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Making sense of old handwriting



How could language constitute a challenge when reading records created in Spain or Latin America? Most researchers might assume that fluency in speaking or reading Spanish 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 Spanish, but in a variety of Spanish 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 Spanish 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 Spanish documents. Adding to this challenge are factors such as the influence of Latin on the spelling of Spanish words and the several variations of Spanish and the differences among them, such as differences in pronunciation resulting in different spellings. For example, the interchangeable use of "s," "c," "ç," or "z" in Latin America and of "ç" and "z" in Spain, or the interchangeable use of "v," "u," and "b" in all Spanish speaking areas.

A common example of the influence of pronunciation on the way priests used to spell words is the case of words ending in "d," which is commonly pronounced as a "z" in the Castilian areas of Spain. So, words like Madrid or salud could appear spelled Madriz and saluz.

These Spanish variations also came to the New World as priests arrived from all parts of Spain. Their writings in the Americas were also influenced by the tongues spoken by the native inhabitants of the Spanish colonies, particularly in the use of native words and names.

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

Dialects Spoken In Spain


The Effect of Language Diversity on Records

This language diversity affected the spelling and grammar of records all throughout the Hispanic world to various degrees. The following Spanish language death record was created in 1837 in the parish of San Miguel in Anglés, province of Girona, Catalonia, Spain.


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

Word from Record
Word in Spanish
Word in Catalan
lo (dialect), el (standard Catalan)
son (dialect), seu (standard Catalan)
sementeriocementeriocementiri or cementeri
se lise lese li

Map: Alexandre Vigo, Linguistic map Southwestern Europe-en.gif, 3 June 2019, GIF, Digital image, Wikimedia Commons ( : accessed 20 July 2023). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


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