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

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What to do about names -- a genealogical nightmare

Using an ancestor's name for research is usually highly overused and very overrated by many genealogical researchers. I have written in the past about researchers who get some hung up about how their family name is spelled that they cannot do any effect research at all. I do think that understanding naming practices on various levels is essential to understanding any of your family history.

To start out, the study of proper names is called onomastics or sometimes, onomatology. Here is an explanation of some of the related terms from Wikipedia: Onomastics:
Onomastics or onomatology is the study of proper names of all kinds and the origins of names. The words are from the Greek: "ὀνομαστικός" (onomastikos), "of or belonging to naming" and "ὀνοματολογία" (onomatologia), from "ὄνομα" (ónoma) "name". Toponymy or toponomastics, the study of place names, is one of the principal branches of onomastics. Anthroponomastics is the study of personal names. Onomastics can be helpful in data mining, with applications such as Named-entity recognition, or recognition of the origin of names.
One of the earliest experiences every genealogist shares with all other genealogists, is learning that their "unique" family names are seldom unique. Because of this fact, names have limited utility in discovering information about our ancestors. There is no uniformity in the structure of names and the common U.S. pattern of a first or given name, followed by a middle name and finally a surname is not always followed. There are people without middle names. People with hyphenated names. People from other cultures that have names of a completely different pattern.

In the context of talking about establishing genealogical standards, I have written about some aspects of this subject in the not too distant past. but I thought it a good time to explore some of the historical and cultural aspects of names that directly impact genealogical research.

Standardized naming practices usually reflect the degree to which religious, military, commercial and industrial concerns impact a particular culture. The way in which a child receives a name vary considerably across cultures, but in many cases, giving a name is a significant event in the lives of the parents, the child and the extended family. Many cultures and some religions have specific name giving ceremonies that are a significant part of the child's early life. In some cultures, the child is given one name at birth and then another as the child matures and a name that is more appropriate is discovered.

In some cultures, children are named after specific relatives in a specific order. In others the names come from physical, spiritual or other characteristics inherent with the individual. Even in Western European society, the traditional naming pattern takes a variety of forms.

Unfortunately, genealogy as it is represented by the vast majority of software programs and online family trees, ignores many, if not most, of the variations in naming patterns across the world. Most of those patterns have changed dramatically over time. I have run into two naming issues that illustrate some of the challenges associated with genealogy over and over again in helping others with their family history.

In the early 1500s and 1600s, the Spanish Empire began its expansion into one of the largest territorial empires the world has ever seen. Even today, Spanish is considered to be either the first or second most spoken language in the world. See Wikipedia: Spanish Empire. In today's world, Spanish is the primary language of an estimated 407 million people and the United States is the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world after Mexico. More people speak Spanish as a native language than speak English. See Wikipedia: List of languages by number of native speakers. Do you understand Spanish naming practices? This question is obviously directed at my English speaking audience. But the question is important for the reason that many of us "English speaking" people have Spanish ancestors.

Does your genealogy database program support Spanish naming patterns? Here is the core issue of genealogy; its inability to reflect cultural and historical differences on a global scale. Of my six or seven software programs, only two are available in Spanish and even then the Spanish naming patterns are still not well accommodated.

The second problem is a little more esoteric. It deals with the issue of surnames. Many European countries had no standardized surname practices until the mid-1800s. In England King Henry VIII ordered marital births be recorded under the surname of the father in the 1400s. Notwithstanding this fact, genealogists become fixated on surnames.

Now I didn't get into the problems of spelling, the changing of surnames by immigrants and the issue of whether the wife changed her name upon marriage, but with this little review, I hope you can see that genealogists need to learn a lot about names.

But more importantly, our software and online family tree programs need to begin to reflect historical cultural reality. I am reminded of a practice that occurred in the United States during the 1800s and into the 1900s. Many Native American children were removed from their families and forcibly required to attend "English only" schools. When the children first arrived at the schools, they were assigned English names and forbidden to use the names they had been given in their native language by their parents. One way of assigning the names was with a name board consisting of a selection of about twenty or so given names. The child was taken to the name board and given a name. Aside from the outrageous nature of this practice from a cultural standpoint, it is a nightmare for the genealogists.

Guess what? There are many such nightmares in the area of names.

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