Identifying languages by their special letters
Maybe you have all family letters, postcards, passports, books- but you don’t know what language they are in. What’s a quick-and-easy way to find out?
Well, there are several ways.
You could go to a large university and go through the language departments asking for someone who can positively identify the languages. That’s time-consuming.
You can scan it and post it online in genealogy chat rooms or language chat rooms- that works, but you may not know if people know what they are talking about.
You can learn the language/s you expect to find, which is time-consuming (but really helpful). One thing to watch out for is that people don’t always speak the language ‘they ought to’. An ancestor from the Kaiser’s Germany may have been from the ethnic Polish regions, or a Polish steelworker in Essen; French Huguenots settled in Berlin, someone in Prague might be a native Czech or native German speaker, but could just as easily be completely bilingual.
My ancestral line from Flensburg on the German-Danish border spoke German in official settings, Low German with the neighbors, and Danish at home. Most of the Balkans and much of eastern Europe had scattered settlements of Germans, of Jews- until modern centralized states, languages didn’t respect political borders very much at all.
What if you have a book, and you don’t know the language? You can look at the title page or thereabouts, and see where it was published, and it is probably (not definitely) in the local language. German letters usually have the date and writer’s location top right of the first page; bureaucratic forms and writing usually lists place and date, but if you don’t know the language, you may not be able to tell if they are listing birth date, death date, date of something else, etc.
For this blog, let’s look at another option- looking through the wording for distinctive letters. Lots of languages have letters that are mostly or only found in that language.
Let’s look at some of those. My specialty is central and northern Europe, but we’ll look at some of the major languages of eastern Europe and the Balkans- ancestors from the Kaiser’s German Empire were not all German, and most of the people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were not ethnic Austrians or Hungarians.
First off I have to say, almost none of these letters below are exclusive to one language, so you’d really like to identify multiple special letters common to one language and not be finding special letters not used in that language.
Umlaut is actually not a good way to identify German- two dots over a vowel is common not only in German but in Hungarian, Turkish, Finnish, Estonian, Swedish, and also (with a different function) in French, English, Dutch, Spanish etc. etc.: noël, Thaïs, coöperation, Chloë, Zoë, even Brontë, naïve, Mötley Crüe, Häagen-Dazs
A few are found almost exclusively in one language, like German ess-tzett < ß > or Czech < ř >- although ß can also be spelled -ss-, and is routinely spelled so in Switzerland.
And of course, if you are reading handwriting from previous centuries, spelling can vary greatly. But these special characters will help suggest what language you are looking at.
letter by letter
â ê î ô û: letters with a circumflex are usually French or borrowed from French, but Rumanian has â and î, Slovak has ô, Croatian has â. Norwegian occasionally and French frequently use a number of accent marks.
å Danish, Norwegian or Swedish (it used to be spelled < aa > )
á too common to tell you much
ä too common to tell you much
æ Danish, Norwegian, but occasionally in French and English
ă Romanian only
ą Polish and only Polish (a with a right hook underneath)
ç French or Spanish (or words borrowed from those languages)
č Czech, Slovak, Croation, Slovenian
Đ, đ Croatian (or Icelandic)
ę Polish and only Polish (e with a right hook underneath)
é too common to tell you much
ĳ Dutch and only Dutch
ł Polish and only Polish (barred-L)
ø Danish or Norwegian
ö too common to tell you much
ő Hungarian (umlaut that leans to the right)
œ mostly French, or older British English
ř Czech and only Czech
š Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Slovenian
ß German and only German
ș Rumanian only
ț Rumanian only
ü too common to tell you much
ű Hungarian (umlaut that leans to the right)
ž Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian. Latvian, Lithuanian among others
ź, ż Polish
language by language
Some languages like German have a fairly unique letter, others you’ll recognize if they have several characteristic letters, e.g. only Swedish has å + ä + ö; Danish and Norwegian have instead å + æ + ø (although the å was more often spelled aa).
German: ß (ä, ö, ü are unhelpful, because lots of languages have those characters)
Swedish: å + ä + ö
Danish: å + æ + ø
Norwegian: å + æ + ø
Finnish: lots of doubled letters and umlauts; examples:
hyvää päivää! Kiitos hyvää, ymmärrän ('good day! fine, thanks, I understand')
säätelevi, Helähytti helmivyöllä, Ennen lasna ollessani, ('regulatory, fertilizer with a beaded belt,
before I was a child')
Icelandic þ, ð, ý also æ, á, é, í, ó, ú
Czech ř ů also č, š, ň
Slovak ŕ also č, š, ň
Slovene č, š, ž but no other special characters
Croatian č + ć, Đ/đ
Polish ł ę ą also ń, ś, ź + ż, sz, cz
Hungarian ő, ű, zs
Dutch Ĳ/ĳ eeuw, aai, ieuw
You will find a fairly exhaustive list on Wikipedia's:Language_recognition_chart, but the list can be a little overwhelming. Best to go halfway down and focus on a given language at a time.
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