Help for Interpretation of Records in French
by William Henry Roll
It is worth learning the information presented here if you wish to pursue your ancestry in French speaking countries. The records of your French ancestors almost certainly are waiting for you to discover and interpret them.
The birth, marriage, and death entries in the Records of the Eglise Françoise à la Nouvelle York are in the original French language. French and English are sister languages with similar roots, Germanic and Latin, mainly. One can think of French as English with the words pronounced and spelled differently. The two languages follow the same word order, with a few exceptions such as "the red book" in French would have the word for red after the word for book, a Latin characteristic.
Spelling rules were not fixed in earlier centuries. In French the following variant spellings were common:
bv used for v - février spelled febvrier
c used for ss - aussi spelled auci
ct used for t - faites spelled faictes
es used for é - témoins spelled tesmoins
i used for j - jour spelled iour
o used for ou - tournier spelled tornier
os used for ô - nôtre spelled nostre
sç used for s - savoir spelled sçavoir
t used for tt - cette spelled cete
y used for i - hier spelled hyer
y used for ill - filleul spelled fyeul
z used for s - baptisé spelled baptizé
The Days of the Week
Sunday is the first day. The names of the days of the week are not capitalized in French.
lundi = Monday
mardi = Tuesday
mercredi = Wednesday
jeudi = Thursday
vendredi = Friday
samedi = Saturday
dimanche = Sunday
The Months of the Year
The names of the months of the year are not capitalized in French.
janvier = January
février = February
mars = March
avril = April
mai = May
juin = June
juillet = July
août = August
septembre = September
octobre = October
novembre, nouembre = November
décembre = December
"quatre vingt" means 4 times 20
The problem for those not familiar with French is the years ending with the range of digits 70 through 99. A little multiplication and addition is needed here.
The numbers 70 to 79 are constructed in the following manner. It is best to use a hyphen to clarify the meaning:
soixante-dix = 60 + 10 = 70
soixante-onze = 60 + 11 = 71
soixante-deuze = 60 + 12 = 72
The numbers 80 to 99 are constructed in the following manner. It is best to use a hyphen to clarify the meaning:
quatre-vingt = 4 x 20 = 80
quatre-vingt et un = 4 x 20 + 1 = 81
quatre-vingt et deux = 4 x 20 + 2 = 82
quatre-vingt dix = 4 x 20 + 10 = 90
quatre-vingt onze = 4 x 20 + 11 = 91
quatre-vingt deuze = 4 x 20 + 12 = 92
Everyone remembers the "four score and seven years ago" in Abraham Lincoln's speech, November 19, 1863, at the cemetery at Gettysberg, Pennsylvania. You have probably wondered what "four score" means. Lincoln wasn't trying to be special; this is the way the numbers 80 through 99 were enunciated then.
The French didn't use the word score, they used the word vingt. Both score and vingt mean twenty.
"Four score and seven years ago" means "four times twenty plus seven" (4 x 20) + 7 or 87 years ago. Therefore, 1863 - 87 = 1776, the year of the founding of our nation.
Unfortunately our teachers in school probably didn't teach us this. This is because either they didn't understand it themselves, or they didn't think we were smart enough to learn it, or they didn't want to go through the struggle.
Practice a Translation
The first entry in the record is the baptism of Madelayne Sicard, which reads:
"Baptesme-Le dimanche quatriesme nouembre mil six cent quatre vingt huit..."
Clue: Think of quatre vingt as being one word quatre-vingt.
Parsing the translation:
Baptesme- = Baptism-
Le dimanche = This Sunday
quatriesme = the fouth (French ordinal number, hardly ever used for dates)
nouembre = of November (note the substitution of "u" for "v")
mil = one thousand (the old-fashioned form of "mille")
six = six
cent = hundred
quatre-vingt = 4 x 20 = and eighty (quatre is four, not forty; use a hyphen)
huit = eight...
"Baptism - This Sunday, the fourth of November, 1688..."
Some years in the record are written as words.
