General Language Conventions of Church Registers
in Historic Hungary.

Suggestion: Searching the microfilm of a church register for entries of interest is often a time-comsuming and labor-intensive activity, especially if no index to the register is available. [And, good indices are few and far between.] You may have to search through hundreds (or even thousands) of entries to locate a single entry of interest. I've found that, when initiating work on a new film, it's very much worth the effort to begin by:
  • reviewing the film to determine its organization (usually into "volumes")
  • determining the content and legibility of the various volumes
  • finding missing time periods and other potential problems
  • identifying the language and information pattern for unstructured entries.
Doing so can immeasurably speed the process of searching a film for information of interest.

The Languages Used in Registers. The entirety of most church registers is in a single language -- Latin or Magyar -- but, that is not always the case. In the latter part of the 19th century, all Hungarian church registers were in the Magyar language. Earlier in that century, most Roman Catholic registers were in Latin and most Protestant registers were in Magyar. In the 18th century, the majority of registers (Catholic and Protestant) were in Latin -- though you will find many Magyar registers, usually in Protestant churches. A few German language registers are found in Lutheran congregations of towns that were populated primarily by ethnic Germans. If the register is in a single language, it is usually pretty obvious what language it is -- just look for a John or Stephen among the given names: János or István = Magyar; Joannes or Stephanus = Latin; and Johann or Stefan = German. But, in pre-1867 registers always watch out for an occasional entry that might be in a different language than the bulk of the register ... and don't be surprised if an occasional entry is even made in yet another language, Slovak being the most likely.

I am told that a few entire registers in other languages may be found in earlier records of churches on the periphery of historic Hungary. These may be in Slovak, Russian, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian and possibly even Armenian and would be the records of Protestant, Greek Catholic, or Orthodox churches. Likewise, in Jewish communities, Hebrew records are occasionally found for the 1830s-1860s period. I have not used such registers myself, and my discussion here will be limited to Latin, Magyar, and German records.

The Alphabets Used in Registers. The alphabet normally used for writing Latin is the "Latin" or "Roman" alphabet we are all familiar with in English language writings. Of course, the Latin alphabet is what is normally used for all Latin-language records discussed here. The "Magyar alphabet" is a minor variation on the Latin alphabet and therefore doesn't present significant problems for us either. The differences between the Magyar alphabet and the standard Latin alphabet are briefly discussed below.

But, three other alphabets are sometimes found in church registers (and other documents you may refer to). They are the German or Gothic alphabet, and the Cyrillic or Russian alphabet, and the Hebrew alphabet found in occasional Jewish records. The German alphabet is mostly found in Lutheran communities or larger cities with a large ethnic German population. It may present significant problems and is discussed below. In Hungarian records, the Cyrillic alphabet is found only in Eastern Orthodox records from parts of present-day Serbia, and in records of the Carpathian region known as Ruthenia, which today is easternmost Slovakia and western Ukraine. Since I managed only one week of Russian language study before dropping the course, I will not deal with Cyrillic alphabet issues here -- though one example from a Ruthene Greek Catholic church is found among the Death/Burial Records documents. Likewise, I am completely unfamiliar with Hebrew and will not deal with it either.

The Magyar Alphabet. The Magyar alphabet is basically the Latin (or Roman) alphabet we use in English, with a few minor additions and deletions. Therefore, reading old Hungarian documents whether written in Magyar or Latin will cause no special difficulties in deciphering the text -- other than legibility issues obviously. The additions to the Latin alphabet are in two forms: vowels with diacritical marks, and composite letters.

