Five Transcription Tips for When You’re Just Stuck

Author’s Note: If you want more help transcribing your genealogy documents, join our Premium group – weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers. 

It happens to all of us. We are feeling good about our transcription skills, happily deciphering our German document, when all of the sudden, a word appears that looks like this: 

Alright, maybe not that bad, but sometimes it sure feels like it. So what can you do with these words that make you want to tear your hair out? Below, here are some tried and true tricks of the trade for when you can’t read a word:

1. Keep reading.

It sounds simple, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that work the best. Make some kind of mark in your transcription to note that you’ve skipped a word (I always write —-), and continue transcribing from that point. Many times your illegible word will be repeated in another section of your document, and this second occurrence of the word will be much easier to read than the first one.  

2. Find a similarly-formatted record for comparison purposes.

For example, if  your illegible word is part of a church record, look at the many other records on that same page. These records are usually all in the same format, and many times a word that is scrawled in your record will be much clearer in another record (who knows, maybe the scribe was in a hurry on the day of your ancestor’s baptism, but was in a more leisurely mood the next day). If it is a marriage certificate, look for another example of a marriage certificate that is formatted the same way. 

Additional Tip: If you don’t have another record handy, try copy and pasting parts of your German transcription into Google Search Engine. Sometimes other genealogists will have posted their transcriptions and translations of similar records on forums or blogs, which Google Search Engine will then bring up. You can then check this transcription against your own record to see if there are any similarities, and, if so, if your difficult-to-read word then becomes clear. 

3. Look to the next line.

Our ancestors often divided up words between lines, without using any hyphens or any other indication to mark this. Oftentimes the rest of your letters will be one line down, and then your word will make much more sense.

4. If the word you can’t read is a city or town, check if there are any types of headings or even stamps on your document.

Sometimes the answer is right there on the page, in incredibly easy-to-read type! 

5.  If one specific letter is illegible, scan your document to see if you have already deciphered a similarly-shaped figure in another word.

Perhaps you sight-read the word “Vater” (father), and by looking at that “r” in “Vater”, you then realize that the illegible letter in your current word might be an “r” as well.  Another trick I employ is if a letter is written differently than the “normal” version of the letter, I will sometimes underline all instances of that strange-looking letter in my document. This then allows my brain to get used to the way this scribe writes the letter, making it easier to recognize in future words. Making a key for all these illegible letters can also be very helpful.

If you’d like more tips and tricks for deciphering German handwriting, check out my book with the same title: Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting, available in e-book and paperback form on Amazon. Best of luck with your transcriptions! 

German Language Insight for Genealogists

While learning German is obviously not required for German genealogy research, it often helps to have at least a bit of understanding of the language when looking for your ancestors.  In addition to being able to recognize the most important genealogy words in German records, knowing a little about how the German language works can help you to narrow down what documents you think are important for your genealogy research. Below, I have summarized some of the most basic facts about the German language, in the hopes that this may give you a bit of a leg up when looking at your German documents.

1. All nouns are capitalized.

In the German language, all nouns (persons, places and things) are capitalized, no matter if it is a “proper noun” or not. For example, the word birth (Geburt) is capitalized in German, as is the word child (Kind). So if you see a capital letter, you now know that it does not necessarily mean that the word is a name – it’s likely just a noun.

The word Geburt (birth) is written with a capital “G”.

2. German has many different words for the word the.

 

Crazy, right? Depending if the word is the subject (Nom), direct object (Akk), indirect object (Dat), or possessive (Gen)*, the German word for the changes. No need to worry about what these grammatical terms mean for this article (unless you are a grammar nerd like myself – in that case, see below), but if you see any of the words above, you will know they all mean the. 

3. Lowercase words starting with ge- are likely past tense words.

The German past tense is formed with either  haben/sein (to have or to be – see how they conjugate below) + the past tense of the verb, which is usually formed with ge-. For example, the German word for to eat is essen. To say I ate, you would say Ich habe gegessen. The German word for to drive is fahren. To say I drove, you  would say Ich bin gefahren. 

Some verbs use a “t” form in their past tense instead of the “-en” ending. For instance, the word for to play is spielen in German, with the past tense (I played) written as Ich habe gespieltWhile getting into all the rules of the past tense here would take a bit too long, the important idea to take away is that if you see haben or sein plus ge-verb, the sentence is likely in past tense.

4. Umlauts can also be written out with an “e” after the vowel. 

Most German writers do use the umlaut (ä, ö or ü), but in some texts, you will see this sound written as ae, oe and ue instead. In genealogy, this is especially relevant for the spelling of certain last names. For instance, the last name Mueller is spelled M-u-e-l-l-e-r in America, but our German ancestors spelled it M-ü-l-l-e-r. The ü changed to a ue in English spelling. 

