7 Tips for Reading German Marriage Certificates

When researching your genealogy, marriage certificates can be a gold mine of clues to your ancestors’ lives. Names, occupations, places of residence and other interesting tidbits of information often fill the short documents to the brim. However, if you don’t speak German, deciphering these clue-filled pages can be a bit of a challenge (not to mention the difficulty of deciphering the handwriting!) But what if it didn’t have to be so challenging? Below, seven common phrases you might find on German marriage certificates and what they mean:

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1. “Vor dem unterzeichneten Standesbeamten”: “Before the undersigned registrar”.   This is often the beginning sentence of the marriage certificate, underneath the city and date it was issued.

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2. “der Persönlichkeit nach bekannt/der Persönlichkeit nach _______ anerkannt”: “His (or her) identity known”/”His (or her) identity verified by_________”. In the first instance (bekannt), the registrar personally knows the individual and does not need a form of identification. In the second instance (anerkannt), the registrar verifies the person’s identity with a form of identification, filling in the blank with the ID that was presented. It could be a passport, birth certificate, baptismal certificate, military ID, etc.

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3. “geboren den_____ des Jahres_____”: “Born on the (day, month) of the year____”. The year was usually written out in letters rather than numbers.

4. “wohnhaft zu”: “residing in/resident of”. This is then followed by the name of a city or town.

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5. “Sohn/Tochter des_____”: “son/daughter of the______”. This line is normally followed by the occupation of the father, the father’s name, his wife and his wife’s name. If the parents are deceased or if there is any other relevant information about them, it is also mentioned here.

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6. “Zeugen”: “witnesses”. The name, age and occupation of the witnesses, as well as how they were identified, are listed underneath the witness section (usually the second page of the marriage certificate).

7. “Vorgelesen, genehmigt und unterschrieben”: “Read aloud, approved and signed”.  The names of the newly-married couple, as well of the names of the witnesses, are signed underneath this phrase.

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With these tips, deciphering marriage certificates should become a little bit easier. And if you would like to consult a professional translator, don’t hesitate to contact me here – I would be happy to be of service.

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Behind the Scenes of Genealogical Translation

Happy International Translation Day! Today, September 30, is the feast day of St. Jerome, the first to translate the Bible into Latin and the patron saint of translation. On this special day, I would like to offer you a special glimpse into the exciting world of genealogical translation.

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St. Jerome (347-419/20)

 As genealogical documents are often hundreds of years old, translating historical documents is slightly different than translating “normal” documents. While modern-day texts can often present the translator with incredibly complicated sentences, genealogy translations are usually much more straight-forward and relatively simple – once you get the documents to the translation point. Getting there, however, is the challenge.

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 Just as my handwriting differs from yours, handwriting among our ancestors varied significantly, and some was much more legible than others! When I receive a text, therefore, the first thing I do is look at the legibility of that particular author’s handwriting.

The age of the document also plays a role in the appearance of the script. Seventeenth-century handwriting (top image below) looks very different than nineteenth-century handwriting (bottom image below). Although the older script is rather beautiful, it is more challenging for most genealogical translators.

1645 Death Cert     

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The quality of your document is also very important in genealogical translation. Most of the texts are sent as .jpeg images, and the ability to zoom in without the image becoming blurry is crucial. Why is that? As stated in Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, many old German letters are incredibly similar, making the ability to see each and every stroke even more significant. Notice the similarities of the letter e (left) and the letter n (right) below. Without the proper zooming tools, you may not be able to see the differences between these two letters when written in a word.

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The word above is “mein” (my), full of similarly-formed letters m, e and n.

Once I’ve assessed the legibility of the script and the quality the document, I begin transcribing your text. Carefully analyzing each stroke, I start to decipher the script and type it in modern German. If I’ve worked with a particular author’s handwriting before, this process goes much more smoothly, as our brains are quick to recognize what they’ve previously encountered. However, if it is the first time I am seeing a certain person’s handwriting, the transcription process can take a little longer, as each person forms their letters slightly differently.

The transcription process can also be accelerated if I know certain words to look for. Before beginning each translation, I ask you if there are any names of people or towns that are relevant to your document. Names are the most difficult to transcribe, as there are many spelling variations and no context clues to fill in the blanks. Many times, however, a client has already done extensive genealogical research and knows that this letter is from his great-great grandfather Diocletian from the town of Oberbetschdorf. Rather than spending 15 minutes trying to figure out if a letter is an n or an e, knowing this information ahead of time helps me to spot-read a word (that being said, I always double check – sometimes there are surprises!).

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Once the transcription is complete, the fun part begins – bringing the words your ancestor wrote to life! In translation, we need to know much more than simply the definitions of words in a dictionary. Translators must take into account the various shades of meaning of a word (for example, does the author simply mean “happy” or does he mean content, cheerful, delighted, pleased, etc.?), idiomatic expressions (translating “it’s raining cats and dogs” literally into German would lead to a great deal of confusion in Deutschland) and intended audience and style of the text (is this a casual letter written to a son or daughter or is this a formal certificate recording a life event?). Finally, we need to make sure the text reads well in the translated language. Staying true to the original while making the text flow in a different language can be a challenge in the translation field, although it is a challenge most translators enjoy!

quote-translation-is-like-a-woman-if-it-is-beautiful-it-is-not-faithful-if-it-is-faithful-yevgeny-yevtushenko-32-29-15While I do not agree with his view of women, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s take on translation is certainly true!

With the translation complete, I send it to you, the client. This often results in my favorite part of the job – hearing how this translation has broken down brick walls in your genealogical search or how happy you are to hear the words of your ancestor. I love a good puzzle as much as the next person, and helping you to learn about your ancestor is a rewarding experience that I truly enjoy.

10 German Words You Won’t Find in a Dictionary

Genealogy can be a fascinating journey. Finding your ancestor’s names, what they did with their lives and what their hopes and dreams were is an amazing process. That being said, genealogical research is certainly not without its challenges.

