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

Monday, September 1, 2014

Are Names a Game in Genealogy?

Genealogy will never be truly global until its methods of recording family information reflect the great diversity around the world. Tony Proctor has analyzed some of the cultural variations in names in a post entitled, "The Game of the Name." This post may seem comprehensive but there are around 6000 languages and the way names are expressed can vary from language to language. Some languages are spoken by only a very few people, but the diversity is much greater than people expect. In addition, the variations within languages are sometimes great enough to keep those who supposedly speak the same language from understanding each other.

The dominant form of genealogical representation is based on a single naming pattern and single kinship systems. I have written about this issue before with virtually no response from comments or otherwise. As genealogists we profess to be interested in records and record preservation. With languages, we not only have the record preservation issue, but we also have the preservation of an entire culture as an issue. If you would like a very limited perspective in this area, see the Wikipedia article "List of languages by number of native speakers." If you read the disclaimer you will also see that the numbers are based on estimates and, I might add, the lumping together of people who really cannot understand one another.

If you were to go back in your own ancestry, how many different languages did your ancestors speak? Do any of these languages imply a different kinship system and naming pattern? How do you record those kinship systems and naming patterns that are different from the English used in this blog post? In the United States, we have a huge Spanish speaking population. Spanish naming patterns and kinship systems are dramatically different from those in English speaking countries. Even if a Spanish speaker uses one of the genealogy programs "translated" into Spanish, the kinship system is often ignored. As far as I can tell, Tony Proctor is one of the very few people in the online genealogical community who is trying to accommodate these differences in some sort of organized way. is the only major online genealogy database that accommodates more than the standard widely spoken languages. Here is the list they presently support:
Afrikaans, Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese-Mandarin, Chinese Traditional, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Portuguese – Brazil, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovakian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish and Ukrainian.
There is an application of the law of diminishing returns here. Even though there may be thousands of languages, most of the studies of those languages do not discount the number of people who are also proficient in an additional language or speak many languages. Many of the Spanish speaking people in the U.S., for example, also speak some English. On the other hand, even though I would be considered a native English speaker, I also speak Spanish fluently. The diminishing return here is that once you have translated your program into a certain number of languages, there is not a great enough demand from speakers of additional languages to justify the expense of translation and maintaining websites in each new language.

Even with, the process of translating the program into a target language is just that, a translation. For example, if I switch to Spanish in I get a screen that is only partially in Spanish. I am not picking on, none of the other large online programs do much better.

If you find yourself involved with ancestors that spoke a language different from the one you presently speak, there is hope. It is possible to translate those languages into your native language; it just takes a little more time and effort. But then you will be faced with recording the kinship system in a way that preserves the relationships. Most of the programs available allow you to name your own specialized fields for entering information. It is important that you understand why and how this function exists.


  1. My main point, James, was that if my scheme could cope with place names, and group names (e.g. regiment, class, organisation, etc), then it must have a very good chance of applying to the personal names of other cultures.

    In other words, rather than having to know the ins-and-outs of every single cultural variation, simply prevent yourself from assuming any prior patter or structure to them.

    1. James Tanner:
      I think it goes much deeper than just "until its methods of recording family information reflect the great diversity around the world." It goes to the basic purpose of why genealogy is done and preserved in the first place. There are essentially two general reasons given for doing genealogy in the first place; (a) to preserve a record of the past, a family history upon which current and future secular relational events can be contemplated; or, (b) to prepare a valid record system for LDS Temple ordinance work processing; key to family preservation.

      If we consider (b), first, it seems to me, that Biblical records become essential, and the following statement becomes paramount: "6 Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence. 7 Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed? A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh."

      Thus, the language taught by Noah to his posterity, was distorted during the construction of the first Tower of Babel. Secret signs, developed to identify groups of individuals, (within the different classes of workers having various levels of skills required in building the complex structure), could have initiated confusion, with disagreement and labor unrest concerning any unequal work compensation. And God, by the withdrawal of His spirit, caused the scattering of the posterity of Japheth; by whose posterity [Genesis 10: 5] the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations. Nimrod founded the beginning of the Kingdom of Babel, circa 2300 B.C. Ham (Hamitic), born 2444 B.C., was [Abraham 1: 23-25] the husband of Egyptus. Sons of Ham and Egyptus were born after the Flood [Genesis 10: 1]. Their daughter, also named Egyptus, was the "Mother of the King": Pharaoh, who began the Patriarchal Royalty of the Pharaohs of Egypt. In The Book Of Jubilees, the wife of Shem was Sedeqetelebab, who appears, by name designation, as a righteous and faithful wife. The main Hebrew word for righteousness is sedeq, which constitutes the second half of the compound proper noun Melchizedek (Hebrew malko-sedeq, "king of righteousness"). Thus, first, in conclusive evaluation:
      (I) Modern Languages did not originate out of thin air, oral origins, or primal slime; they are corruptions of a more refined language; Biblical: handed down intact for over 2,000 years.
      Reclaiming oral tradition, anciently, is the re-preservation of old fragmented culture and history, within broken branches of migrated and severed society, out of contact with its antiquity;
      those who were once part of a previously enlightened ancestry.
      (II) Earlier DNA evaluations and theoretical constructs are invalid, when compared with the theological historical records, which question by their assumptions, their basis as scientific.
      (III) There is no common ground that can be established, to unite (b), with (a) current and future secular relational events, presented to invalidate the existence of God and His salvation.

  2. Yes, I agree. But I am also aware that the present programs do not work that way and neither do most of the English speaking genealogists.