5. German loves compound words.

The German language consists of many compound words, or two words combined together to form one. How does this help you? Well, if you come across a word and can’t find it in your dictionary, try looking up the two parts of the word individually. This should then help you to form a better idea of what the author could have meant. 

Some fun examples of German compound words include:

6. Sometimes the verb is written at the very end of the sentence. 

While many German sentences do use Subject-Verb-Object word order (just like we do in English: “I ate the burger”, in which the verb, ate, comes right after the subject, I), sometimes German puts the verb at the very end of a sentence or phrase. Why would they do such a crazy thing, you ask? Well, if the sentence includes a certain type of word (a subordinating conjunction*, to be exact), such as weil (because)dass (that), ob (whether), während (during), etc., this is a signal for the verb to move to the end of a sentence, as it cannot be directly after the subject when one of these words are present. So if you don’t see the verb after the subject, keep reading, and it may be the very last word in the sentence. See this article on German word order for more information: https://www.fluentu.com/blog/german/learn-german-word-order/.

Mark Twain explains this crazy grammar best in his article “The Awful German Language“: 

“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.”

You can see what Mark Twain means in this newspaper article I had the pleasure of translating below. The subject of the sentence, Termin (appointment), is in the second line, while the verb festgesetzt (was set) doesn’t appear until 9 lines later! So if you can’t find the verb in your document, don’t give up – just read on for a few more hours and it may eventually appear. 

While there are of course many more intricacies to the German language, it is my hope that these basic tips will give you a bit more of an idea of how German works. The German language is at times fascinating, at times entertaining, and yes, as Mark Twain put it, at times awful  – but overall, it is a great language to know, especially if you’re researching your German genealogy. Until next time, auf Wiedersehen (which happens to be another great compound word: wieder means again, sehen means to see)!

Image Credit: www.itchyfeetcomic.com

* Cases in German, explained with English examples:

Example Sentence: The girl threw me the ball. 

Nominative case is the subject, which answers the question “who is doing the action?”.  

Who threw the ball? The girl. Girl is therefore the subject of the sentence.

Accusative case is the direct object, which answers the question “who or what after the verb?”. The girl threw what? The ball. Ball is therefore the direct object of the sentence and in the accusative case.

Dative case is the indirect object, which answers the question “to whom or for whom after the verb?”.

The girl threw the ball to whom? To me. Me is therefore the indirect object of the sentence and in the dative case.

Genitive case in German is the possessive case, expressed as “The sister of my father….” 

Of my father would be in the genitive case in German.

*Subordinating conjunction: http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/parts-of-speech/conjunctions/subordinating-conjunctions.html

Six Need-to-Know “Letter Swaps” When Deciphering Your German Documents

“Why do you write your letters like that?” is a phrase that most of us have heard at some point in our lives. Just as each of us write our ABCs slightly differently from one another, so too did our ancestors – which can make transcribing their German handwriting rather difficult! Luckily, for those of us who work with the old German script on a daily basis, there is a great trick of the trade that helps with the daunting process of deciphering family documents: letter swaps. What is a letter swap, you ask? Well, some letters in the old German script look very similar to one another, and the way one person wrote one letter may be the way another person wrote its “swap” equivalent. So if a word isn’t making sense with the letter you think, trying replacing it with one of its “substitutes”, and see if you now have a plausible German word. Read below for the typical “swaps” in the world of German handwriting:

 

  1. h-s-f
               

While the lowercase letters h, s, and f above  are obviously different from one another in their proper form, they can often look similar to each other when quickly scrawled out by our ancestors.

s-c-h-r-i-f-t-l-i-c-h (“schriftlich”, or written)

Observe how the middle “f” and final “h” look similar (although if you look closely, you will see differences!)

*The letter “s” actually has three different forms, but this “s” is used at the beginning of a lowercase word or syllable. See Ten Tips for Deciphering German Handwriting for more information on the letter “s”.

 

  1. g-p

       

Lowercase g and p, with their circles above the line and their loops below, can often be confused for one another.

                                                                

g-e-n-s (the end of the word Morgens, or in the morning)                  s-p-ä-t (spät, or late)

  1. a-o

           

Lowercase a and o can look similar if the author does not bring his final line of the “a” down to the line, as seen in the word “amtlich” below. 

