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Languages in 19th century

It is not very easy to study old documents and other primary sources related to a family history. One should know the language of these documents, and - it should be stretched - the language that was used at the time when the document was created. First of all, the writing system used at that time is of great importance - researchers should at least recognize the name of their ancestors whenever it was written. Therefore some information about historical orthography and used lettercases will be gathered here for the main languages of interest.



Only at the beginning of the 19th century the books and the newspapers in Latvian ended to be a rarity, and the literacy of Latvians started to grow. The reading skill was relatively common, but the writing was not that easy to acquire, and not so many Latvians could write in their language.

The linguistic problems of reflecting the sounds of the living Latvian language in letters were not solved yet. The orthography continued to be elaborated all the 19th century, the final variant was adopted only in 1909, and it differed rather seriously from the previous ones, however it is not difficult for modern people to learn the rules of the old style, especially for those who have some practice in German, because the first attempts to create the Latvian writing system were based on the German experience.

Not only the orthography was different in the Latvian language of the 19th century. Like the German texts of that time, the Latvian books and newspapers were printed using Gothic letterfaces that are considerably different from Latin letterfaces used in modern times. In the picture below you see the printed and handwritten German letterfaces in Gothic.


The lettercase used in Latvian printed texts basically was the same as for the German language, but some variants of letters were added for the Latvian sounds lacking in German. There was a letter that looked like the German s crossed by a line for a Latvian sound s (like in see or sea), and crossed k, l and n for softened variants of the appropriate sounds. It takes some time to acquire fluency in reading of old texts printed in Gothic though not very much. The Gothic fonts for printed Latvian texts were abandoned only in the 1930s.

Here follows some words copied from a Latvian newspaper of 1895 (information about prices in Rīga markets). I chose those words that contained specifically Latvian letters.

The above text in the modern spelling should look like:

Teļa gaļa, mārciņā
Žāvēts šķinķis
Svaigas reņģes

At that time the Latvian orthography had some peculiarities compared with the modern system:

1. The long vowels of the Latvian language were registered either by the letter h after them, or by a sign on them (at the end of the words) - look in the above text at the word: mahrziņā, or were not signed (in the suffixes of verbs). For example, in the above text: schahwets the long vowel e is not marked. It should be added that usually the letter h was inserted after the letter o that in Latvian is pronounced quite different than in German.

2. As it was said above, the pronunciation of various letters for consonants followed the rules of the German language, as they are presented in the following table:

19th century

Modern (1909)



crossed s






sch with crossed s








There were two graphic variants of s, like in the word schķiņķis above, but they had no difference in the pronunciation and there are no serious reasons to have them different in the texts copied in this Site. The situation is more difficult with the crossed s, because it was not possible to find this letter in the computer lettercases. In the texts of this Site that were copied from old publications I marked it by underlining, and I very frequently wrote an ordinary s also in cases where the crossed s was written in the original text. I hoped the difference in the pronunciation of these two letters should not create any great misunderstandings.

In the old texts the consonant letters were doubled after short vowels. This rule is used in the German language, but for Latvian texts it was abandoned at the beginning of the 1870s.

Unlike printed texts, the handwritten texts of the Latvian language were written in Latin letters (Antiqua) and they will not be very difficult for anybody as far as the recognizing of the letterfaces is considered. The orthography may create some problems, however. The crossed s in handwritten texts were not crossed but underlined, the softened k, l, n were marked by a comma under the letter like in the modern language. This Site presents many texts written in Latvian in the 19th century.

At the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century the printing of the books in Antiqua letters was started. One of the first book (1888) fully printed in this lettercase was the well-known epos of A.Pumpurs "Lāčplēsis" (The bear slaughter). In general, only the lettercase was changed, no serious differences in the orthography could be found. Instead of the crossed s the s with cedilla was used which was s with a small sign like comma under it. (The similar letter is used in the Romanian language for the sound like š in modern Latvian.) In Baltic fontcases this letter is absent and therefore I should have described it in words. The group of letters s with cedilla ch was pronounced like š in the modern language. To tell the truth, this letter was soon abandoned, however, and in the new orthography of 1909 was not used.

This is a sample of a Latvian text printed using Antiqua style lettercase. Unfortunately, I possess no books printed in these letters, because this lettercase was seldom used. The above fragment was copied from a page I copied from a book printed in 1908 that comprised the list of a student corporation Selonija.