Delving into the depths of history is no easy feat, and it can be even more difficult if your ancestors spoke another language. In many cases, a bilingual dictionary can help you in your search for your family members. What to do, however, if a word is outdated and no longer in the dictionary? While contacting a translator can help you with this problem, sometimes it can be fun to try things yourself. Below, ten common German genealogy words you will not find in a German-English dictionary:*

  1. Ackermann – “farmer” (Today, the German word for “farmer” is “Bauer”.)

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2. Ökonom – “farmer” (In German today, this word usually means economist. In genealogical documents, however, “farmer” is the more common meaning.)

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3. Häusler – “cottager” ( a small farmer who lived in their own cottage)

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4. Hintersaß – “copyholder; smallholder or tenant”*

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5. Chausseewärter – “caretaker of rural roads”

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6. Heuerling – “self-employed farmers who usually received living quarters from the main farmer in exchange for farming”

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7. Weiland – “deceased, the late” (sometimes abbreviated “weil.”)

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8. Verlebten – “deceased, the late” (today the past tense of the word “spend”)

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9. Dermalig – “currently, at present”

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10.  Allhier – “in this place, here” (Used in certificates when describing where the person was from or worked)

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Helpful References for Outdated Words:

  • If I Can You Can Decipher Germanic Records, Edna M. Bentz: Edna provides a list of many old-fashioned occupations and illnesses, along with their English translations.
  • Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm (German Dictionary by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm): While knowledge of German is required for this dictionary, they offer German definitions for many old-fashioned words.
  • Duden.de: This German-German dictionary has many definitions that German-English dictionaries do not. If you don’t know German, simply copy and paste the Duden definition into an German-English dictionary like this one.

Best of luck with your genealogy search!

*Based on Leo German-English Dictionary

*Definition by “Heath’s New German Dictionary: In two parts, German-English–English-German.” (1888)

 

Image Credit:

http://hewit.unco.edu/dohist/farmrnch/food/clothing/photo3.htm

www2.kenyon.edu

http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/Ireland-genealogy.html

www.virginiaplaces.org

www.burnsscotland.com

shau.dvrlists.com

www.germany.travel

www.terapeak.com

www.highbrowmagazine.com

 

19 Most Common Abbreviations in German Genealogy

It happens to the best of us. There we are, happily transcribing our German genealogical document, when we’re suddenly confronted with two obscure letters. What in the world do they mean? In Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting and Ten *More* Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discuss how frequent abbreviations are in German genealogy. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult! Below, I’ve compiled a list for you of some of the most common genealogical abbreviations and their meanings:

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  1. u. –  “und” (and).

2. v. –  “von” (from).

3. b.v. –  “beide von” (both from). This is often used when describing the residence of two people on a certificate , stating that they are “both from here.”

4. d. –  “den” (the). Seen before a date, as in “d. 25.12.1924” (December 25, 1924).

5. geb. –  “geboren” (literally “born”, but often translates as “nèe”). Usually seen after a woman’s married name and before her maiden name.

6. led. –  “ledig” (single/unmarried). Usually before a name.

7. verh.“verheiratet” (married)

8. Wwe/Wwer“Witwe” (widow) or “Witwer” (widower). Seen in the place where an occupation would normally be, before a name.

9. männl. – “männlich” (masculine, male). Usually seen before the word “child” (Kind).

10. weibl. –  “weiblich” (feminine, female). See above.

11. ev. – “evangelisch” (Protestant). This can also be abbreviated “evan.” Along the same lines, “kath.” stands for “katholisch” (Catholic).

12. Pfr. –  “Pfarrer” (priest/pastor). Common in many church records and baptismal certificates.

13. weil. –  “weiland” (deceased or the late). This would always be before a person’s name.

14. ehel. – “ehelich” (legitimate, as in a child is legitimate). “unehel.” is therefore “unehelich” (illegitimate). These words are common in baptismal records.

15. Bez.“Bezirk” (district). Seen when describing where someone lives or where a document was issued.

16. d.d. –  “de dato” (on this date). This is one of the Latin abbreviations frequently used in German documents.

17. p.t. – “pro tempore” (temporary or acting in the place of).  Another Latin abbreviation, sometimes seen before a pastor’s name.

18. eod. – “eodem” (the same). Another Latin abbreviation found in genealogy documents.

19. ejusd. – “ejusdem” (in the same month or year). One last Latin abbreviation, usually denoting when someone was born, baptized, married, or had passed away.

So, German genealogists, don’t let those pesky abbreviations get the better of you. Use these helpful hints and share them with your fellow researchers using the button below. Together, we can conquer German genealogy!

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*If you would like professional transcription or translation help, contact me here. I’d love to hear from you.

Helpful Abbreviation Websites:

Use these websites to find the entire German word and then use a German dictionary to find the meaning.

Image Credit:

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www.skipprichard.com

8 Questions with St. Louis Genealogical Society: The Largest Local Genealogical Society in the USA

When our ancestors set off for America searching for a better life,  they often didn’t know what to expect or even where they would end up. While many stayed near the East Coast, others, the German and Irish in particular, chose to travel inland and make lives for themselves in St. Louis, Missouri. After all, the city and surrounding area offered the Mississippi River for trade, forests for hunting,  land for farming and even hills for wineries.  While I am lucky in knowing who my ancestors were and where they came from (From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story), there are many Americans who remain extremely curious about their family history.

This is where St. Louis Genealogical Society comes in. Founded in 1968, StLGS has been guiding people around the world in their genealogical searches for almost 50 years. Below, they offer you some of their very own genealogical expertise and tricks of the trade to help you with your own family search:
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The St. Louis Riverfront, 1840

1. What is something most people don’t know about genealogical research?

Most people don’t know that only 10% (or even less!) of existing genealogical records are available on the internet. There are many more records available at churches, libraries, court houses, archives and other such places. So it’s very important not to limit your search to the online world!

2. What is the best advice you could give family historians?

The best advice we can give is to start at the very beginning. By this, we mean that you should confirm your ancestors in America before trying to find your ancestors in their home country hundreds of years ago. Have proof of each generation, starting with your grandparents, then  your great-grandparents, and so on. Many people make the mistake of being too excited and trying to locate their great-great-great-grandfather in Germany as their very first step. However, as there were many similar names throughout history, this can lead to researching the  completely wrong person!

