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Sometimes reading English is the hardest part

The further you go back in time, the more problems you will have interpreting old documents.

Colonial English is very similar to the English of the 1611 King James Bible. Words have different spellings and meanings. Very different abbreviations are used. The grammar and punctuation are not the same. Even numbers were written differently. To complicate matters even further, there was no standardization so just when you think you have it all figured out you will stumble across something that just confuses you even more. You might read a will and think the person who wrote it must have been barely literate. The truth is the English used was correct for that time. You also have to consider the penmanship. Their style of handwriting bares little resemblance to what you see today.

There were a few strange quirks of the Colonial time period. One such oddity is the way they used the terms junior and senior. In today's English, junior and senior simply refers to a son and father with the same name. That is not necessarily the case in Colonial times. Junior was used to differentiate any person of the same name in the same family. If a boy was named after his uncle, for example, he would be referred to as junior. Another thing you might see is someone with the title of in-law who really wasn't. Step relationships were commonly referred to as in-law relationships. The term cousin was used in many ways. It could be a true cousin, or a person who married into the family or even a close friend of the family where no blood kinship existed.

Here is an excerpt of the will of Richard Simcock from 1646.

In the name of God, Amen. I Richard Symcocke of Burton in the Parish of Tarvin in the Countie of Chester yeoman being sicke and weake in bodye but of sound and pfect minde and memorie (praysed bee God) Doe make this my last will and testamt in manner and forme followinge

First: I bequeathe my Soule unto the hande of Almightie God my Creator and my bodye to bee buryed att Tarvin amongst my Father and other my freinds there. And as for my goods and worldlie estate for the p'servaton of Peace and quietnes amongst my Children hereafter I bequeate the same in manner and forme followinge

The entirety of this transcription can be seen at The author of this web site, Jill Carter Knuth, has researched the Maddock Family of Chester, England which is the family of Joseph Maddock, co-founder of Wrightsborough here in McDuffie County.

Reading it in this form isn't too difficult, but if you could look at the original handwritten document it would be a different story. There are several books available on the interpretation of Middle English. They are used by English literary scholars. It is worth the effort to learn a little more about this form of English before you try and tackle document interpretation.

Web posted on Thursday, May 20, 2004

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