The records that have the numbers of the years written as words can be a problem for the researcher not familiar with the numbers in French.
Remember that there was no fixed spelling in French, just as in English, in the 17th and 18th centuries, so you will find variations.
Some of the differences are between cardinal and ordinal numbers. Cardinal numbers are 1, 2, 3, 4... Ordinal numbers are first, second, third, fourth... Ordinal numbers are virtually never used when giving the date in French, but they are used in some of the records in this book. Examples of ordinal numbers in French are listed after the cardinal numbers below.
Some Cardinal Numbers
The counting numbers one, two, three, four...
0 = zéro
1 = un
2 = deux
3 = trois
4 = quatre
5 = cinq
6 = six
7 = sept
8 = huit
9 = neuf
10 = dix
11 = onze
12 = deuze
13 = treize
14 = quatorze
15 = quinze
16 = seize
17 = dix-sept
18 = dix-huit
19 = dix-neuf
20 = vingt
21 = vingt et un
(The omitted numbers are concatenated as immeldiately above.)
30 = trente
40 = quarante
50 = cinquante
60 = soixante
70 = soixante-dix (60 + 10) (Use the hyphen to clarify the meaning)
80 = quatre-vingt (4 x 20) (Use the hyphen to clarify the meaning)
90 = quatre-vingt dix (4 x 20 + 10) (Use the hyphen to clarify the meaning)
100 = cent
101 = cent un
200 = deux cent
1,000 = mille, mil
1,100 = mille cent
Some Ordinal numbers
first, second, third, fourth...
Ordinal numbers are hardly ever used for dates in French.
first; 1st = premier, première; 1er, 1ère
second; 2nd = deuxième; 2e
third; 3rd = troisième; 3e
fourth; 4th = quatrième; 4e
fifth; 5th = cinquième; 5e
sixth; 6th = sixième; 6e
seventh; 7th = septième; 7e
eighth; 8th = huitième; 8e
ninth; 9th = neuvième; 9e
tenth; 10th = dixième; 10e
Common Words and Phrases
Words in the 17th and 18th centuries had no fixed spelling, and were spelled the way they sounded. Capitalization was erratic, mainly used for emphasis. Words were contracted in a variety of ways.
This lexicon is not complete.
an cette eglize = in this
apres la priere du soir = after the evening prayer
auant la priere = before the prayer
aujourdhuy, auiourdhuy = today
batize par, batizée par = baptized by
de ce mois = of the same month
du present mois = of the current month
en vertu dune licence = in virtue of a license
eté batizné, etée batizée = was baptized
eté beny le mariage = the marriage was blessed
fille de = daughter of
fils de = son of
matin = morning
né, née = born
notre ministre = our minister
parins et marine, parain et maraine = godfather and godmother
pasteur = pastor
presentée au St. batême par = presented for holy baptism by
Other Useful French Words
an, année, annuel = year
banns = publications, bans
baptême = baptism, christening
baptesme = baptism
catholique romaine = Catholic
décès, mort, expiré, inanimé, défunt = death
enfant = child
femme, épouse, mariée = wife
juif, juive, israélite, hébreu = Jewish
mari, époux, marié = husband
mariage, alliance, unir, épouser = marriage
mère = mother
mois, mensuel = month
naissance, né, née = birth
nom, nom de famille = name, surname
parents, père et mère = parents
paroisse, paroissiaux, paroissiale = parish
père = father
prénom, nom de baptême = name, given
protestant, réformé, huguenot, R.P.R., luthérien, calviniste = Protestant
registres de l'état civil, mairie, maison communale, hôtel, deville = civil registry
sépulture, enterrement, enterré, inhumé, enseveli, funèbre = burial
tables, répertoire = index
ville, village, hameau, commune = town, village
Google Language Tools
to try to translate some of the words. Sometimes I enter the English word that I think is the translation to find the French word, which more often than not confirms my guess.
You may wish to use a digital dictionary to look up words you don't find on this list. Not all the words will be found in such a dictionary because of the old fashioned spellings.