There are three diacritical marks used in the Magyar alphabet: (1) an accent which can be found on all the vowels: á, é, í. ó, and ú; (2) an umlaut which can be found on two vowels: ö and ü; and (3) a double accent also used on both o and u -- which in hand-written materials is often indistinguishable from an umlaut. I omit printed examples of the double-accented vowels (and do not use them in this tutorial) because these two Hungarian letters cannot usually be displayed on American computer displays, printed on American printers, or be formed on American keyboards. One of two approaches is typically taken to deal with these two letters on American computer equipment: (a) the ö or ü (ie. with an umlaut) is used instead of the double-accent, which almost never causes ambiguity; or (2) the ô or ű (ie. with a carat) is used. I employ the first of these two techniques since the umlauted vowels are universally available in printer fonts. For examples of how the double-accent looks in handwriting, look for the given name Jenö, since it ends with a double-accented o. An example from an 1888 Reformed church baptismal record is shown here. Jenö - Hungarian double accent

The composite letters in the Hungarian language are: cs, gy, ly, ny, sz, ty, and zs. We aren't concerned with pronunciation issues here, so it is sufficient to say that these composite letters represent a single sound and are treated as a single letter in the Magyar language. Composite letters will only be of concern to you when looking up words in dictionaries, etc. The standard Magyar "alphabetical order" is given below. Note that double composite letters are normally written in shortened form except when hyphenated: for instance: szsz is written ssz.

Magyar Alphabetical Order The following is the ordering of the present-day Magyar alphabet as found in dictionaries: a and á, b, c, cs, d, e and é, f, g, gy, h, i and í, j, k, l, ly, m, n, ny, o and ó, ö and double-accented o; p, r, s, sz, t, ty, u and ú, ü and double-accented u, v, z, zs.

Magyar Pronunciation Guide. Though it is not my intent to teach the Magyar language here -- in any case, I am totally unqualified to do so -- the table below provides a simple pronunciation guide for the letters of the Magyar alphabet. But, obviously, the best way to learn correct pronunciation is by listening to a native speaker.

  • a -- sounds like "uh" similar to the "ou" in "double"
  • á -- sounds like "aah" as a dentist might implore "say aah"
  • b -- much like English, sounds like the "b" in "bet"
  • c -- sounds like the "ts" in "hats"
  • cs -- sounds like the "ch" in "church"
  • d -- much like English, sounds like the "d" in "do"
  • e -- short "e" as in the English word "met"
  • é -- sounds like the "a" in "ale" when lengthened by a New York accent
  • f -- as in English, for example the "f" in "fur"
  • g -- much like English, sounds like the "g" in "go"
  • gy -- sort of a "dj" sound, similar to the "j" in "judge"
  • h -- as in English, for example the "h" in "he" -- but silent if at the end of a word
  • i -- as the "ee" in "tee" but shortened
  • í -- a longer version of the Magyar "i"
  • j -- sounds like the "y" in "yet"
  • k -- much like English, sounds like the "k" in "look"
  • l -- much like English, sounds like the "l" in "lean"
  • ly -- pronounced much the same as the Magyar "j"
  • m -- as in English, for example the "m" in "man"
  • n -- as in English, for example the "n" in "near"
  • ny -- similar to the Spanish "ń" therefore rather like the "ny" in "canyon"
  • o -- short sound similar to the "aw" in "paw"
  • ó -- similar to the "o" in "hole"
  • ö -- short sound similar to the "u" in "purse"
  • * -- double-accented "o" -- longer sound similar to the "o" in "word"
  • p -- much like English, sounds like the "p" in "pin"
  • r -- a trilled sound, more like a Scottish rather than an American "r"
  • s -- sounds like the "sh" in "shoe"
  • sz -- as an "s" in English, for example the "s" in "sow"
  • t -- much like English, sounds like the "t" in "too"
  • ty -- sounds similar to the "tch" in "watch"
  • u -- a short sound like the "u" in "bull"
  • ú -- a longer sound like the "u" in "rule"
  • ü -- a short sound not found in English -- try to say "ill" with lips pursed as if you were whistling, this will be a fair imitation of "ül" which means to sit
  • * -- double-accented "u" -- a longer version of "ü"
  • v -- much like English, sounds like the "v" in "van"
  • z -- much like English, sounds like the "z" in "zoo"
  • zs -- similar to the "zh" sound in the English words "rouge" or "pleasure"