Other advice is to research more than only your direct line. It is amazing how many clues you can find from documents related to siblings and aunts and uncles. Town names, parents’ names, etc. can appear in documents where your direct ancestor may not even be mentioned.

3. What is the best advice you can give family historians who are more experienced in genealogical research?

Review, review, review.  When you started out years ago, you didn’t have the experience you have now. Therefore, it is very beneficial to go back and check your work that you did when you began your family history search. You may have missed something important – a vital clue that could help you unlock a mystery of the past. Confirmation of all your research is also incredibly important.

Making a chronological timeline of everything is another piece of advice we find helpful. It helps to organize your information in a clear and concise way.

4. Can you tell us anything about German genealogy in particular?

Most of the German church books date back to the Reformation (16th century). Prior to the Reformation, there was no need to record names in church books, as everyone was the same religion and  belonged to the parish no matter what. After the Reformation, people were both Protestant and Catholic, so it was necessary to record which people belonged to which church.

5. What are the oldest records available in St. Louis?

As St. Louis was founded in 1764, most of the records begin in 1765.

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Records, Records and More Records Available at StLGS

6. What do you think is one of the most challenging aspects of genealogy? How can genealogical societies help family historians with this?

As we stated above, patience seems to be one of the most challenging aspects of genealogy. People are anxious to find ancestors from hundreds of years ago, but this can lead to errors if the more recent ancestors aren’t confirmed first. Genealogical societies can guide people throughout this process and help them find out where and how to locate important documents.

7. What has been one of the most rewarding moments for you at StlGS?

St. Louis Genealogical Society hosted the National Conference last year. We had over 3,000 attendees and 110 volunteers. It was a great week, complete with many workshops and events.

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8. And finally, do you have anything you would like to add about St. Louis Genealogical Society in particular?

St. Louis Genealogical Society is the largest local county-level volunteer-run genealogy society in the US. We have approximately 100 regular volunteers, many of whom come in on a weekly basis to help index, scan and more. We also have about 2,000 members worldwide. We are currently working on our congregation project, collecting records from 1,000+ churches in the St. Louis area in order to place them online for our members. We also work together with the St. Louis County Library and offer free monthly genealogy lectures there,  as well as free classes for our members at our office.

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“The Ballroom”, where St. Louis Genealogy Society volunteers are hard at work.

So whether you are delving into the depths of your own Missouri ancestors or are simply interested in the history of the city, the St. Louis Genealogical Society is definitely worth a trip. And if your ancestors never set foot in Missouri, these tips and tricks of the trade from the St. Louis genealogy experts can be applied to ancestry searches all over the world. From all of us, best of luck in your genealogy search!

 

* For those researching their German ancestry,  StlGS and the St. Louis County Library are offering a discussion meeting on “Missouri’s German Heritage”, led by Dorris Keevin-Franke, on Saturday, July 9, at 10 a.m. in the auditorium at St. Louis County Library Headquarters.

* St. Louis Genealogical Society is open Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.  See their website for contact information.

Image Credit:

St. Louis Photo: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/look-back/look-back-cholera-epidemic-firestorm-afflict-st-louis-in/article_444e5a39-e350-5800-9697-94cdab955cd5.html

All other images are my own.

Our Time Now: Lives in the History of Time

When I was younger,  I used to love reading books about someone from the past ending up in our modern world (to be honest, I still do – Er ist wieder da, or ‘Look Who’s Back’ in English, is an entertaining German book about this very occurrence). I would laugh at the amazement of these old-fashioned people as they spotted cars, planes, microwaves, etc. for the very first time, all the while secretly thinking of us, the people of the late 20th/early 21st century, as “better” than the outdated, technologically-ignorant people of the past. Nothing malicious by any means, just a subtle sense of superiority at being born in a world where it’s normal to fly to a different country at the drop of a hat, to find information instantly on the internet, and so on. I think we all can relate to thoughts such as “I can’t believe they didn’t know [fill in the blank here] back then.”

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However, through translating historical letters and documents from as far back as 1645, you start to think of these people as actual people like you and me, and not just as outdated ancestors who would be amazed at being able to get a car ride at the click of a phone button (although they probably would be). One letter that really stuck out to me was a letter from 1923. In it, an older man is writing to his sister in America. He writes,

I am currently healthy, but occasionally weak. At times it’s better, at times worse. I do get out of bed most days, now and then I lay in bed for a few days. I’m mostly still well, but I’m already 80 years old. On February 4, if I live that long, I will be 81. 

And then again in 1926:

Dear sister…I’ve often thought that things will come to an end, but then I get better again. Our lives last 70 years and if they are long, then 80 years. I am now 83, my last hour will also come and I will be released from my suffering.

Although there is nothing particularly shocking about these letters, I was touched by the  utter normality of them. Here was a man who was 80 in 1923. That means he was born in 1843 – almost 200 years ago. But if you took these excerpts out of context, they could have been written by any 80 year-old today, almost 100 years later, contemplating mortality just as humans have done for centuries.

Going even further back, to letters from Germany to America in the 1860s, I was also impressed by how “normal” the people seem.

We just had many visitors from the city. Everyone says to tell you hello. I didn’t recognize Mrs. S and I wouldn’t have recognized Mrs. N if I didn’t know her face, she’s changed so much, but not to her advantage. She invited us to visit her next year and to stay with her because they live alone in that big house; she also brought us a ring cake.

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Again, this letter was written over 150 years ago. But the sentiments could have been written by you or me (although perhaps we would be a little nicer and not talk about people’s looks changing for the worse!)

And then finally, going all the way back to 1645 – although I haven’t translated any letters from the time period, I worked with a certificate discussing a man named Michael:

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Michael F., a fisher and farmer…, temporary resident here, was born [about] 50 years ago in Weckrieden as the legitimate child of [Christian] parents, accepted by God through baptism, later employed as a farmer…Approximately 19 years ago, he got married…Through God’s grace, three children followed…

This certificate is almost 400 years old. 400! And though the wording of such documents may have changed slightly, the facts remain the same. A man lived, worked, got married and had children. Just as we do today.

