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Bist du bilingual?: Hints for Reading and Understanding German

Not knowing the German language just for research may cause you to stumble, but a few cognates and reading tips can help you begin your German research.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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The German language can be a challenge, but you may not need to know German to do the research. And there are many tools available that can help you with a new Sprache (or language). Often, there are people who can help you at a local family history center or historical society who would be glad to assist you. There are even German genealogical societies scattered throughout the United States, including FEEFHS (Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies) and the SGGS (Sacramento German Genealogy Society). The SGGS offers monthly classes on German research, and provides resources to make German research accessible. Both organizations also publish periodicals, including the FEEFHS Journal and Der Blumenbaum.

Aside from seeking outside help, there are some easy clues to remember about the German language. Cognates, or words related in more than one language, are common between the German and English languages. Many of them are words you will find in records too. Some that you may easily recognize are all in the family, such as Mutter, Vater, Schwester, and Bruder. Other words such as Nummer (number), Datum (date), Tag (day), Monat (month), Jahr (year), Morgan (morning) and Kirche (church) are also considered cognates. Three other words will keep you moving through the records:

geboren/geburt (born/birth)
Heirat/geheiratet (marriage/married)
tot/Sterbe/gestorben (dead/death/died)

With the help of your new words and maybe a volunteer from a nearby family history center or society, you can dive into German records. You're feeling ready to research, right? The next roadblock you may encounter is "Alte deutsche Handschriften" (also known as "the old German script.") While it may appear to be chicken-scratch, it can be readable. First, get a sample of the alphabet written in the old script so that you can become familiar with it. Use column headings (often labeled with words used above and other cognates) to help you understand what is written below them. Beware of umlauts. Characters such as ä, ö, and ü aren't immediately recognizable to the American genealogist, but may be seen in German script. Straight lines over the letters m and n can indicate a double letter (Ana=Anna). One last culprit—the ß—or sharp "s." Seeing this letter in German scripts indicates two of the letter "s" next to each other.

There are many resources available online, in published form, and by seeking help that can aid you in understanding German. Seek them out and get ready to find your ancestors in German records!

For more information about German handwriting and language, see these sites:
Old German handwritten scripts,
Deciphering Old Handwriting tutorial,

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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