            

a-m-t-l-i-c-h (amtlich, or official)                S-o-n-t-a-g (misspelling of the word Sonntag, or Sunday)

  1. e-n-m-r

For the exact differences of e-n-m, see Tip #2 on my Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting. Basically, the “e” (first sample) is more narrow, the “n” (second) is more jagged and spread out, with three points at the bottom, and the “m” (third) has four points. The “r” (final letter) should look different from these three, but if you look at the “n” (second), you can see how the “n” and the “r”, and even the “r” and the “e”, might sometimes look similar in actual handwriting.

        

e-r-z-ä-h-l-e-n      m-ü-ß-e-n (erzählen müßen, or must tell)         s-c-h-r-e-i-b-e-n (schreiben, or to                                                                                                                                 write)

  1. N-ST

Uppercase N and St can look similar if the author does not clearly cross his “t”. See the example of Nachmittag (afternoon) and Stunde (hour) above.

6. B-C-L

Uppercase B, C, and L can also look very similar to one another, depending on the author at hand. See the examples of Brief (letter), Christine, and Liebe (love) above to see how similar the letters can look (especially B and L).

If you would like more tips on learning how to actually tell these letters apart, see my post on Twenty Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting. I would also recommend Roger Minert’s book Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents, which was instrumental to me when getting started in the field. But if you are not interested in learning these minute differences, or if it just seems too complicated and overwhelming, the above “letter swaps” should help if you cannot figure out the German word your ancestor or the church scribe wrote on your document. For example, if a “g” is not making sense, try swapping it out for a “p.” If you know there needs to be a vowel at a certain place in a word, but the letter looks like an “n”, now you know it is likely an “e”. The same goes for all the above letter combinations. Best of luck in transcribing, and, as always, if you would like a professional’s help, please don’t hesitate to contact me here.

5 Secret Transcription Tips from a German Genealogy Translator

Author’s Note: If you’d like more help transcribing your German documents,  join our Premium group today  – you get weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your tricky transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers.

You’ve climbed up your family tree. You’ve located your German ancestor in Germany. And you’ve finally gotten your hands on those German records. Excited, you go to work with them….only to realize they are written in old German script*, a script even most native German-speakers cannot read today. What to do? Well, if you don’t want to deal with the translation yourself,  you can always contact a professional (I’d be happy to be of service). But some of you may want to give it a go on your own first.  And for that reason, I’ve compiled a list of five of my favorite transcription hacks that I use myself when translating. Read below to find out more!

*For more tips and information on transcribing German handwriting, see Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting.

1. Change your Microsoft Word language to German (For instructions on how to do so, see here.)

Changing your “Spelling and Grammar Check Language” to German in Microsoft Word can be very helpful when transcribing German genealogy documents, especially if you don’t know German yourself – after all, the grammar check will actually tell you if your words are real German words or not!  For example, if you type in the letters you think you recognize from a word in your document, Microsoft Word will underline it in red if it does not exist in German. You can then right-click on the word to see suggestions of what the word could be. Type these into a dictionary, and see if any make sense within your genealogy document.

In the example below, perhaps the handwritten word looks like “G-e-b-u-r-l” to your eyes. You then type this into Microsoft Word, and see that it is underlined in red – meaning that it is likely not a German word. You then right-click on the word, and see five possibilities of what this word could be. You realize that it must be the first word on the list  – “Geburt”, which means “birth.” Satisfied, you continue transcribing!

Word of Warning: Our ancestors and other scribes often misspelled many words in their documents. Just because you have a red line under a word does not mean you transcribed it incorrectly. However, the “right-click list” can provide you with options for what the word could actually be (For common spelling mistakes our German ancestors made, see Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents). It is also important to note that many words that were common hundreds of years ago are no longer common today, and Microsoft Word may mark these as incorrect as well. Woerterbuchnetz.de is a great dictionary for old-fashioned German words. 

2. Let Google Search do the work for you.

Google’s search engine can make your transcription work much easier! Simply type your transcription guess into Google and see what happens. If many search results appear, this means you are very likely correct in your transcription (of course, it’s important to read the results to make sure that they correspond with your document’s meaning). However, if you have one or more letters wrong, Google may actually suggest the correct word for you. 

In a recent document  I translated with rather difficult handwriting, I was relatively positive that the handwritten word looked like “Mariengemeinde S-e-h-l-o-s-kirche” (Marien Parish Sehlos Church). However, since I knew “Sehlos” did not make any sense, I typed the phrase into Google to see what would come up. Sure enough, Google suggested “Mariengemeinde Schlosskirche” (The Castle Church of Marien Parish) which made much more sense and actually existed in that area. Thanks Google!