All this development of the language took place mainly in the Baltic provinces of the Empire. In the Latgale part of the region of Latvia, which belonged to Vitebskas province, the printing of books was much less intensive and during the period 1870-1904 it was not allowed to print Latvian books in Latin letters there. Instead of them the Cyrillic alphabet was adopted for the Latvian language. To tell the truth, I have never seen a Latvian book printed in Cyrillic and can not say how the language was presented in this alphabet. I have only general information about the used approach. It is asserted in all publications that the system did not fit for the Latvian language, and the application of the Cyrillic letters was proposed only with the aim of the russification. Really, the rusification without doubt was going on at the end of the 19th century, however I think that the linguistic problems here are pushed aside by political correctness - I can not imagine that only the usage of Russian letters could make people more Russian - after all, nobody was made Latin who used and are still using the Latin alphabet. In the reality, the russification implied not only the changes in the alphabet, of course. Much more serious was the objection that the real pronunciation of Latvian and Russian letters was quite different, and the introducing of identical letters would have caused additional difficulties in learning of Russian by Latvians and vice versa.

At the beginning of the 20th century the need for the orthography reform was discussed and finally the new orthography was accepted in 1909. In fact the new orthography was implemented after the WW1, when the Latvia state was created (1918).



Throughout all of the 19th century the Russian language used so called old orthography that was revised after the Revolution 1917 in order to simplify the acquirement of literacy. In general 3 letters of the former alphabet were abandoned, other remaining letters with the same pronunciation were proposed instead of the lost letters. The usage of the remaining letters was also simplified, and as a result a serious simplification of the spelling rules was achieved. If you are interested in more details, please, find a book on Russian language history; I think that these details are relatively less relevant to this Site. It is important that in 1892 the Tzar ordered to conduct all civil registrations in Churches in Russian, so the knowledge of the old Russian orthography is necessary, if one is going to investigate the original registers. You may find here some samples of the texts written in the Russian old orthography.

It is not difficult to read texts printed in the old orthography. The reading of texts written by hand is considerably more difficult. If one wanted to write a phrase in the old orthography today, some serious additional studies would be needed.

The people who after 1917 emigrated from Russia to the Western world including Latvia did not accept the changes and continued to use the old orthography and to teach it in schools, obviously for political reasons. Only after the WW2 these changes gradually were accepted by all Russian printing houses of the world. So the orthography used in a Russian language letter of the 1930s clearly indicates the education place of the author.



The German language in the 19th century was principally the same as now. Only some minor differences in the orthography can be observed. For example, now in some words one uses the letter t where previously th was used - Tal instead of Thal and so on. Of course, this is of importance for family history researchers, because the spelling of the names of German origin could also change in time: Rosenthal = Rosental, Ruhenthal = Ruhental, Lieberthal = Liebertal, Loewenthal = Loewental, Lilienthal = Liliental or simply Thal = Tal. On the other hand, there are a considerable number of cases when these changes were not accepted by the holders of the appropriate names, and they continued writing their names with Th.

Rather peculiar was the usage of the letter y with the Umlaut (two dots on the letter). For me this letter sometimes caused difficulties in reading of some texts written by hand - at the beginning of my studies I mixed this letter with handwritten ij.

In standard cases, German texts were printed in Gothic with Latin expressions written in Latin (Antiqua) letters. By the way, Latin expressions were used rather frequently, especially in the texts issued by religious organizations, and also some words that today are felt like regular German words at that time seemed to be foreign expressions and were written in Latin letters. The official documents, that were translations from Russian, contained relatively many Russian bureauspeak terms written in German letters.

The similar approach was usual also for the handwritten texts. Rather typical should be the Arrestant Book 1832 where all of the names of arrested persons are written in Antiqua letters but the additional information in Gothic.

Experts have found some differences between the classical German language and the dialects used in the Baltic, but these differences were not significant. However it is known that the pronunciation of the Baltic Germans was different from the dialects of the German language and it was even possible to say the native Baltic province from the pronunciation of the speaker. More about German pronunciation in the Baltic provinces in another Page.

The reading of handwritten German texts in Gothic letters is rather complicated. Not because the letterfaces are difficult to learn, but mainly because the writers did not care much about possible readers 150 years later and wrote very heedlessly, and, to tell the truth, the Gothic handwritten lettercase offered pretty good possibilities of writing badly. In this Site numerous hand written documents in German are discussed and in all cases also a sample of the handwritten text should be copied, mainly because you could check my deciphering of the original text.


© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002