Why is it difficult for most persons to read a Latin document? You may think that it is because they never studied Latin in school. The real answer is that some of the words appear unfamiliar to you. On the positive side, you probably already know enough Latin words to pick out a few of them in a document. These words are familiar because they are similar to words we have in English. You may have been frustrated in reading a document because you could not find a word in your Latin dictionary the way it is spelled in the document you have. Sometimes you have difficulty interpreting a Latin document because you do not understand its purpose and the words used to accomplish this purpose. Sometimes the handwriting in the document is hard to read or you do not recognize the abbreviated words or symbols and signs that are used to signify common words or phrases.
These difficulties can be overcome. It will require that you learn a little bit about the Latin language and discipline yourself to follow a specific process or method each time you begin to interpret a Latin document.
Method for Interpreting Latin Documents
Decide the Document's Purpose
You can learn the purpose of a document's creation in several ways. Sometimes it is on a microfilm that begins with a title target showing the type of record filmed. The document you are reading from may be listed in a catalog or inventory. Usually such finding aids identify documents by titles that indicate the documents contents. When all else fails, look for a heading at the top of the document or in the first line of the text that contains words that may be familiar and which reveal the document's purpose: testamentum, nuptias celebraverunt/celebrarunt, baptizatus est, liber defunctorum, liber confirmatorum, nomina infantes.
List the Words You Expect to Find
It may be necessary to use the English to Latin part of your dictionary or word list to make a list of the words that you expect to find in a document describing wills, marriages, christenings, or deaths: son, daughter, wife, church, land, property, bride, bridegroom, parents, occupation, residence, child, christening, witnesses, cause of death, age, spouse, widow, and widower are a few examples.
Read Each Line Looking for Familiar Words or Word Stems
As you find a familiar word, write its common meaning above it. Sometimes you will see a word stem--the unchanging main part of a word to which endings or prefixes are added--that reminds you of a word you know: nuptias=nuptials; defunctorum=dead; cognomina=names; celebraverunt/celabrarunt=celebrated. Write the meaning the word stem conveys ignoring the ending or prefix you do not understand.
Identify the Nouns
Here is where you begin to learn a little Latin grammar. The nouns in a document will be the people and the things you are most interested in. The people who are named will be easy to spot - a name will be listed for them: Willelmus, Johannes, Robertus, Raymundus, Maria, Anna. The -us, es, -a on the end of these words tell us they are subjects of a verb and are subjects in a sentence or clause. Sometimes the ending will look different: Willelmi, Roberti, Raymundi, Mariae, Annae. These examples show how a name can be changed to the genitive case, singular: of William, of John, of Robert, of Raymond, of Mary, and of Ann. These endings are also the same as the plural of some words and names: Willelmi=two Williams. The other nouns may not be as easy to recognize: pater, mater, filius, filia, uxor, sponsus, vir (father, mother, son, daughter, wife, bridegroom, man/husband). To find them in your dictionary, look for words that have the same word stem--the beginning letters of the word--pat-, mat-, fili-, uxor, spon-, vir, are examples. In dictionaries nouns appear in the nominative case, as they would if they were the subject of a sentence or clause. The word pater may appear in documents as patris, patrem, or patri. Remove the ending and you have pat- and add an -a, -us, -er, -um, --s, -is, or -e and then look in your dictionary for nouns spelled that way. Normally only one or two will appear with a meaning that fits into the context of the document before you. The endings added to noun stems show the roles the nouns play in the sentence: subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition, etc.
Identify the Pronouns and Adjectives
Like nouns, pronouns appear in a dictionary under their nominative form: ego (I), tu (you), nos (we). The other forms of ego--in English me is the only other form of I-- are mei, mihi, me (of me, to me, me). The pronoun who appears as qui, quae, or quod in the nominative case. The other uses of pronouns, as direct objects, indirect objects, etc. are indicated by a change in the ending of the qu--stem (quem, quam, quod, are examples) or by changing the qu- to cu- and adding the ending. Short words with qu- or cu- stems are normally a form of the pronoun who. Sometimes you will find the stem aliqu-. This is another pronoun form: someone, something. The endings are similar to the pronoun qui. The nominative form you will find in the dictionary for these pronouns is aliquis. Possessive pronouns and adjectives, me, my, your, our have the following Latin equivalents in the nominative case: meus, mea, meum, vester, vestra, noster, nostra. The possessive pronouns his, hers, its are: suus, sua, suum.
Identify the Verbs
Numerically, the verbs in your documents will be in the minority. They will be outnumbered by nouns, pronouns, adjectives, articles, and conjunctions. Verbs are formed by adding an ending to the verb stem to indicate the person, number, or tense of the verb. Most of the documents you read will be written in the present, the past perfect, or the future tenses. Let's use the verb celebro, -are, --avi -atum as our example. Verbs normally appear in a dictionary under the first person singular present tense form--in this case I celebrate--with the infinitive--to celebrate--and sometimes the perfect form and past participle are also shown--celebrated, celebrated. As you look up the word stems of the words you do not recognize, some will not appear as nouns, except as a participle with -tus ending. Other stems will appear only as verbs. The stem for celebro is celebr-. To this can be added many endings, many more than are possible with a noun stem. If there is not an -n- in the ending, it is a singular form of the verb because all plural endings have an -n- in them: -unt, -int, -ant, -ent -ntur. When you try to find a verb in the dictionary, take the ending off the stem, add an -o. Then look at all of the verbs that appear with a similar spelling to see if there is one with a meaning that fits the document you are interpreting.
Interpret the Document
Write down, in the same order they appear in the document, all of the words you have interpreted. This string of words may not make much sense at first. Rearrange the words, one sentence at a time, so that they make sense. Now read the whole document to see if all of the sentences together seem to deal with the subject of the document. You may have given the wrong meaning to a few words, so adjust their meaning to fit what appears to be the purpose of the document.
Reading Old Handwriting and Abbreviations
Sometimes documents are hard to interpret because you cannot read the handwriting. Here are a few hints to help you. Start with the first sentence and trace it using a piece of white paper. After tracing the words, do you recognize any letters, groups of letters, or words? Begin making an alphabet for the document by writing down the letters you discovered in the first line. Read the other lines using the same procedure. By the time you have finished the document you should have examples of most of the upper and lower case letters used in it. Using this alphabet, go through each line again and copy out the words you think the letters spell. After this step you can begin to look up the words in a dictionary to finish your task.
To save space and time many scribes shortened the words they wrote by leaving off the endings or leaving out some letter in the middle of a word. They usually warn the reader by placing a line or a comma above the word or a period, comma, or some other symbol at the end of the word. Often the word stem remains or there are one or two consonants or vowels taken out of the middle of the word. If the stem is left, you can still look it up in the dictionary to see what the possible meanings might be. If there are missing consonants or vowels, use the stem again as a guide to similar words in the dictionary to see what you can find. Some books are cited in the bibliography that will provide further help interpreting abbreviations and symbols.