 

3. Use Wordmine.info.

Wordmine.info is my favorite website for transcribing.  Once you have identified as many letters at the beginning or the end of a word as you can, write them out, leaving a blank for the letter(s) you don’t know. Then go to Wordmine.info, and choose either or “Words beginning with” (Wörter beginnend mit) or“Words ending with” (Wörter mit Endung) and type in the first or last letters of the word you are deciphering. Press “Suche” (Search) and a list of German words with that beginning or ending will appear. Hundreds of results? Check the box “Anzahl der Buchstaben” (Number of Letters) and fill in the number of letters that you think are in the word (I always do one more and one less than I actually think, just to be on the safe side – you never know with handwriting!). Check the words against your handwritten word, and hopefully you find a match!

Above, I recognized the first letters as “Scheu”, but the final two were just a scribble. I typed these letters into WordMine, along with the approximate number of letters, and then realized that my word must be “Scheune”, or “barn”, based on the word and context of the letter.

4. For town names, use Meyers Gazetteer.

The Meyers Gazetteer website is a wonderful collection of pre-World War I German cities, towns, villages and more (so yes, for all of you with ancestors in present-day Poland, France or other areas that used to be part of Germany, your ancestor’s town is likely included!). If you know from the context of the document that a word is likely a town name, but can’t recognize all the letters, type the first few or the last few into Meyers Gazetteer’s search engine, using a * for the letters you can’t read. The website then provides a list of possible places with that letter combination – check their locations and spellings, and see if it matches your word and region. Hopefully you find a match!

Here, the beginning of a list of German locations ending in “tenheim”.

5. Skip the word you can’t read and continue transcribing.

This may sound simple, but it has helped me many times when transcribing documents. If I have spent a few minutes on a word and just cannot figure it out, I simply skip it, marking it with “—” in my document to come back to later. I then continue transcribing, and, more often than not, the word becomes clear in a few minutes – either from the context of the rest of the paragraph, or, if I am lucky, from another occurrence of the same word later in the document. Oftentimes seeing the same word twice or even three times will provide clarity to letters that looked unclear before. 

So there you have it! I hope these tips and hacks will help you in transcribing your genealogical documents. And if you would like a professional’s help, please don’t hesitate to contact me here. Happy transcribing!

 

 

 

Before You Cross the Pond: Five Places to Find Your Ancestor in America

Number One Rule in Genealogy: Start with what you know, and document, document, document! Although you may think you know the name of your immigrant ancestor, expert genealogists say you should never start off with looking for him or her in Europe – instead, start with yourself (after all, who do you know better?) and go back from there,  generation to generation, documenting your sources along the way. 

Why all this work? Well, you may think your immigrant ancestor was Wilhelm Müller from Germany, but do you know how many Wilhelm Müllers existed? You need to be 100% sure you are looking for your Wilhelm – in the exact right time frame and geographical region – so as not to waste your time doing another person’s research! Even those less common names were more common than you might think. But where to start? Below, a list of 5 great places to find your ancestors in America before your cross the pond:

  1. Home Sources

Looking in your basement, your attic (or another relative’s basement and attic) can often turn up genealogical treasures. Letters and diaries of family members are amazing sources of information, and you never know what your grandma or grandpa ended up saving. Old photographs can provide you with clues – turn them over, and you may find names and ages of the subjects on the back. You may also find the studio where the photograph was taken, a great hint for where to continue your genealogy search. Family bibles can also be great sources – birth, marriage and death dates would often be written inside the front cover. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, people – go find your oldest living family member now and ask to interview them. Talk to them about their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles and their family stories. Besides giving you information for your genealogical search, hearing stories from the past is just plain interesting! I recently interviewed my own grandmother and learned about her life growing up in the 1930s. Check out her story Fly Soup, German Spies and Stolen Blue Jeans: A Glimpse into the 1930s with Grandma, here.

These photos were found in my grandmother’s house. If we turn them over, we can see the name of a photo studio on the back (This studio is in Germany, but the same could be true for American photos.)

  1. Vital Records and Church Records

 Vital records and church records can provide a great deal of information about your ancestors’ lives. Vital records offer birth, marriage and death dates, while church records provide this information and possibly more (sacraments). Where can you find these records? To name just a few places:

(If you are looking for a translation of the common vital records from Germany, I am now offering downloadable birth, marriage and death certificate translation templates, complete with the German transcription and English translation of all printed words on the form, in my online shop.)

  1. Census Records

The census has been taken every ten years in the US since 1790. Because of privacy laws, the most recent census available is the 1940 census. The census can provide you with treasure troves of information, including your ancestor’s name, family members’ names, ages in that year, immigration year, occupation, language spoken and more. Where can you find census records?

This 1920 census from Missouri offers information about my great-great-grandfather. It was found on familysearch.org.