Archaic letters are found in many early Magyar documents. In general these letters were eliminated from the Magyar language during the first quarter of the 19th century. This was a period where languages throughout Europe were being standardized and simplified. Magyar was no different. This was also a period of significant "sound shifts" which led to the softening of speech in several European languages. So in Magyar, at the same time the archaic letters were eliminated, many other spelling changes were incorporated due to sound shifts. There is though one area where the archaic letters sometimes continue to be used, even up to the present-day -- in family names. For instance, the archaic composite letter cz is found today only in family names. Otherwise, it has been replaced by c -- which prior to the 19th century did not exist in the Magyar alphabet. For instance, my surname -- Berecz -- retains the cz; but, in the city-name Debrecen the cz has been changed to a c -- both, of course, are pronounced as a "ts".

Here is a summary of the archaic letters, and their replacements: aa and replaced by á; cz replaced by c; ch and ts replaced by cs; oo and replaced by ó; eo and and ew replaced by ö or a double-accented o; th replaced by t; w replaced by v; and y (usually written ˙, see below) replaced by i. While cz is the most commonly found of the archaic letters, ts and ˙ are also found quite frequently -- ts often at the beginning of names, ˙ often at the end. Several fairly common family names -- for instance Csengery -- were often written with the Ts at the beginning. The capital Ts at the beginning of such names is a very strange looking symbol, somewhat like a large cursive example of the math symbol Pi -- P.

This brings us to the Latin letters not found in Magyar. These are q, w, x, and y. Note that you may occasionally see these letters in Hungarian text as a part of foreign words. Two things must be mentioned about the letter y -- first the symbol we know as y is a part of several of the composite letters, but you must think of these as a single letter (eg. gy not a g followed by a y) and secondly -- though now obsolete -- in the 18th century, the letter ˙ was used with an umlaut, pretty much interchangeably with an i. It added a noble cachet to some family names. For example people who spelled their names Pálff˙ or Tolna˙ probably considered themselves to be of higher rank than those named Pálfi or Tolnai. Remember, the "w" like the "y" was an archaic letter eliminated in the 19th century.

The Gothic (or German) Alphabet. You will only very occasionally (fortunately) find church register entries that appear to be written in a totally unintelligible scrawl. Consider the possibility that they are written in cursive Gothic script. The Germans used two alphabets over the centuries -- the standard Latin alphabet we are familiar with, and the German or Gothic alphabet. In its printed form, the Gothic alphabet is known as "Fraktur." Most pre-World War II German books were printed using Fraktur; but, since the war virtually all printed German works use the Latin alphabet. Note that in German -- whichever alphabet is used -- the vowels a, o, and u may be found with an umlaut; and the letter ß (known as eszet, and pronounced as a double-s) is added to the standard alphabet.

The cursive script form of the Gothic alphabet was used in handwriting by some people throughout the centuries, but it was not universal. Therefore, when we find the German-language entries in a Lutheran church record, they may be written using either the Latin or Gothic alphabets -- this pretty much depended upon the preference of the clergyman. For your sake, I hope you find Latin alphabet entries, because the Gothic alphabet written in cursive script can be very hard to decipher.

The approach I take to deciphering German cursive handwriting is to pick out the letters in a word that are obvious and then try to understand what all the little squiggles in between may be, depending on their context. I know that formula may not be much help, but it does work ... sometimes. By the way, those little squiggles are usually combinations of the letters e, c, m, n, u, v, and w. The table shown here should help some in deciphering both printed headings and handwritten entries which use the Gothic alphabet. A few notes concerning the cursive form may be a big help: (1) there are two forms shown for the lower-case s -- the latter form is used at the end of a word or at breakpoints in compound words; (2) the lower-case u without an umlaut should always have the little curve over it; and (3) the last four entries in the table are not single letters, but rather hard-to-decipher letter combinations that are included for your convenience. Feel free to save and print the table below for your "in the field" use.