So what am I trying to say? It’s a hard feeling to describe, and I’m not exactly sure myself. I think it’s more the realization that our lives are just a brief blip in the expansive history of time.  In the above documents, one man got to experience the world in the late 19th-early 20th century, another lady in the mid-19th century, and Michael all the way back in the 1600s. But now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it’s our time. Our time, which was once the future, and will soon become the past.  So let’s make the most of it.

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Image Credit:

filmgarb.com

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Becoming a Piece of Cake: The Most Common English Mistakes for German Speakers

“That was one of the most senseful lessons we’ve ever had, thank you!”

Despite my student’s Denglisch use of the word “senseful” (coming from “sinnvoll”), this compliment after one of my  English lessons in Austria meant a great deal to me.  What was the lesson? Well, after three years of hearing German-speaking students and teachers alike making the same mistakes in English over and over again, I decided to spend an hour letting them know what these common mistakes were, as well as the correct way to say the phrase in English. Below, I’ve summarized some of these (sometimes rather funny) mistakes for you, in hopes that they will help you in your English teaching or English speaking endeavors, or simply provide you with a little chuckle if you are neither an English teacher nor an English student. And if you would like English or German lessons of your own, don’t hesitate to contact me here.

1. “I drove with the bus.”  (or with the bike, the train, etc.). In German, you would say “Ich bin mit dem Bus gefahren” which literally translates to “I drove with the bus.” However, in English, if you drive with the bus, it sounds like you are driving your car and the bus is sitting in your passenger seat, perhaps ever so kindly helping you to find your destination. The correct English translation for this phrase is “I took the bus.”  If you “drove with the train”, it becomes “I took the train” whereas if you “drove with your bike”, we say “I ride my bike.”

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2. “I’ll eat the menu.” If you say this in America or England, you may get some strange looks from your fellow diners, as wanting to eat the cardboard or plastic list of food available (Speisekarte) is rather strange in our countries. Confused? In English, the menu is not the cheaper option of the day, as Menü is in German. While it may not always be cheaper in America, the word for food  that is only there for that day is the special. 

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3. “We made a party on Friday.” Even though the German is “Party machen” , in English, the literal translation “to make a party” sounds like you built a party out of paper and glue. The correct English phrase is “to have a party.”

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4. “She’s going to get a baby in January.” I think this is my favorite mistake of all. Even though the German literally translates to the above phrase (Sie bekommt im Januar ein Kind), if you say “getting a baby” in English, it sounds like you are going to go to the store, find a nice baby sitting on the shelf, and buy it (after checking out all the available babies, of course). Therefore, if you don’t want to sound like you’re in the baby-buying business, use the English phrase “She is going to have a baby.” (Getting a baby can be used in cases of adoption, however.)                                                                                                                                                            tumblr_inline_nzkknm5ctC1tikv62_1280

5. “I have to do my homework until Monday.” This mistake is made by foreign English teachers and students alike. As you don’t differentiate between the words “until” and “by” in German (both translated with the word “bis”), this is a very common mistake. What’s the difference in English? “By” is used when you are talking about a deadline (I have to do my homework by Monday) and “until” means that you start doing something now and don’t stop until that point (If today is Thursday, I have to do my homework until Monday – meaning five days of doing homework non-stop!). Not the most fun way to spend a weekend.

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6. “I started playing tennis with ten years.” Here, it sounds like “ten years” is the name of a nice little friend of yours, although “Ten Years” would be a rather strange name for both an American and a German. Even though you use the phrase “mit zehn Jahren” in German, in English we say “when I was ten.”juniorcartoon7. “I have studied English since seven years.” What’s wrong with this phrase? Present perfect tense is error-free, so you should be good to go, right? Almost, but not quite. Here, the good old word “since” is giving you away as a non-native speaker. Even though you always use “seit” in German, there are two translations for this word in English (as you can see, with two words for “bis” and two words for “seit”, it’s no wonder English has almost 40,000 more words than German)*. “For” is used when you are talking about a period/length of time (for seven years), while “since” is used with a specific point of time in the past (I have studied English since 2007. I have been in Germany since Monday).

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8. “I had dinner at my aunt’s house and I became a piece of cake.” In English, you do not want to simply become a piece of cake while eating a nice meal with your family. This would likely disturb the evening your aunt had planned. The English phrase “to become a piece of cake” does not mean that you received (bekommen) a piece of cake, but rather that you turned into one (du bist ein Stück Kuchen geworden!). Not the most ideal situation if you are sitting with your loved ones and all the sudden they want to eat you. Here, English speakers would say “I got/received a piece of cake.”

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9. “I learned for my test.” What’s wrong with this phrase? In German, you would say “Ich habe für die Prüfung gelernt.” But in English, you can’t say “learn here” – you need to say “study”. “Learn” is used when you receive new information (I learned that Americans celebrate Christmas on December 25. I learned that London is the capital of England), while “study” is when you prepare for a test or a quiz.

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10. “I sink we are going to play the wiolin.” Last but not least, pronunciation is key in English. However, it can be quite tricky for those who didn’t grow up speaking the language themselves. The two hardest sounds for German-speakers seem to be “th” and “v” vs. “w”. As you can see from this video, “th” pronunciation is important – after all, you don’t want your friends to drown! A good trick to saying the “th” is making sure your tongue is sticking out of your mouth, all the way between your teeth. Don’t be shy, stick that tongue out! For more practice, check out this site. As for the “v” vs. “w”, this is another very important sound distinction in the English language. English speakers may find it funny if you say “I live in a small willage” instead of “I l live in a small village.” What’s the difference? The “v” is the sound you have in German, pronounced in “Wasser”, “Wien”, etc. For this sound, your teeth actually touch your top lip, making a vibrating sound come out of your mouth. With the English “w”, on the other hand”, the teeth do not ever touch the lips. Here is a great video explaining the difference between the two sounds.