  1. Ethnic Newspapers

When our ancestors moved to America, they often formed German-speaking communities in order to feel like they had a bit of their homeland in their new country. These communities often had their own newspaper, reporting on the events and stories relating to their community members. A newspaper from your ancestor’s community might mention your ancestor, along with a piece of information you might known have known about him or her – perhaps an address, a parent’s name, a siblings name, etc. Check out great collections of ethnic newspapers at:

Westliche Post was a German-speaking newspaper published in St. Louis. It can be found at the St. Louis County Library.

  1. Passenger Lists

New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Baltimore were all ports of entry for our ancestors coming to the US. Their passenger lists can provide you with your ancestor’s birthplace, the date they arrived in America, the name of the ship they traveled on, their occupation, a description of how they looked, their most recent place of residence, and more – a wealth of information for the interested genealogist. Where can these lists be found?

These are just a few ideas of where to start looking for your German ancestor. Other sources (naturalization records, military records, etc). can also help you in your genealogy quest. And once you make it back to your immigrant ancestor and are ready to cross the pond, feel free to contact me here for any German language translation you may need for those documents. Happy hunting!

Source: 

The Family Tree German Genealogy Guide, by James Beidler

Image Credit:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/5_2.html

The Great Hat Mishap: An 1890s Tale

It was the 1890s. Catherine Foristal, the daughter of two Irish immigrants in St. Louis, Missouri (and my great-great-grandmother), had just gotten her first job at a shoe company. Each day, on her way to work, young Catherine would pass by a millinery (hat) store, peering in the window and seeing what new styles and items had arrived. One day, however, she stopped in her tracks – in the shop was the most beautiful hat she had ever seen. Black, modern, and adorned with an arched, elegant ostrich feather, the hat would look absolutely stunning on her. But one look at the price tag sent her quickly on her way.

         Millinery Shop               

In the following days, every single morning and every single evening, Catherine would walk by that hat, longingly envisioning it on her own head. But she knew her mother would never allow it. Jane Foristal, who, like her husband, had emigrated to America in the wake of the Irish potato famine, was a frugal woman. In addition to having six mouths to feed, spending money on such frivolities as a fancy hat was something she would never do. Or allow her children to do.

                   

                                                                  1890s Hat Fashion

Pay day at the shoe company finally arrived. After picking up her money, Catherine began to make her way home. As she walked past the millinery shop, she thought to herself, “I have the money…and it really would look lovely on me….” She just couldn’t resist. With her wages weighing down her pocket, Catherine walked into the shop and bought herself the beautiful black hat with the long ostrich feather. When the cashier handed her her purchase, she couldn’t believe it – the stylish hat now belonged to her, Catherine Foristal!

But what about her parents? Well, she would just have to hide the hat. With a new resolve, Catherine marched the rest of the way home, planning and scheming. Once there, she quietly opened the front door and smuggled the hat up to her bedroom, planning to try it on for the first time after dinner. 

   Catherine’s Parents, Irish Immigrants Jane and Richard Foristal (1874)

Dinner that night was hard to sit through, but it eventually drew to a close. As soon as she could get away without arousing suspicion, Catherine slipped upstairs, anticipating the moment when she would finally see her beloved hat on her head. She quietly took the hat out of it’s hiding place, reverently running her hands up and down the beautiful ostrich feather. All of the sudden, she froze – her mother’s footsteps were on the stairs. “Catherine?” her mother called out. Panicked, Catherine didn’t know what to do. There was no time to hide the hat. As a cool breeze hit her face, Catherine saw her chance – she impulsively tossed the hat out her open bedroom window, sailing it down to the yard below. Her bedroom door opened a second later.

Not really listening to what her mother was saying, Catherine devised a plan to sneak out and get her hat as soon as she could. Her mother, however, had much to say, and she and Catherine eventually went downstairs to the dining room to continue their talk. By this point, it was starting to get dark, and Catherine hoped she’d be able to see her hat in the yard outside.  Suddenly, the dining room door burst open. Her father, who had been out watering the lawn as the evening light faded, barged in the room, completely exasperated and out of breath. “Begorrah!1 ” he bellowed, “That’s the boldest cat I’ve ever seen! I’ve turned the hose on it four times and it wouldn’t even budge!”

American actress Lillian Russell, in the hat style of the times, 1898.

Library of Congress

Later that night, Catherine snuck out into the yard, hoping against hope that the nagging suspicion whirling around in her mind was wrong. As she bent down in the bushes, she reached for her new hat, only to find it sopping wet and completely ruined. She never told her parents there was no cat. 

[1] Irish exclamation for “By God!”

