Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 4 – Latin and Other Languages

This week we’re interviewing author William F. Hoffman (see Part 1 for more info on his books).  In Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview, we discussed surnames. Yesterday, in Part 3 Fred discussed translating records.  Today we wrap up our conversation with more on translations.

WPiP: What’s the easiest language for non-linguists to learn with regard to research, not fluency?

Fred: The answer to that question is always a little bit subjective.  I mean, we find Polish hard, but young Polish babies have no problem learning it at all.

But I understand what you mean by this question, and I think most people would say the answer is Latin.  Many of our words derived from Latin words with similar or related meanings, so the terms you run into are often familiar, or at least not completely alien. That, in turn, makes you feel like you have a fighting chance.

Also, during the period when English (and other European languages) were developing their standard written forms, Latin was the language of educated people. So the way writers said things in Latin had a lot of influence on the way they said things in English or German or Polish. As time has gone by, we’ve gotten farther and further away from that — but even in the 19th century, there’s just enough similarity and continuity to give you a hand.

I think most English speakers would say German is harder than Latin, but still not too bad. English and German are from the same family of languages, and there are basic similarities in the ways these languages express ideas. Polish is quite a bit harder. Russian … Well, it is a challenge. Still, the harder a language, the more gratifying the moment when you realize you’re starting to make progress with it.

WPiP: When can we expect to see your Latin book?  Can you give us a sneak peak at the highlights?

Fred: I’m sure you’re referring to the Latin volume of the In Their Words series of translation guides, on which Jonathan Shea and I collaborate. Jonathan took the lead writing the first drafts of the Polish and Russian volumes, because those are his strongest languages, and he knows them better than I do. He wanted me to write the first drafts of the Latin and German volumes, because I have more experience with them. Of course, once the first draft of any of these books is written, we both work on refining and improving it.

I keep hoping we’ll have a chance to finish the Latin book this year. But it seems like every time a week comes when I scheduled working on the first draft, something else comes up absolutely has to be done right away. I’ve been promising the Latin book for years now, and it’s still not done. I still HOPE to finish a first draft before the end of the year, so that we can publish it late this year or early next year. That will clear the way for us to tackle the real monster: the German volume.

But don’t hold your breath. One thing about writing books — they almost always take longer than you think they will. We started working on In Their Words as a single book on four languages, more than a decade ago.

As for the highlights, the Latin book will follow the same basic pattern as the Polish and Russian volumes. We’ll talk a little about the language itself, then show and analyze sample documents, emphasizing terms and expressions that tend to show up again and again. There will be a large vocabulary section, including words we’ve run into that don’t generally appear in dictionaries. We’re also planning a section on common first names and their equivalents in English, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. That can be very important, because the Latin forms of specific names may be very different from the ones people actually sent by in everyday life. You need to know that a Pole called Adalbertus in a Latin document probably went by Wojciech.

When the book is ready, you can be sure Jonathan and I will not be shy about saying so. There will be notes on various Polish genealogy mailing lists. I just may mention it in PolishRoots’ free monthly e-zine, Gen Dobry! And we will announce it on the home page of our Web site, I’m also keeping a list of people who want to be informed when it’s done; you can ask to be added to the list if you write me at

Fred, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us!  This concludes our interview with Mr. Hoffman.  He offered some great tips to researchers, including 1) surname spellings were not “set in stone” throughout history, 2) pay attention to how the name SOUNDS for clues on how it may be misspelled in records, 3) when trying to decipher a handwritten record, copy more than just the entry for more clues to decipher individual letters.  I wish I had known those things when I started my research; it would have saved me some time and frustration!  I am looking forward to Fred’s Latin volume of “In Their Words” since many of the older church records for my family are in Latin, and some of the phrases can be a challenge for my high school Latin memories.

I hope to interview other authors and genealogists over the coming months – please be sure to leave a comment if this interview series was helpful to you!

The 4-part series is complete, so here are the links to each segment of our Interview with William F. Hoffman:

2 thoughts on “Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 4 – Latin and Other Languages

  1. Hi Donna,

    Excellent interview! Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Shea have teamed up to create some of the most valuable Polish genealogy research guides that have ever been written.

    Thanks again,

  2. Well done, a really worthwhile interview with good information in the answers, thank you both.

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