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And there you have it!  Next time you speak English, if you don’t want to eat a menu or become a piece of cake, pay attention to these common mistakes and you will be well on your way to perfecting your English. And if you would like my help with your English or German language goals, write me an e-mail here – I’d love to work with you.

 

*Based on the number of words in the dictionary.

Image Credit:

Youtube: Learn transport – TAXI SCHOOL BUS LIMUZIN TRAIN TRAM – Vehicles – Cars and Trucks Carskids TV

www.gettyimages.co.uk

https://www.pinterest.com/explore/gender-reveal-box/

https://www.yahoo.com/news/elf-shelf-madness-even-biggest-203647004.html

www.123rf.com

www.woodbridge.k12.nj.us

crossfit601.com

www.5minuteenglish.com

www.sproughtontennis.co.uk

www.hopespeak.com

Ten *More* Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

If you have ever delved into the exciting world of German family history, it is very likely that you have come across the elusive-yet-beautiful old German script. Almost like another language in itself, Kurrentschrift is a form of writing (based on late-medieval cursive) that was used in Germany and Austria until the mid-20th century. In my previous post, Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discussed ten basic steps for working with old German documents. While I still recommend hiring a professional for the best results (contact me here-I’d love to work with you), below are ten even more detailed tips to help you unlock the mystery of the old German script:

1. Get hip with the lingo. Letter writers of the past often used the same phrases over and over in writing, just as we do in English today (“Thank you for your e-mail”, “Attached please find”,  etc.). Being familiar with these common phrases helps in transcribing the old handwriting, as it allows you to better recognize the rest of the sentence. Some phrases that you might find in historical German letters include:

Ich habe deinen Brief erhalten/bekommen. I received your letter.
Seid herzlich gegrüßt. Literally: Be greeted affectionately.

English: We send you our warm regards.

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. A German Saying: “What God does is well done”
Vielen herzlichen Dank. Many warm/heartfelt thanks.
Wir sind alle gesund. We are all healthy.

As discussed in the first post, abbreviations also appear frequently in old German documents. The most common abbreviations include: “d.”, meaning “den” (the) before a date, as in “d. 2te February (the second of February), “u.” for “und” (and), and “geb.” for “geboren”, meaning “nèe.” The meanings of other abbreviations can be found using this site – although if you don’t speak German, have a dictionary handy!

 2. Master the tiny details of the letters.  In Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discussed the minute differences between “e”, “n” and “m”. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only letters in Kurrentschrift that look almost the same. Other examples include:

*  “N” and “St” – These two letters are very similar and are often difficult for even a professional to tell apart. If you look closely, however, you can see that the bottoms of the two letters are (or should be) different. The “N” finishes with a swoop to the right, while the “St” finishes with the crossing of the “t” itself. However, in actual documents, this can still be difficult. The 1920s example of “St” in Stunde (hour)  on the bottom also finishes with a swoop to the right and thus even more strongly resembles an N. Here, however,  you can differentiate it from an “N” in the fact that the “t” is (slightly) crossed, as opposed to the “N” in “Nachmittag” (afternoon) above.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.56.21 PM   Nachmittag
Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 3.11.59 PM   Stunden

*   “B”, “C” and “L” – If you look at the three capital letters below, you might be a little alarmed. They are incredibly similar. However, if you know the clues to look for, you will be able to tell them apart. The “C” (middle) is easy to differentiate  from the other two letters as there is no loop at the top. Just a simple stroke with a little downward hook at the top right. As for the “B” (left) and the “L” (right), the “B” is different in that it has a little straight line coming off the bottom swoop, much like our lowercase cursive b today.  Notice this line in the left word “Brief”  (letter) compared to the rather fluid finishing of the “L” on the right in the word “Liebe” (dear). “C” is not a very common letter in German, and is often only found in names, such as “Christian.”

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*   “v” and “w” –
These lowercase letters look similar, but are actually quite easy to tell apart. While they both have the loop on the right, the “v” only has one stroke before the loop, while the “w” has two.  Below, “v” is on the left, with a real-life example of the word “vielen” (many). “w” is center, followed by an example of the word “wird” (will). Finally, the last column shows both letters in the words “verkauft werden” (will be sold). Notice how the “w” has one more stroke before the loop than the “v” in this sample from an 1868 letter.

V

vielen

wwird  

verkauft werden

 

3. Understand the importance of occupations. As we are to some extent today, our ancestors were also defined by their occupations. Therefore, on any certificate, the occupation of a person was listed  before the person’s name. For example, a certificate may read that “the farmer Johann Schmidt appeared before the undersigned registrar”, with farmer (Bauer) preceding the name of the person involved.

The level of one’s occupation was also important. Occupation levels were:

“Lehrling” – apprentice

“Geselle” – journeyman (apprenticeship complete)

“Meister” – master

These levels, if listed, always follow the name of the occupation. For example, “Schuhmachermeister” is a person who is a master shoemaker. In the examples below, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt was a Schuhmachergeselle (first handwritten word, top image) before he was a Schuhmachermeister (last handwritten word, top line of bottom image).

Schuhmacher

Schuhmachermeister

4. Think horse-drawn carriage driver. Speaking of occupations, many occupations that were around in the past are no longer around today. Or, if the occupation is still around today, there may have been a different word for it in the past. This website provides an A-Z list of old occupations with their modern-day German translation. If you don’t speak German, you can find the old-fashioned occupation of your ancestor in the left column, and then use a dictionary to translate one of the modern day names in the right column. In my experience, the most common occupation for women seems to have been “Näherin” (seamstress), while the most common occupation for men seems to have been “Bauer” (farmer). Edna M. Bentz’s book “If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records” has a great list of old-fashioned occupations as well.

5. Expect the unexpected. And by this, I mean that words may not be exactly as they are in the dictionary today. Just as our English speaking ancestors used words such as “thee” and “thou”, our German speaking ancestors used different words as well. If you transcribe a word and have absolutely no idea what it means, it could easily be a word no longer in use. This website offers a great German-German dictionary (started by the Grimm brothers) for old-fashioned German words.