Image Credit: 

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~kspchs/parkerbusiness1890.htm

http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/07/15/422860307/hats-off-to-women-who-saved-the-birds

 

 

 

 

What Did You Do For a Living, Ancestor?: Common Occupations in German Genealogy

“What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask someone upon meeting. Our occupation defines us, showcasing our interests and illustrating how we spend our time. And just as this is true in the twenty-first century, so too was it for our ancestors (although they perhaps had less choice in the matter than we do – there likely weren’t many Uber drivers back then). 

My ancestor was a “Pfarrer” (priest/pastor)

But where do you find your ancestor’s occupation? Luckily for you, it’s not too difficult. The occupation of your ancestor is almost always right before his name in a document (marriage certificate, death certificate, church book, etc.). For example, a certificate might read “The baker Johann Schmidt, born February 5, 1880…”, with baker (Bäcker) preceding the name of the person mentioned.  In the marriage certificate below, we can see the name Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt (beginning on the second line). If we look at the word before the name Friedrich (last word, top line), we see the occupation Schuhmachermeister, meaning that Friedrich was a master shoemaker.

This leads us to the levels of occupations, which were also important for our ancestors. 

Occupation levels included:

“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 his earlier life, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt was likely a Schuhmachergeselle, or journeyman shoemaker.

So what occupations were common in the past? Below, find a list of the most common occupations (in my translating experience) for men and women in German genealogy. For an extensive list, Edna Bentz’ book If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records offers several pages of German occupations of the past, as well as a sample of how the occupation would have looked in the old handwriting (along with its English translation). 

Common Occupations for Men:

Arbeiter worker, laborer
Bauer farmer
Gastwirt (Gastwirth)/Wirt innkeeper
________händler __________ dealer/trader/merchant
Maurer bricklayer
Metzger butcher
Müller miller
Schmied blacksmith
Schneider tailor
Schreiner cabinet maker, joiner, carpenter
Schuhmacher shoemaker, cobbler
Tagelöhner day laborer
Tischler cabinet maker, furniture maker, carpenter
Tuchmacher cloth maker
Weber weaver

Common Occupations for Women:

Dienstmädchen maid, servant girl
Dienerin servant (female)
gewerblos/ohne Gewerb no occupation
Hebamme midwife
Krankenschwester nurse
Näherin seamstress

Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents

Author’s Note: If you are interested in more tricks for deciphering the old German script in your genealogy documents, check out my new book on the topic, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting!

You have your German genealogy document. You are feeling relatively confident with the handwriting. But those letters just don’t seem to be forming any word you can find in the dictionary. What could be going on?

As German spelling was not standardized until the end of the 19th century, the spelling of words in handwritten documents can often be rather “creative”, to say the least. In these types of situations, the trick to deciphering the handwriting is: Think like a German! (*For a simple chart of spelling variations, see the end of the article*). 

What does it mean to think like a German, you ask? Well, in the German language, even today, many certain letters sound the same to German speakers. Case in point: I was once in a book shop in Austria, and had placed an order for a book. The bookseller asked for my last name, upon which I replied with my maiden name, Portnoy. He looked at me and said, “Now, would that be with a hard P or a soft B?” Confused, I replied, “It’s just a P. You know, Puh, Puh!” 

Upon further inquiry, I found out that the Germans have a hard time telling the difference between their spoken P and B. They have therefore applied adjectives (hard and soft) to the letters to clarify which consonant they mean. For Americans, P and B are very distinct (although they are made at the same place in our mouth), but for Germans, they need that extra description to be sure which letter is meant. And this leads to the fact that many German writers of the past misspelled P words with B’s and vice versa.

K and G: For any linguists out there, you may now be recognizing a pattern. Just as B and P are spoken at the same place in our mouths, K and G are also formed in the same part of the mouth as one another (what differentiates these letters from each other is that the B and G are voiced, meaning our vocal cords vibrate when we make these sounds, while the P and the K are voiceless, with no vocal cord vibration). Again, English speakers make a bigger distinction between these sounds than German does, which means that our German ancestors often mixed up the K and the G in writing (in very creative cases, a K or a G may also have been used for a CH). 

T and D:  Just as  the above letter pairs, the only distinction between these letters is whether the vocal cords vibrate or not, meaning that there is not a big difference in these sounds for German speakers. So if a word is not making any sense and you can’t find it in a dictionary, try replacing the T with a D or vice-versa.

F and V: In German, the letter V sounds like the F sound, meaning many German speakers often mixed up the two letters. Case in point: I once translated a letter from a German person living in America, written in German. The author was describing his occupation, and wrote the word “Varmer.” After puzzling what this random German word could be, I then realized that the author meant “farmer” in English, but had misspelled it with a V.