Gothic Alphabet Table

While frustrating, it is not unexpected when you find German-language entries written using the Gothic alphabet. But, much more disconcerting is finding Latin-language entries written using the Gothic alphabet! The only place I have found this is in 17th and 18th century Roman Catholic church records for the city of Sopron. This heavily German-populated city near Vienna was for a time the only major Hungarian city free of Turkish occupation. Being Catholic churches, all early register entries were written using Latin. But, particularly in 17th century records, the Latin was sometimes written in the Gothic alphabet. This makes them doubly hard to decipher.

Below is an 18th century example of a church marriage register with the second entry written in cursive Gothic. The two marriage entries are from a Lutheran church in a small village near Györ, during the period that the Lutheran churches of that city were closed. Note that the comparatively legible entry of August 23 is a Hungarian language record written using the Latin alphabet. I'll transcribe it here: "Neh. Nemes Takáts János fia Pál iffju legén Kis Péczi Nemes Kováts Mihal haja leá-nyval Katával." The names of the two witnesses are given at the right. [Notes: "Neh." is abbreviation for Nehai = the late; Nemes = nobleman; fia = son; "iffyu legén" old spelling of "ifjúság legény" = young unmarried man (ie. bachelor); "haja" is abbreviation of hajadon = maiden, so "haja leányávat" = maiden daughter of.] Therefore, this record tells us of the marriage of Paul, the bachelor son of the late nobleman John Takáts, with Catharine, the maiden daughter of the nobleman Michael Kováts of Kispécz. Nicolas Borzai and Adam Takáts were the witnesses.

The second entry, dated August 27, is German written in Gothic cursive script. It is reasonably legible compared to other Gothic entries, and appears to read: "Hfri(?) Johann Ludwig Lang von Carlburg(?) mit Jüngfrau Susanna Catharina Haublin aus Raab." So it is easy to see that John Ludwig Lang married the maiden Susanna Catharina Haublin of Raab (Györ in German). I made no special effort to deal with this entry in detail, since it's not my family. But, with a quick glance, one sees that the following issues are indeterminate: (1) what is the first word (beginning with Hf; it's almost certainly an abbreviation and it should be noted that the same (or similar) abbreviation is used before the names of all four witnesses; (2) what town did the groom came from (it may be Carlburg), but I'm not familiar with the German names of all the villages near Györ; and (3) I'm really not certain of the bride's family name (the "bl" may be in question). These questions can probably be easily resolved with a little work, and a little knowledge of the family involved.

More importantly, this entry also gives us some insights about things to look for in Gothic cursive. They are: (1) the form of the capital H (in the first word and in the bride's surname) and the capital C in Catharina are very typical -- though they look quite unusual to us; (2) the capital S and lower-case s in Susanna and the second form of the lower-case s at the end of aus are very typical; (3) the use of the u with and without the umlaut in Jüngfrau (remember the little curve is used if there is no umlaut -- that's also the case in aus); and (4) the long h in both Johann and Catharina. Hopefully some aspects of this example will help if you ever encounter Gothic cursive script.

German-Gothic Entry from Györ

Structure and Content of Church Registers. Many later church registers (especially those of larger parishes) are in books consisting of printed forms with nice explanatory column headings. Those headings are usually in the language of the register entries, but may be bilingual. Bilingual headings are most common in Slovakia and Ruthenia. These neat forms make it easy to interpret the data. But, there is also a down-side to such forms -- they do not encourage the inclusion of extra information. Hand-drawn pages in a column-structured format are usually almost as easy to use. The biggest problem here is when the clergyman cuts corners with information (eg. didn't include the mother's name on the death entries of children - or even occasionally on baptismal entries). Another problem is clergy who wrote illegibly, more on this below. Most difficult to search are the register entries that are written in unstructured prose sentences (or just phrases). With these, identifying the pattern associated with the information provided can be helpful in scanning a large number of entries rapidly. They also have an up-side -- clergymen often added notes of interest about the subject. This most often happened with a description of a cause of death.