But what if you still can’t find your word? In that case, if you are certain of your transcription, it very likely could be a spelling mistake on the part of the author. As German spelling did not become widely standardized until the end of the 19th century, words in letters and other documents were often spelled “creatively.” While this can make deciphering certain words rather difficult, it is slightly easier if you are aware of some of the more common mistakes. Below, some examples:

*  a “t” might be substituted for a “d”

*   a “g” might be substituted for a “k” or a “ch”

*   an “f” could be substituted for a “v”

bad spelling

In the above example, the author of the letter writes “ich aich noch nigt” instead of the proper German spelling “ich euch noch nicht” (part of a sentence, literally “I haven’t…you yet.”) The “eu” is consistently replaced with “ai” in this letter and the “ch” with a “g”. Once you start to notice the common mistakes an author makes, you can identify these substitutions in other words in your document.

6. Keep on an eye on those Americans. If your German ancestors were in America, they might have included English words and place names in their letters. I’ve come across “Varmer” (farmer), “Kolorata” (Colorado), “daler” (dollar), “vor schur” (for sure), and so on. So, if you cannot recognize a German word, take a step back and ask yourself if your ancestor could have been using some of their newly learned English.

7. Be street smart. The word for street in German is “Straße”, often abbreviated “Str.” If you know that a word in your document is a street, but can’t figure out which street it is, use this website to help you out. You type your ancestor’s city in “Suche im Strassenverzeichnis”, which then pulls up a map of the city and an A-Z list of street names. If you know at least some of the letters in your street name, this can help you recognize the correct transcription of the word.

8. Don’t be fooled by “normal” script. Names of people were often written in normal Latin script, just as the cursive script we use today. It is important to be aware of this fact – for example, you don’t want to see a letter “e” in a name and think that that is how an “e” is written in the rest of the document. Much the opposite – names were often signed one way, while the body of the document was written in Kurrent. This is especially true for church book registers.

In the example below, the author signs her name (Louise H) in “normal” script. You can see that there is no swoop above the “u” as in Kurrent, the “e” at the end of Louise is more like our cursive “e” than the Kurrent “e” that resembles our modern “n” and the “H” is nothing like the complicated Kurrent “H” that goes both above and below the line. However, in the rest of this document, the author would have used the Kurrent letters.

Louise H

9. Understand the system. If you know the information that should be on a document, transcribing is much easier. Luckily, certificates from most regions of Germany/Austria have similar formats, providing the same information for the people involved. Some information you can expect on birth, baptismal, marriage and death certificates include:

*  City, date

*  Person’s name, occupation, city of residency, religion

*  How the person was identified (passport, baptismal certificate, military pass, birth certificate)

*  Parents’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, if they are deceased

*  Witness’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, age

*  Signatures of those involved, witnesses and registrar

FredMarriageCert

The First Page of a Marriage Certificate, Berlin 1888

10. And finally, and most importantly, know when to take a break. You’ve almost finished your transcription, but there is  still one frustrating word that you cannot figure out for the life of you. You want to persevere and finish, but my advice is: don’t. Take a break, and things will often look much clearer if you stop and come back later. I’ve experienced this a number of times: The transcription is just about finished, but that one last word is baffling me. I take a break, come back  later or even the next day, and all of the sudden, the word is perfectly clear and I wonder how I didn’t see it before.  As a linguist and not a scientist, I can’t explain how that happens, but it amazes me every time!

And that’s that! With these ten tips, in addition to the original Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, you should be well on your way to battling the handwriting of the past. And once again, if you would like a professional to translate your documents, I’d be happy to help – contact me at language@sktranslations.com.

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Image Credit: All original samples have been published with the permission of the client.

All Kurrentschrift letter samples are from the Kurrentschrift wikipedia page, except for “N” and “St”, which can be found here.

 

My Ancestor: The First German Woman to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro

When we think of our female ancestors in the early 20th century, we may think of women sitting quietly at home, mending clothes or cooking dinner for their working husbands. This traditional lifestyle was not  for my ancestor, however – she wanted something more. Elisabeth “Tucka” Wiegand Müller, born in 1894 in Germany, was an adventurer. At forty years old, on the way to visit her brother in Japan, she happened to meet a man who offered her the chance to climb Kilimanjaro on a whim. She eagerly took it, and became the first German woman in history to make the climb (1934). Below, her firsthand account of the experience, written as a recollection in the 1970s.

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Tucka, seated, surrounded by her two children (four years after the climb, 1938)

As the First German Woman on Kilimanjaro: My Memories of September 2, 1934

When I was on a trip from South Africa to Japan, I never would have dreamt that I would have had the opportunity during my short stay in East Africa for a “side trip” to Kilimanjaro. I took full advantage of the opportunity. On the ship was a young Austrian, who had just come back from a safari through Kruger National Park and told me about the two times he had climbed Kibo, the highest peak of Kilimanjaro.

After he proved to be a trustworthy man, I could not refuse his tempting offer to attempt the climb myself under his guidance. I was then housed by some Germans at a coffee plantation in Moschi, where the preparations  for the climb could be made. We had to get the keys to the mountain huts from Kibo expert Dr. Reusch, who had often climbed and explored the mountain himself. Local porters also had to be arranged and boots, pith helmets, blankets and supplies had to be ordered. Last but not least, we had to muster up our own courage.

The short rainy season had already begun. It rained so heavily the entire night before our departure that I thought the venture would fall through. But the weather was clear in the early morning, so up we went with one local guide and the four porters carrying loads on their heads.

The path first led us through the jungle – over giant fallen trees and climbing plants and creeks – onwards and upwards through the tracks of elephants. We were always prepared to run into the giants. Their droppings showed us that they had recently been in the area, but that we didn’t need to hurry and get out of there as another expedition had had to do. The monkeys in the trees left us alone, but the humid heat made the hours-long ascent exhausting. Shorts proved to be impractical and the next day we changed into long pants to protect our battered, scratched-up legs. Unfortunately, I’ve since heard the old jungle path is now overgrown and a road has been built up to the Bismarck hut.

