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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Are Genealogy Programs too Insular? What happened to the rest of the world?

I have to admit, I do not fit the stereotype of the average Spanish speaker. But then again, stereotypes have a tendency to be extremely prejudicial. Without getting very far into that subject, which I certainly could, suffice it to say that I have spoken Spanish nearly all my life. I have lived in South and Central America for years and have university degrees in Spanish and Linguistics. I taught Spanish at the college level for five years and English for Spanish speakers another five years. Now, I don't say that for any reason other than to provide a background for my comments about genealogy software programs. Because of the way our society works, people who have known me for years are entirely unaware that I speak Spanish and are very surprised when the overhear me talking to a person in Spanish. Every time this happens, it reinforces my view of the insular nature of our culture.

Some genealogy programs, including some of the large online database programs, are offered in a variety of languages. Some of the developers make an attempt to provide versions of their entry screens for various languages, but basically the entire structure of genealogy is based on a Western European model, with a strong emphasis on the English language. At some point, this will have to change if we are to accurately represent family relationships outside of the Western European mould.

From my point of view, genealogy should be the least ethnocentric and culturalcentric of the history-based persuasions. Our ancestral lines can easily encompass a huge variety of kinship systems and alternative family relationships. Some of the newer genealogical database programs attempt to extend the basic Western European relationship models to other cultures but the attempts are limited and failed to reflect the global variety of such systems. Perhaps, I am being overly optimistic in believing that an extension of the current genealogical formats can be made to adapt to the global variety. But the huge extension of the Internet into virtually all of the countries of the world mandates a careful consideration of the variety of human relationships that exist.

Merely translating a Western European genealogical model into another language is only a halfhearted attempt at accommodating cultural diversity. Although it is a first step in acknowledging that the differences do exist. Sensitivity to cultural diversity is one of the first and I believe easiest accommodations that can be made to these differences. For example, one very common complaint concerning genealogical products based in the United States is that they do not accommodate or reflect variations evident in other areas of the English-speaking world such as the United Kingdom. These differences extend far beyond spelling variations and word differences, but the discussion usually centers on trivial differences in spelling or word use.

Perhaps because I spent so much time in Central and South America, I am more acutely aware of these cultural differences. But I suspect it is my anthropological background based in linguistics and anthropology that colors my opinions concerning diversity. Unfortunately, in our present society, the term "diversity" is overworked in a political sense. I am not in favor of modifying genealogical programs merely on the basis of popular political correctness. Although, I am fully aware that the academic community generally bows to the concepts of political correctness. My opinions are based more on the practical reality of accurately representing historical relationships that are presently obscured by the programs that are being generally used to record genealogy.

Genealogy programs provide a framework for entering family relationships and recording significant facts concerning those relationships. The core question is whether or not the structure of the program accurately reflects those historical family relationships. If your family comes from Western Europe, for the most part the programs are adequate. But what if your family comes from someplace culturally diverse from Western Europe? In previous blog posts, I have given examples of the lack of cultural diversity in genealogy programs in general. At the risk of being repetitious, here is an additional example.

Spanish language surnames generally follow a pattern distinct from those in other Western European countries. Usually, a person born into a Spanish-speaking family is given a first name followed by two or more surnames, the first being the father's family paternal surname followed by the mother's family paternal surname.  This pattern can vary from country to country and even within families. In some instances many more than two surnames are added. This particular naming pattern has considerable complexity. For an interesting discussion of the patterns see "All you wanted to know and never dared to ask about Spanish family names." An interesting example from that article is the following name, "Carlos María Eduardo García de la Cal Fernández Leal Luna Delgado Galván Sanz." How many of the current genealogical programs would handle that name properly? Which of all those names is the "surname?" If you were going to search for that name in a genealogical database which of the surnames would you pick?

This is a simple and perhaps even trivial example, but at some point genealogy needs to move beyond its insular nature and begin reflecting the real world.

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