Register Legibility. This is one that you can't do much about ... except complain. There are several causes of illegibility. The principal ones are:

  • A significant legibility issue is clergy who wrote small to save paper. Today we might call them tree huggers, but in their day they probably had to pay for the paper out of their salary, and they just considered themselves frugal. Most FHC microfilm readers have a zoom ring and you can blow the image up enough to read it. If that doesn't work, once you think you've found an entry of interest, try the microfilm copier. They have interchangeable lenses which can provide extreme magnification.
  • The second issue is not so amenable to solution -- it's simply aging. I have seen clergy who wrote quite nicely, but after a 40-year pastorate, and well into their 70's, their hands got very shaky. Probably to be expected, but it doesn't help when you're trying to read an entry.
  • Then there are some clergy who must make a New Year's resolution each year. Every January 1, the register starts off neat as a pin. By February 1 it's as illegible as the December entries. Fortunately, many marriages were in January ... more on that elsewhere.
  • Lastly were the pastors, or other register-keepers who just couldn't write decently. Anyway, as you see, this subject doesn't have any good resolution other than trying to learn their handwriting characteristics from obvious words (like common given names) and transferring them to the less obvious parts of an entry's text.
Please note that I do not point to the photography as a cause of illegibility. I have found that the LDS photographers only rarely produce out-of-focus results and, when that happens, almost always re-shoot the pages concerned. Sometimes these corrections come right in context, occasionally they are in a separate "corrections" section on the film. Look for them.

Name Ordering. A key issue, of course, is identifying the name(s) in a register entry, and the name ordering to expect. In Magyar register entries, the family name precedes the given name(s), while in Latin and German register entries the family name follows the given name(s). This issue is dealt with in detail in the topic on Personal Names, and so is only briefly mentioned here.

Mixed Language Entries. It is very unusual to find a single register entry which mixes two languages. Therefore, when studying an entry, first determine its language, and go from there regarding name ordering and other issues relating to the normal pattern of an entry. On rare occasions you will find a single entry that starts out in Magyar and switches to Latin. I have found this only in 18th century death registers. I suspect, the clergyman wanted to write something about the deceased that could not be read easily by everyone having physical access to the register. So, a little Latin restricted that information to the well-educated among the readers.

Successive Entries in Different Languages. Somewhat more common than mixed languages in a single register entry are successive entries of a register being in different languages. There are at least three common reasons for this to occur:

  • The entire register switches from one language to another. This usually involves switches between Latin and Magyar (perhaps occuring several times in a long register). This most often happens when a new clergyman came on-board; or when the rules for keeping registers were changed (either by the government or the church body); or when strict adherence to existing rules was demanded. See the Snapshot example in Death/Burial Records for a Greek Catholic register that went from Latin to Magyar, back to Latin, to Russian, back to Latin, and finally back to Magyar in less than 50 years in the mid-19th century.
  • One, or a few entries is in a different language. This usually involves a few Magyar entries in a predominently Latin register. They are usually the product of someone who does not know Latin (perhaps a parishoner) making entries on behalf of an absent clergyman or schoolteacher.
  • Magyar and German entries in Lutheran registers. Since many Lutherans in historic Hungary were ethnic Germans, in some Lutheran registers you find the register entries to be in Hungarian for ethnic Magyars, and in German for ethnic Germans. This is most often found in the mid-1700s when most Lutheran churches in the northwest counties were closed, and people from a wide area came for their marriages and baptisms to the few remaining Lutheran churches. See example above.
So, again I remind you, in any pre-1867 church register be prepared for a possible language change from entry to entry.

When done, simply close this window (or tab).

The Language Conventions webpage last updated on 13 Dec 2005.