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Bismarck Hut, 1968

The first night, we stayed at the Bismarck hut,  approximately 2,800 meters high; the quality of those huts up there cannot be compared to our German-Austrian Alpine Society huts. After making us a fire and some tea, the boys rolled themselves up in their blankets in the miserable little shed. We had a mattress – or was it a straw pallet? I can no longer remember for sure, but in any case it was quite primitive.

The goal for the second day was Peters Hut (3,800 meters) – also a remnant from the German period in Africa. On our way up, in the midst of cutting winds, we passed through Alpine meadows and bogs and heath thickets that were as tall as us.

The next morning, we departed for the Kibo hut, as high as Mont Blanc. We had to bring our own water and fuel there. The gas oven smoked so much that you got tears in your eyes – we were busy the whole night turning the wick either up or down. We [thought we] would either freeze or suffocate. You couldn’t even think of sleeping and it was impossible to enjoy any food – not the stewed apricot we’d brought with us or a sip of alcohol – even sour candy induced nausea. Then we started to feel like we were getting malaria.

05

Kibo Hut

And that is how we set off the next morning, not exactly in the best shape, on the last leg of the journey. Would I make it to the top? Dr. Reusch had spoken of a well-trained Oxford team that hadn’t made it to the Kibo peak; there was also an upper-Bavarian guide who had said: “We will make it to the hill” but then came down with mountain sickness and couldn’t do it. Now, in any case, I wanted to attempt it, it was calling to me! The porters remained behind – they were afraid of the mountain spirit – and only the guide went with us. We only brought the bags that were absolutely necessary.

A tremendous struggle began. In the thin air, each step required a hellish effort, especially on the lava rubble. After a few steps, you would always slide back a bit – the next stone was your goal, for catching your breath, or, if possible for falling asleep (but we had constantly been warned that we absolutely could not do that). And so you picked yourself up over and over again and asked yourself what demon had made you take on such an arduous climb. That’s how it was for hours and hours, until finally we reached the edge of the crater, past Leopard’s Point where a frozen leopard was lying on the ground (he had wandered up there and died). The view from Gillman’s Point (5,935 meters) down to the glaciers of Kibo Crater is magnificent. To reach the highest point, Kaiser Wilhelm Peak – named by the first German climber Hans Meyer (1889) and now called Uhuru-Peak – across from Gillman’s Point, you have to go across the edge of the crater or through the crater. But this would have meant another descent and ascent.

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Kibo Crater

With the last bit of energy, we carried ourselves up to the peak,  unable to really fully savor our success. My guide laid down and was sick. We recorded our names and dates in a book that was kept in a metal box and then gazed out at the unending horizon, quite overcome…However, we could only enjoy this view for a short time, as we were soon engulfed in clouds – a snowstorm was coming.

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View from the Peak

We couldn’t put ourselves in that type of situation; we had to go back. During the descent, I had the misfortune to slip on the ice and lose my watch without noticing it right away. So I had to do without it for the entire, rather adventurous return to Mombassa, on the ship to Japan and during my time in the Far East. We made our way down the mountain, more sliding than walking. The soles of my new shoes had not withheld the strain of the ascent and flapped at every step. This of course made the descent more difficult. But then we had made it back to the Kibo hut, so that we could get all our belongings we had left behind. A terrible surprise: they had all disappeared! The rest of the trip down was like a forced march. As the steam ship I had booked was departing soon, we didn’t take any breaks at the huts as we had on the way up.

When we returned to the German brother and sister’s plantation, they knew from looking at us that we had done it, that we had achieved our goal of climbing to the top of Kibo. Our skin was in shreds, in spite of pith helmets and using protective creams . The sun below the equator and the exertion required had left their marks on us all too well.

I still have one wish: In spite of all the effort involved, to be able to go up there one more time, to once again enjoy the view that was granted to me so briefly, to experience in better circumstances that which has left an unforgettable impression on me and now shines on brightly in my memory: the view of snow-covered Kilimanjaro over the loneliness of the endless steppes.

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View from Kilimanjaro

Image Credit:

Bismarck Hut: kilimanjaro.bplaced.net

Kibo Hut: kilimanjaro.bplaced.net

Kibo Crater: www.summitpost.org

View from Uhuru Peak: www.africaguide.com

View from Kilimanjaro: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293750-d459953-i37483652-Mount_Kilimanjaro-Kilimanjaro_National_Park_Kilimanjaro_Region.html

How to Survive in Austria

Moving to another country is never easy. While it is ultimately sure to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, you are bound to encounter some surprising cultural differences and bumps along the way. After writing Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting a few weeks ago, I’ve decided to resurface another ten tips, ten tips for surviving in Austria. These tips are meant to (humorously) help my fellow-Americans to deal with the slight culture shock of living in the wonderful land of Alps, schnitzel, lederhosen and schnaps: 

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1. When someone asks “How are you?” say “Thank you.” And nothing else.

I’ve asked many a coworker in Salzburg how they are doing. A normal question, in my American mind. When posing this inquiry into their well-being, I expect to hear a normal “good”, “fine”, “hanging in there”, etc.  In Austria, alas, these expectations go unanswered, with a conversation going something like this:

Me: How are you, Sabine?

Sabine: Thank you.

Me: Oh. (awkward silence)

To this day, I still don’t know how many of my friends and colleagues in Austria are faring. At least they are polite.

2. Get in people’s personal space. And stay there.

Austrians stand about a half a foot closer to each other than we do in America. If you try to back away, they will just come closer again. And again. And again. So you might as well just stay there, ignoring the urge to run for the door.

3. Invite people to come to your birthday dinner with caution.

If it is your birthday in Austria,  your friends will not take you out for dinner and buy you food and drinks. Instead of treating you, the honored birthday girl or boy, showering you with free schnitzel and schnaps, the “kind friends and family” expect you to pay for them and the rest of your birthday guests. And yet Austria is one of the happiest countries in the world…

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4. Never, ever go shoeless inside. 

