Languages in the Lower Rhine Area of Germany

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The beginning researcher in Germany might expect that all records in Germany will be in German. However, the experienced researcher knows that other languages will at some point be encountered. What languages might a researcher encounter in the Lower Rhine, which is the stretch of the Rhine from Bonn to the Dutch border?

Of course, the most commonly encountered language will be German. The vast majority of records will be in German and the researcher should attain some competence in reading basic German. Click here for a German word list.

The second most commonly encountered language will be Latin, particularly in Catholics records. The Catholic Church has played an important role in Germany for well over a thousand years and Latin has been the language of the Church. Fortunately, English has borrowed thousands of words from the Romance languages and many words will be easily recognizable to English speakers, e.g. parens, infantes, baptis-, sepul-, natus, among others. However, at some point, the researcher will probably have to consult a word list. Click here for a Latin word list.

Next, French might be encountered, especially west of the Rhine. For centuries, France has wanted its political boundary with Germany to be the natural boundary, the Rhine, instead of the cultural-linguistic boundary, which lies a considerable distance to the west of the Rhine. After the French Revolution in 1789, the French conquered and controlled much of Europe. At the Peace of Basel in 1795, Prussia recognized French control of the west bank of the Rhine. In the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797 Austria accepted French annexation of territories to the east of the Rhine. In the 1790s France instituted civil registration in its newly acquired territories. As the French wanted to French-ify its new subjects, the language of civil registration was French. For a detailed explanation of French influence on German research, click here. Therefore, the researcher should be prepared to work with French language documents. Click here for a French word list.

Finally, the researcher might encounter Dutch. For centuries, the area between the Rhine and Meuse rivers was linguistically mixed. The common vernacular was a dialect that is sometimes considered to be Dutch. Over time, as the political boundary became fixed, the standard languages, German and Dutch, came to dominate in their areas. However, in earlier periods, even into the early 19th century, many records will be in Dutch, especially nearer the German-Dutch border. German and Dutch are very closely related languages and a knowledge of German will be of consider help when reading Dutch records. Click here for a Dutch word list.

For articles on related topics, see these sites on Low German and the dialect basis of spelling variation in German names.