The Magic of German Church Books

German church books can be a gold mine of information for family historians. Before the 1870s, the churches, not civil authorities, meticulously kept track of their members’ births/baptisms, marriages, deaths and more (In 1876, five years after German unification, a law was passed legally requiring civil registry offices to keep records – the church then kept records only for their own interests and no longer for civil reasons). 

Before locating a church record, it is important to know the town where your ancestor came from, and ensure that you are looking for this town in the correct German state. Many towns in Germany have the same name, so knowing its exact location is important. You don’t want to waste time looking in the wrong church’s records!

Once you have verified the town, it is important to know where exactly you can find these church books. Their records, which can go back as early as the sixteenth century, can be found on familysearch.org, on microfilm at libraries with genealogy/history departments and on Archion.de (Protestant archives with over 200,000 church books being digitalized), to name just a few sources. And once you locate them, they offer a plethora of information. Below, see what you can hope to find in each of the various books:

  • Baptisms (Taufregister): Name of child, dates of birth and baptism, parents’ names, mother’s maiden name, legitimacy of the child, occupation of parents, town of residence, pastor’s name, midwife’s name, godparents’ names, etc. The baptismal register may also list the corresponding family book number.
  • Marriages (Eheregister): Name of person married, their occupation, age, parents’ names and occupation, whether the parents are still living, town of residence, spouse’s name, occupation and age, spouse’s parents names, occupation and whether they are still living, dates of marriage banns, date of marriage,  witnesses’ names, ages and occupation, etc.
  • Deaths (Totenregister): Name, occupation, residence, age,  cause of death, date of death, date of burial, surviving relatives, etc.

 

 

 

1851 German Church Book Entry

Of course, these records are usually written in the old German handwriting. If you need help with the transcription or translation, feel free to contact me here. Or check out Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting to try some transcription yourself!

Some records, depending on the region and the scribe, may have more or less information than others.  Confirmation and general family records may also exist in some parishes. 

Additional Information You Should Know about Church Records:

  • The entries were usually written in chronological order. 
  • Dates were written in Day-Month-Year format.
  • Some church records were written in Latin instead of German. Some use both languages. 
  • “-in” was sometimes added to the last name of women. For example, “Müller” could be “Müllerin” when discussing a female.
  • Spelling of names was not always standardized. A name could be spelled one way in one record and a different way in another record. Common letter variations include:
    • K/G 
    • B/P
    • F/V
    • D/T 
    • Vowel changes (ey – ay – ei, for example)

Now that you know where to look, go out there and start researching. There’s a wealth of information waiting for you!

Sources:

http://www.ancestry.de/kirchenbuch

https://www.archion.de/de/familienforschung/kirchenbuecher/

http://narafriends-pittsfield.org/gechurch.htm

Kathy Wurth at Family Tree Tours: https://familytreetours.com/

A Poem to Old Letters

While translating the book of my German family history, I came across a poem written by my German ancestor Wilhelm Müller (1881-1945), a pastor in Germany during World War I and World War II. The poem, entitled “Die alten Briefe”, or “The Old Letters”, spoke to me significantly, as it is old letters that I translate every day for clients searching for their own ancestors. Whether it be a letter from a German immigrant in 1863 discussing the troubles of the American Civil War, a letter from an 85-year-old man in 1920s Germany wondering how long he has left to live, or a 1940 letter from a mother admonishing her son overseas for not replying to her neighbor, each and every letter has its own story to tell. These people, usually no longer with us, come to life through their words written down so long ago, giving the letters a soul and life of their very own. In his poem below, my ancestor puts this idea to paper: (my  English translation):

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Wilhelm Müller, as a WWI chaplain on the French front, 1915

The Old Letters

I rummage through old letters

that have slept for decades long

about to toss them to the flames

I realized that was wrong

as I began to read

of all that once had been

I knew, I couldn’t do it

couldn’t burn these words of men.

How those yellowed papers

so warmly spoke to me

A soul shining through the page

I couldn’t let it be.

Letters from a mother,

seeped with her selfless heart

her endless care for children

apparent from the start.

I read her loving words

so loyal, kind and true

Such good they did to me,

my sense of safety grew.

And touching notes from children –

forming letters wide-eyed

Seeing their little faces

shining with joy and pride

and, the writing over

on paper oh so fine

I see their bitter tears as well

when missing a stroke or line.

Adoring letters of friendship

from old romantic days

swearing to a lover

to keep one’s heart ablaze.

How soon this passion fades away

as time does take its course

This token of remembrance

recalls the relationship’s source.

I cannot part with these letters,

which speak to my very soul.

These letters are the hearts of men

To the flames, they shall not go.

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Die Alten Briefe

Ich kramte in alten Briefen,

die seit Jahrzehnten schliefen,

den Flammen woll’ ich sie weih’n.

Doch dann begann ich zu lesen

von allem, was einst gewesen,

Da wußt’ ich: es kann nicht sein!

 –

Wie’s doch aus den alten Papieren

so warm und so traut zu mir spricht!

Sie haben ja eine Seele;

nein – ich zerstöre sie nicht.

– 

Da sind die Briefe der Mutter,

von selbstloser Liebe durchtränkt,

von nie ermüdender Sorge,

die nur ihrer Kinder gedenkt.

Und las ich die lieben Worte,

voll Andacht, wie tut mir’s so gut!

Ich fühl mich noch einmal nach Jahren

geborgen in treuer Hut.

– 

Und rührende Kinderbriefchen –

die Buchstaben sorgsam gemalt!

Ich seh, wenn die kleinen Gesichter

in freudigem Stolze gestrahlt,

wenn Ihnen das Schriftstück gelungen

auf Briefpapier herrlich geziert,

ich seh’ noch die bitteren Tränen,

wenn Ihnen ein Unglück passiert.

– 

Und schwärmende Freundschaftsbriefe

aus alter romantischer Zeit,

in der man begeistert geschworen

auf Treue und Unfehlbarkeit.

Wie schwanden die Ideale

dann vor dem erwachenden Blick!

Ein kleines Erinnerungszeichen

ruft alles Entzücken zurück.

– 

Ich trenne mich nicht von dem Briefen,

aus denen so viel zu mir spricht.

Sie haben ja eine Seele! –

Nein, ich verbrenne sie nicht.

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     

19th-century

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:

gazette.teachers.net

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:

1645 Death Cert

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

tothotornot.com

 

 

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

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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.

Unbenannt

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.