When you go into a stranger’s house, they will expect you to take your shoes off (as they don’t want street dirt in their house – even students are required to wear slippers at school). However, they would never expect you to be entirely shoeless. At the door, most Austrians have a basket of slippers (house shoes) for this very occasion.  I sometimes went around my own apartment wearing just socks, and my Austrian roommate commented “Oh yes, I notice you do that sometimes. Interesting.”

5. Awkward silence? No problem!

Austrians don’t care about the awkward silence. Apparently this is an American thing. Many a conversation in Austria just comes to a halt and no one will say anything for a never-ending, time-standing-still minute. This usually results in me babbling in German about totally unimportant, usually embarrassing things to stop my feelings of discomfort. Which then results in another awkward silence when no one knows how to respond to what I said.

6. Open the windows. All the windows. And the colder it is outside, the better.

Austrians love fresh air. Great, who doesn’t? But they love fresh air when its -20 degrees outside with three feet of snow on the ground. No need for a warm, cozy apartment with a fire in the fireplace – the air is much too stuffy. How Americans can leave windows closed in the depths of an icy winter, they simply cannot understand.

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7. Do not casually inquire about a person’s life.

In America, when we see a person we’ve lost touch with over the years, we get excited to see them and say “Hey! How’s life?” We then proceed to tell them about the main aspects of our life from the last few years. Case in point: I was at the baseball game with my Austrian now-husband. I ran into a girl who I had known at my university a few years before, and the following conversation ensued:

Me: “Hey! How’s life?!

Her: “Oh, it’s good, I just graduated. I’m going to Florida next week and will be going to grad school to be an eye doctor in the fall. How’s life for you?”

Me: “Oh, it’s good. I just got my Masters in German, am also going on vacation next week, and am moving back to Austria in August. I’m going to be teaching English there.”

Her: “Cool, good to see you!”

Me: “You too!”

I turned to my Austrian husband to see if he was ready to keep walking, only to see him standing there, shocked, with his mouth wide open. “What?” I asked. “You guys just told each other about your whole lives in two minutes.” Me: “So?” Him: “That’s really strange.”

Two months later in Austria, I saw why this was strange for him. He ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in two years. They saw each other, and said “Hi.” “Hi.” (At this point, I was all ready for the normal “How’s life?” question).

My husband: The weather’s horrible.

His friend: Yes, it is.

My husband: Well, see you later.

Friend: Bye.

Me: Um, what??? Don’t you want to know how his life is?

Husband: No, not really.

Well, ok then.

8. Greet the room.

I always thought Americans were polite, but in some ways, Austrians have got us beat. In any waiting room, be it a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office, etc., when a new person enters into the waiting area, she does not simply sit down and wait her turn, staring at her cell phone or reading a book. Instead, as soon as she enters, she greets the entire room, belting out a hearty “Grüß Gott!” (Austrian form of hello) to her fellow waiters. Everyone replies to this newcomer with their own enthused “Grüß Gott!”, happy to have the monotony of waiting broken up by a new person. And then this same phenomenon occurs again later. Instead of simply checking out and going on their way, the Austrian patient, finished with her appointment, calls out to the entire room “Auf wiederschauen” (goodbye), as if they were her own friends and she must take her leave of them. Although I find this very nice, it left me quite confused the first few times, wondering if I knew the strangers saying hello to me.

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9. Know how to waltz.

Most Austrians can waltz, which I think is wonderful. However, since they all grow up learning how to dance, they think that everyone in the world has this “basic” skill. Case in point: I was once at a wedding in the countryside around Salzburg when the song “YMCA” came on. All ready to go with my groovy alphabetic arm movements, I moved on to the dance floor, only to realize that people were waltzing to this 1970’s hit! Sensing my awkwardness, a middle-age Austrian man who I had perhaps spoken to once came over to take me for his dancing partner. Mortified, I tried my best to keep up with his 1-2-3, 1-2-3 foot movements (all while not really believing I was waltzing to the YMCA song). I thought I did semi-decent job, but I was sadly mistaken. The next day, an e-mail showed up in my inbox from my Austrian dancing partner, complete with a  lengthy Youtube video outlining the proper way to waltz. Point taken.

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10. Go to the grocery store prepared for battle. 

You never realize how spoiled we are in America that we have someone who bags our groceries for us. In Austria, you, and you alone, are responsible for this daunting task. Can it really be that difficult, you ask? Well, picture this. You have a week’s worth of groceries. One environmentally friendly grocery bag. There are 6 impatient real-life Austrians waiting in line behind you. The cashier then rings up your groceries at a crazy pace, faster than humanly possible. You have just finagled the oddly shaped egg carton into your bag while your other rung-up groceries are flying toward you at lightning speed, one after the other, when Josef, the friendly cashier, says “30 euro 33 cent”. You then have to STOP putting your eggs in the bag, wasting valuable time to pull your wallet out of the depths of your purse. The clock is ticking as you dig for the correct coins, and then keep trying to put the eggs and milk in the bag before Josef can give you your change. But Josef is an experienced cashier, and before you can put your milk away, he is trying to put the change in your hand. While you appreciate getting money back, you are stressed out about having to completely stop putting your fruit in the bag in order to put the coins in your wallet. Only three items out of 15 are in your bag, and the rest are still all over the counter. Without warning,  the next person’s eggs, milk, cereal, bread start flying on top of your groceries, and the Austrian behind you is coming into your personal space as they so like to do. It’s a challenge that simply can’t be overcome.

Person under crumpled pile of papers with hand holding a help sign

 

Now back in America, I miss Austria greatly – the mountains, the slower pace of life, the people, the food, the countless outdoor opportunities, and yes, even these little cultural differences that actually grew on me over the years (I, too, now open the windows in the winter!). Although we are different, it is our differences that make the world interesting, and visiting another country opens up our eyes to our own culture, allowing us to learn more about ourselves and the world. Vielen Dank, Austria, for all you have given me. Bis bald!

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Image Credit:

http://bit.ly/1TnA0ar

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http://bit.ly/21nIm7H

leadershiptraq.com