Brush up on your Latin!

on Tuesday, 23 February 2016. Posted in Archives

Which is the odd one out of this group of words?

‘grateful’, ‘kilogram’, ‘millennium’, ‘triangle’, ‘umbrella’

The answer is ‘kilogram’ – this word derives from the Greek ‘kilo’, meaning one thousand, plus the French word ‘gramme’. All the other words originate in Latin. Whether we are aware of it or not, Latin permeates the English language, and there are often English words which can help us when learning Latin. For example we talk about ‘paternal pride’ or ‘maternal affection’ – these come straight from the Latin ‘pater’, meaning ‘father’, and ‘mater’ meaning ‘mother’. So far, so good. But why would you choose to learn Latin, you might say? Unless you want to be a botanist, or a doctor, what possible use can it be? Well, as an archivist it is actually very helpful. What many people do not realise is that until as late as 1733, Latin was the language of the law in England and Wales. There is an exception to this – the English Commonwealth (1653-1659) – when English became the official language of the state for a brief period – but apart from this, you can expect to encounter Latin in records created for legal purposes.


A judge adjudicating on a neighbourhood dispute. Source: British Library public domain images Add MSS 23144 ff4-6 

Some documents will be a hybrid of English and Latin – for example a will may be written in English but the probate clause in Latin. Early parish registers too, will often be in Latin, which is why family historians in particular may find it useful to learn some relevant vocabulary. This hybrid approach reflects the fact that the scribes often did not know Latin as a ‘living language’ – they knew the bits of it they needed to know, but nothing more. Even after 1733 Latin may still crop up in the odd word or phrase, and in Roman numerals for dates. We still see the date in Roman numerals at the end of many TV programmes! (MMXVI for 2016!)

The scribe’s limited understanding of Latin was exacerbated by the habit of abbreviating words. This was done for speed but resulted in scribes not knowing the real ending of words. It became a self-perpetuating problem – abbreviation became a necessity because the scribes did not know the full form. This is potentially a problem for us today, as the ending of Latin words is usually vital to tell whether they are the subject or object of a sentence. You might think therefore that abbreviation would result in us not being able to interpret anything – but this is not true, thanks to the use of common phrases and stock vocabulary.

For example in a marriage register you might find ‘Gulielmus Brown et Alicia Morris nupti erant tricesimo Aprilis 1607’ (William Brown and Alice Morris were married 30 April 1607) but equally you might just find ‘Gul Brown et Alic Morris nupti erant xxxo Apr 1607’. The endings are not actually essential to the meaning here and we can do perfectly well without them.

I am not in a position to teach you Latin in this blog – it is too big a topic for that. But what I aim to do is draw attention to its usefulness, and recommend some useful guides to get you started.

A very good starting point is the introduction to Latin on the National Archives’ website.

There is a section for beginners -

Plus a section for more advanced learners -

Anyone grappling with Latin will also need to grapple with old handwriting – ‘palaeography’ as it is known. Again, the National Archives’ website is a great starting point. 

Medieval handwriting is tackled here:

Post 1500 handwriting is tackled here:

If you want to go deeper, there are published books which can help. Denis Stuart’s ‘Latin for Local and Family Historians’ (reprinted by The History Press, 2006) is very useful, as is Eve McLaughlin’s ‘Simple Latin for Family Historians’ (published by the Federation of Family History Societies, 1979.)

If you want to go deeper still, there are summer schools in Latin run by various universities, and a distance learning module for the University of Dundee. The sky is the limit really – although ‘sky’ is actually a Viking word, but that’s another story!

For now, ‘ave atque vale’, which means ‘hail and farewell’ in Latin.

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist


Accredited Archive Service