Wednesday, June 24, 2020
It's All Latin to Me
While I may have sung my fair share of masses in Latin, don't think that means I've got the language covered when it comes to deciphering old Catholic marriage or baptismal records. In fact, between the inevitable chicken scratch resulting from usage of quill pens and the rush of clerics catching up on tardy record keeping, what little I can decipher of centuries-old Latin-based ecclesiastical records is enough of a research handicap. Add in my dearth of knowledge about such foreign conventions as proper use of declensions, and those little victories of finding what looks like the right name turn into research fizzles.
Take this foray into Catholic parish records for County Kerry, Ireland, in hopes of determining the parents of Johanna Falvey, wife of John Kelly. Since I had found their marriage record in the Kilcummin parish, and two baptismal records in neighboring Killeentierna parish, one might consider it reasonable to expect those parents' own baptisms to show up in similar locality, twenty to thirty years earlier.
So when I find a baptismal record for someone containing what I assume would be a Latin-styled version of the name Johanna—right location and close enough on the year, too—I perk up. This 1827 record—hey, what's a year off, among friends?—from Kilcummin parish for the baptism of one Joannes Falvey could have put me within grasp of the parents' names. But something was off: the name didn't end with quite the right letter.
As it turns out, Latin is not quite as conveniently arranged as, say, Spanish, where a name ending in "o" corresponds to the masculine form and a name ending in "a" indicates the feminine form. Depending on the exact use of the name—whether it is, say, just the name or a variation on that format to show relationships—the same person's name can take on several forms.
I already had an inkling that that might be so, despite knowing next to nothing about Latin. I did, however, check out those assumptions. The indexed name in the Ancestry record, as it turned out, had been entered as "Joanens" while, upon looking at the record itself, I thought it was actually written "Joannes."
Just to make sure, I took that "Joanens" to Google Translate and put it through its paces there, searching also for any resources to untangle those declension conventions so foreign to an English speaker like me. As I had thought, Joannes turned out to be masculine form for the name we know as John—not Johanna. Not only that, but that particular form is labeled as the third declension of the Latin form of the name John.
If all this talk about declensions is sounding all Greek, er, Latin to you, there is this handy guide explaining the morphing forms of Latin names as we encounter them in the chicken scratch of old church records. There, in plain English, the article explains the Latin name forms you'll encounter in church records—nominative versus genative, for instance. I found it helpful and confirming, despite being disappointed that I hadn't, after all, found my Johanna Falvey's birth record.
Thankfully, research problems can be approached from more than one angle, and to connect my Johanna Falvey of County Kerry to her parents, I also have the option of working with several DNA matches who trace back to that same root family.
While I'm examining the records from the right time frame and vicinity of Johanna's childhood, I'm also working on building a separate tree to tie together the various Falvey lines of my husband's DNA matches. A task better suited to operating in the background, building possible pedigrees may lack the sureness of producing the precise document, but can still point a researcher in the right direction. And until I can find the right document, it may be the only option open at the moment.