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Making sense of old handwriting

Latin Influence

The Use of Latin in the Records

Latin has been used in official documents for centuries, either in notarial or church records. Since Latin has been the official language of the Catholic Church since its beginning, it was required that priests could read and write in Latin; often times these priests would learn to write in Latin before learning to write in their native languages. For these reasons, it is common to see the influence of Latin in written records in many different languages.

There are many aspects of the text of old Spanish handwritten parish records that show the influence of Latin. Sometimes, scribes would include certain ecclesiastical phrases relative to sacraments directly in Latin, such as:

  • Sub conditione (conditionally)
  • Inter missarum solemnia (during the solemn mass)
  • In faciae ecclesiae (in front of the church)
  • Propter periculum mortis (because of the danger of death)

Other phrases are included to explain the authority by which the priest is acting in performing the sacrament, such as:

  • Ex licentia parochi (by license of the parish priest)
  • Cum venia parochi (with permission of the parish priest)
  • Coram testibus (In the presence of witnesses)
  • Cum licentia in scriptis (with a license in writing)

One of the most commonly included phrases used in parish records is ut supra (as above),. which is usually used to refer to the date or other information that was already mentioned above in the record.

Regarding notarial records, most wills start with the Latin phrase In Dei Nomine, Amen (In the name of God) or In Nomine Domini, Amen (In the name of the Lord, Amen).

Online translators, like, are helpful for understanding Latin phrases:
Latin to English
Latin to Spanish​

See the Latin Tutorial for more information on the Latin Language and Latin Records.

The Influence of Latin on Spelling

Some names that in Spanish are written with one vowel could appear spelled with two vowels because of Latin influence, for example, Augustin for Agustin.

Sometimes, it is common to find Spanish words including additional consonants at the end of syllables that occur in the Latin spelling of the word, such as c and p - for example, baptice for bauticé, and sancto for santo.

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples from Document
sancto Domingosanto Domingo
Sancto Domingo

The interchangeable use of j and i, and u and v, are very common in earlier records. For example, iglesja for iglesia, and auia for avia (spelled correctly as había).

Document Spelling
Current Spelling
Samples from Document

A very common case of Latin influence is the addition of the letter h in consonant groups such as th, ch, jh, ph. In all of these cases, with the exception of ph, adding the h does not change the pronunciation of the letters since, in Spanish, the letter h is silent. Thus, Catalina, Cathalina, Chatalina, and Chathalina would be possible and pronounced the same.

The case of the use of ph, however, is a little different in the sense that it is used as a unit with a phonetic value equal to that of the letter f; thus, the names Phelipe and Felipe would be pronounced the same.

The effect of Latin can also be found in the use of old Latin abbreviation practices in Spanish handwriting. Among the most common Latin abbreviations are those used to replace syllables like com-, con-, pro-, per-, ver-, vir-, ser-, and many others by means of certain symbols. In Spanish records, words such as compadre, convenio, provisor, personas, verdadero, virtudes, servicio could appear spelled with those symbols.

Some of the most common abbreviation symbols are presented below. Also, while meant for Portuguese abbreviations, Abreviaturas paleográficas portuguesas can be very useful in deciphering difficult Latin-derived abbreviation symbols.



com-, con-, cum-, cun-
ver-, vir-

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources that may be of use:


Paleography Introduction