquim Vieira Vas concellos18and José Joaquim Vieira Vasconcellos


Paleography Introduction