C and K: C is not a very common letter in German today, but in some words of the past, they did use a C where a K would be written today.

Extra H’s: You will often see many words in old German documents that have an H included where no H would be written today. Some examples include:

  •  verheirthat (verheiratet) – married
  • thun (tun) – to do
  • Thräne (Träne) – tears
  • Monath (Monat) – month

For further examples, see here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Rechtschreibung_im_sp%C3%A4ten_19._Jahrhundert

Umlauts: Most German writers did use the umlaut (two dots above A, O, and U) but some preferred to write this sound as AE, OE, and UE.  You can see this in the spelling of certain last names today. For instance, my German ancestors’ last name was “Müller”, but our family spells the name “Mueller” today. So if your ancestor wrote a word with “ae”, but you can’t find it in the dictionary, try typing “ä”.

 

EI and EY: Some words spelled with EI today were spelled with EY in the past (with two dots over the Y). Examples:

  • bey (bei) – preposition meaning many different things, depending on the context (http://dict.leo.org/englisch-deutsch/bei)
  • seyn (sein) – to be
  • Freytag (Freitag) – Friday

EU and EI: Depending on the region of Germany, Austria or Switzerland, some authors may have pronounced EU words (normally pronounced as the OY in boy) as EI (like the I in bike). Some examples:

  • eich (euch) – you all
  • Freind (Freund) – friend

ß and S: ß (Eszett, or sharp S, pronounced as S) is still used in German today, although the rules on when to use it have changed. This means that you may often see ß in words where an S or two S’s would be used in German today.

I and IE: In the past, German writers often substituted an IE for what would only be an I today. Example:

  • giebt (gibt) – to give (or Es giebt/Es gibt – There is…)

I and J: If you go centuries back into the past, you may see some words written with a J today that were written with an I back then. One example is:

  • Iahr (Jahr) – year

While there are many more spelling variations, these are some of the most common ones. So if your word is not appearing in any online dictionary, try substituting its German equivalent, and see what you can find! And if you don’t want to puzzle through the mysteries of German spelling, you can always contact me here for translation help. 

German Spelling Variations

Letter One (These Were Interchanged With One Another) Letter Two (These Were Interchanged With One Another)
b p
k g
t d
f v
The Below Letters Are the Standard Spelling Today: The Below Letters Were Used More Often in the Past (as substitutes for left column):
k c
no h additional h
ä, ö, ü ae, oe, ue
ei ey
eu ei
s/ss ß (also used in standard spelling, although not as often)
i ie
j i

 

3 Reasons Why a Family Tree is Important for Your Children: Guest Post by Suzie Kolber

 

Suzie Kolber created Family Tree Templates to be the complete online resource for “do it yourself” genealogy projects.  The site offers the largest offering of free printable blank family tree charts online. The site is a not for profit website dedicated to offering free resources for those that are trying to trace their family history.

 

Tracing your family’s roots, even just a few generations back, can be a challenging experience. That being said, it’s definitely worth the effort – a family tree can profoundly impact your child’s life for years to come. Here are three reasons to create a family tree for your kids:

  1. It Gives Kids an Interest in World History

For a lot of kids, history is just a boring subject at school. It’s a list of facts about things that happened a long time ago, and kids are all about now and the future. However, when you study your own family history, it helps put things in perspective for your children.

Perhaps you have a great-great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War or a great-great-uncle who was a soldier in World War I. Suddenly, these aren’t just stories about people who are long dead. They are stories about your own flesh and blood. The soldiers who marched through intense heat and freezing cold aren’t strangers; they’re family. Learning about American or world history is a lot more fun if you’re involved in some way – and knowing your family tree can help bring history to life. 

  1. It Gives Kids an Interest in Their Own Background

When kids learn about their own family tree, it helps them understand more about who they are. They can see that their red hair and freckles go all the way back to great-great-grandmother Bonnie. Or perhaps your child is the only short person in the family – but so was great-great-great-grandmother Alice. Now they’re no longer alone.

Learning about their family history can help children develop a better sense of who they are and why they look and act the way they do. It also enhances their feeling of stability and security as they see they are part of something bigger than themselves.

  1. It Helps Them Remember People Who are Important to the Family

As children grow up, family members pass away. They may forget what great-aunt Anna looks like or how grandfather Bill laughed. While you can tell stories about family members who died when the kids were young or even before they were born, these stories become more meaningful if they can be placed in correct association.

For example, say your grandfather was one of eight children. Your child may only know or remember two or three of them. Without a family tree to help them keep track of who was who, other people’s names  lose their meaning and place over time. With a family tree, when Grandpa talks about Uncle Phil, your kids will understand exactly who he means and pay more attention to those stories. Instead of just words, they will be able to imagine their granddad as a boy, sitting on Uncle Phil’s lap and listening to his funny jokes.

