Austro-Hungarian Web Site

About Language Difficulties

© Felix G. Game

 1. Which Language is it?

When a researcher runs into a foreign language, the first instinctive question that comes to his mind is "which language is this?!" Before he can hope to cope with it, he must identify it. You cannot go to the book store to buy a dictionary without knowing which language it should be for. You cannot join a news group on Internet and ask questions without knowing which newsgroup is appropriate for the language you have just encountered, nor can you hire a translator until you know which language is involved. Often there is enough information to provide an  answer.  Most people have an idea which country their ancestors came from, most documents have place names among the data they contain, and these can be traced. There are some sign posts one can look to for direction:

Hungarian has some letter combinations that are quite characteristic: gy, ty, ly, cs, sz, and vowels are either plain or have right-slanting accents (, , , , ). Two of these (o,u) can also have umlauts (, ) if they are "short" or something like a double quotation mark, if they are considered "long".  Printed documents will often have the word "Magyar" some place in the heading, it is the Hungarian word for Hungarian.

German also has its peculiarities. For one thing, all nouns start with a capital letter. There are no other accents except for the umlaut on a, o, u (, , ). The letter which looks like a Greek "Beta" () is a symbol to replace the double ss or sz combinations. Letter combinations which are very characteristic for German are sch, st, sp, tz. The language also makes frequent use of both the v, and the w.  

I have only dealt with Hungarian and German because they are part of my expertise. In the territory which was once part of the Austrian Empire you can also encounter documents in the Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian and Rumanian languages. So if you cannot positively identify a language it is best to make a copy and carry it with you and show it to  people who you know speak several languages.

2. How much research can you do yourself in a foreign language?

In the context of Austria and Hungary documents and microfilms will be mostly in German, Hungarian or Latin depending on the period of time involved, the region, and the nature of the document. If you speak neither of those languages it will be almost impossible for you to carry on without assistance. But there is still much that you can do.

To start with, you will need dictionaries so that you can tell whether you are looking at a marriage or a baptismal certificate. This is particularly true for paper documents. When working from microfilm, you must be able to interpret the breaks to understand that births are now finished and on the next page the marriages, or deaths will start. The column headings also need to be understood. Apart from that, it is a question of recognizing the names you are looking for. When you find one you consider important, make a photocopy of the page and have it translated by someone with experience in reading that kind of document.

Be aware, however, that understanding the language is only part of the challenge. Often the greater challenge is to be able to read the writing. You may have a document written in a script unfamiliar to you, as might be the case with German documents which are mostly written in the Kurrent or Stterlin scripts, but often the writing is simply atrocious. Not only were many scribes quite sloppy in their habits, some were quite old and had shaky hands, quite a few did not understand that records should be legible to others.  Some went to the other extreme and produced what they considered works of art in calligraphy which has so many decorative squiggles and curlicues added that no one can recognize the letter it is supposed to be. And finally, there was also an absence of good writing material so that when looking at old documents, we might see writing produced with a quill, a sharpened goose feather.

Equally frustrating are the abbreviations encountered. Even when the writing is legible, and when you know the language well, you will find abbreviations that scribes used as a sort of short hand with which we are not familiar. Nor does it help that in the course of history, the bureaucratic jargon preserved many Latin words, then added to them French words that became fashionable during Napoleonic times. We often see such things as dd (de dato = dated) or mp (manu propria = by his own hand) accompanying a signature. As if that were not enough, because these abbreviations were used so frequently, they became cumbersome and needed yet another kind of shorthand which was in effect a brand new character or symbol added to the alphabet. All of a sudden instead of dd  we now start seeing a d with a long neck and a bit of a pennant fluttering from it like a Spanish tilde. These are the easy ones because in the context in which one sees them, they are not that difficult to devine. What causes a lot of incorrect speculation is when some ingratiating cleric places little prefixes before the names. We see N, or Nem, the entire word written out as Nemes.  Nemes is the Hungarian word which among other things means "noble". Some researchers get all excited when they see this and from then on believe that they descend from nobility. It seems almost cruel to point out to them that a good part of the empire's nobility must have congregated in this one village because the pages are full of these honorifics. Some clerics were inclined to show their respect, or gratitude for a few extra coins paid at the time of the event which he was entering. Add to this the fact that it was not done consistently, but in one parish it could mean that the person given the prefix was among the few outstanding citizens. Being literate would be reason enough, working for the estate in a managerial capacity, or even simply being a full fledged master at some trade would be enough to earn such little signs of social recognition. To complicate it even further is the fact that Nemes also appears as a legitimate family name, and that it is possible to see such entries as N. Nemes.   

The very few examples quoted above indicate that even when the researcher knows the language well, it is often difficult to understand what the writer had intended to convey. At that point it is no longer a question of language but one of culture and time slice. Almost every generation invents jargon of its own, just about every branch of the government, and every trade and profession does the same. Right now, for example, an agreement has been reached between the pricipal German-speaking countries of Europe to change the rules for spelling. The result is not pretty but seems solidly backed by the young generation which never had much patience with the rules for spelling  (or any rules for that matter). To be perfectly fair, we also have such jargon and abbreviations which are even today meaningless to foreigners. Take the pound sign (#), take the signs for feet and inches (6'2"), take pounds (lbs) and ounces (oz), even our hallowed Dollar Sign ($). But at least 200-300 years from now a researcher will be able to find these symbols in a dictionary. There are no dictionaries for the Austrian bucreaucratic symbols, at  least not that I know of.      

3. What are the alternatives?

If you do not speak the language of the country you are researching you can only go so far. Beyond a certain point you will need to get help from a relative, friend or a professional. Where that certain point is depends on your patience, willingness to learn, and the difficulty of the material you have to work with.

So far I have only mentioned reading documents. Normally your research will require correspondence with officials or private persons in another country. You can always write a brief letter in English, and hope for the best. English is now taught as a second language in most European schools, so the younger people will be able to help translate what you are saying. Larger institutions usually have people on staff who can correspond in English. This is not true for parishes, or smaller town hall employees. Remember that until the Iron Curtain came down, the foreign language taught in Hungary was Russian. Also remember that foreign languages are taught at the high school level. The people living in villages do not always attend high schools. So if you have located  relatives in a village, they may be unable to correspond with you in English. You must have someone translate your letters going and coming. And please, do not be tempted to use the translation programs offered for formal correspondence. Their results are awful. I have tested a number of them, and I would not sign my name to anything produced in such a manner. On the other hand, when there is no other way, these automated translations do permit an interaction of sorts via e-mail. I do know of people who found relatives in Germany and are e-mailing back and forth with each side putting the other's letter through the translator. But lets face it, e-mail is more informal and forgiving than paper. 


Send comments to: fggame@rogers.com

To Table of Contents meter Last changed: 3 Aug 2002