You don’t have to create an extravagant or complicated family tree for it to be of value to the kids. A simple diagram will work wonders to help them make the right connections. However, the more information you can add (including photos!) will help them remember who this person was and why they are part of the family. 

 

 

10 Hilarious German Sausage Sayings to Try on Your Friends

In America, many of our everyday expressions revolve around baseball. “Can you give me a ballpark figure?” “Wow, Laura really struck out with that guy” or “Ryan hit that one out of the park!” are phrases that can be heard from the office to a teenage slumber party. As America’s favorite past time, it makes sense that the sport’s vocabulary is seen in our speech. But baseball isn’t very popular in the German-speaking world. Which leads to the question…what do the Germans love as much as we Americans love baseball?

Sausage. They love sausage.

Sausage, or “Wurst” as it’s known in German, is such a part of the culture in Germany and Austria that the food has found it’s way through to many phrases and idioms. How many different ways can you possibly use the word sausage, you ask? Take a look at the German sausage sayings below to find out…

  1. “Es ist mir wurst” – “It’s sausage to me”: In German, something is sausage to you if you just don’t care. While we use the phrase “It doesn’t matter to me” in English, the Germans like to use the word sausage as often as possible. And if you want to really sound like a local, shorten it to “Mir wurst” (To me, sausage.)                                                                                                               “What do you want to do Friday night, Hans?”                                                                                                   “To me, sausage, but thanks for asking”. 
  2. “Jetzt geht’s um die Wurst!” – “Now it’s about the sausage!”: What’s about the sausage, you ask? An important moment. This phrase is used during a race, a game, a big presentation, etc., to emphasize that this is the time where one wins or loses, succeeds or fails. The final game of the Stanley Cup, for instance, is “about the sausage.” Obviously.                                                  .

3. “sich durchwursteln” – “to sausage yourself through”: If that sounds a little uncomfortable, don’t worry. “To sausage yourself through” simply means “to get through something, to scrape by”. So next time your best friend is stressed out, give her a little pat on the shoulder and tell her all she has to do is sausage herself through. She’ll make it in the end.

4. “Spiel nicht die beleidigte Leberwurst” – “Don’t act like an insulted liverwurst!”: Really, you don’t want to do that. To act like an insulted liverwurst means “to sulk or to pout”. So cheer up, little liverwurst, nobody likes a sulking sausage.  

Sometimes when I’m bored, I open up the refrigerator and insult the liver wurst.

 

 5. “Verwurstelt” – “All sausaged up”: What could this mean, you wonder? Well, “tangled up,” of course. In my German-speaking household, my Austrian husband often gets a little miffed (there should be a sausage expression for that one) if I forget to turn both my shirt sleeves right-side out before putting the clothes in the washer. A common saying when hanging up wet clothes in our house is “Ah, these shirts are all verwurstelt! Why do you do this? Why?” A sausaged-up T-shirt apparently does not fit with the German concept of order and organization.

6. “Jemandem eine Extrawurst braten” – “To fry someone an extra sausage”: If you fry someone an extra sausage, you are giving them special treatment. Everyone else only got one sausage. Why did she get two? So, if you are an “Extrawurst” yourself, you are someone who expects to be treated better or to get more of something. The Austrians, at least, make this sound a little bit cuter, adding in a nice “l” at the end and calling those divas “Extrawurstl” (“little extra sausage”).

7. “Armes Würstchen” – “Poor little sausage”: Exactly what it sounds like. Being called a “poor little sausage” could mean that the speaker feels sorry for you, but more often than not it means you’re complaining too much. Picture it in a sarcastic, fake-sweet voice “Aw, you poor little sausage!” Just make sure not to act like an insulted liverwurst if it happens.

8. “sich die Wurst vom Brot nehmen lassen” -“To let someone take the sausage from your bread”: The horror! Then you really would be a poor little sausage. “To let someone take the sausage from your bread” means to be taken advantage of. So, stand up for yourself, guard your sausage and you will be sure to sausage through.

9. “herumwursteln” – “to sausage around”: In America, we fiddle around or tinker about, but in this meat-loving language, they sausage around. Why not?

10. “Es hat alles ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei” – “Everything has an end; only a sausage has two (ends)”:  A good sausage to end on. Thank you, logical Germans. They kindly (and, of course, rationally) let us know that everything will come to end, but the sausage never will. Long live the sausage!

 

*For more information about translating your German tourism/travel texts, and for additional cultural and language posts, check out my sister site: SK Translations: Travel and Tourism.*