Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tech Tuesday - Google Translate

Machine translation is an extremely useful tool for genealogists working with other languages, whether you are trying to navigate a website written in another language or read documents pertaining to your ancestors. The two most familiar tools are probably Babel Fish and Google Translate. The widest selection of languages is offered by Google Translate, currently 63 languages.

Google translate works by detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by humans. The quality of the translation depends on the number of available documents. The best translations are going to occur for languages where Google has had access to a large number of translated documents, languages like French, German, Spanish and English. Machine translation is constantly improving, so if you haven't tried it recently you may be surprised by how good the results are.

Still, Google Translate is not perfect and you will occasionally get strange or nonsensical translations (such as an example given by James Fallows here). Genealogists need to pay special attention when place names or surnames get translated by the machine translator, because names are typically left untranslated. Google translate is a great tool for getting the basic gist of a document or for helping search for information. One useful feature of Google Translate is that it can be added to your Google Toolbar allowing quick and easy translation of web pages. However, when it comes to documents, you should always double check the translation the old-fashioned way, especially because the document might have structures or words on which the machine translator has been insufficiently trained.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Benefits of Genealogy

I am sure that I don't have to convince many of you of the benefits of genealogy. Still, the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog points to a new study on the positive effects of thinking about our ancestors (here):
'We showed that an easy reminder about our ancestors can significantly increase intellectual performance,' the researchers said. 'Hence, whenever people are in a situation where intellectual performance is extraordinarily important, for example in exams or job interviews, they have an easy technique to increase their success.'

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Genealogy Fun!

Enjoy a genealogical challenge from a guest contributor, my wife Becky, who shares my passion for genealogy if not always linguistics.

Here's a chance to show off your genealogy snooping. You are looking for a password to a website. The password is made up of two words that you can find by following the directions in the rhyme below.

You are welcome to use any resources you have available, but all of the information can be found for free online (though you may have to use a few different websites).

In 1775,
North & Elizabeth had a son John
Our task for you is to arrive
At the date he was christened upon.

On this same date in 1837
Mary (of the same last name) was laid to rest
We certainly hope she made it to heaven
In Churchstanton, find where her body was blessed.

And to this church name, add son
Find his wedding to Bridget A.
Her last name is half the fun
Save this word and keep with the play.

It was the very same day that they were married
that a girl, Maria Tomasa, was baptized
In Tecaxic Mexico she was carried
The last word of her name (in English) is the second word prized.

Put both saved word together (no caps, no spaces). It is a familiar two word English phrase. Go to this webpage: http://linguistgenealogist.pbworks.com, hit the button to solve the puzzle, and enter the password.

For even more fun, on the other site please post something you discovered about these people in your quest. Maybe you'll find a link to a picture of their home, church or tombstone. Or you can add a record transcription. Are there any connections to your own family tree?

First to post gets bragging rights.

Happy hunting!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Surname Saturday - Gardahaut

One of the ironies of my own research is that the great-grandparent who I knew the best is the one whose ancestry I know the least about. Suzanne Jeanne Gardahaut was born on Nov. 9, 1900 in Nantes, France and lived actively into her nineties. She was my one connection to something exotic in my own family background. Not only was she French, but she was something more, she was a Breton, from the culturally distinct region of Brittany in northwest France. This fascinated me, largely because it was something that made me feel unique. When it came time to make a display for French night, I proudly did it on Brittany. When I had the chance, I even took a course on Breton, the wonderful Celtic language of Brittany, which is related to Welsh and Cornish.

Along with this unusual heritage (at least where I lived), she also had an unusual surname. The name is absent from US Census (my great-grandmother married soon after she immigrated and is listed under her husband's name). The only historical record for the name on FamilySearch.org is my great-grandmother's ship record. The only place left to look is in France. One useful tool is the La France de noms on the genealogie.com website which can give you an idea of the distribution of surnames in France. The Gardahauts, few that there are, are clustered in or near Brittany in the northwest corner of France on the map for the period 1891-1915.

The meaning of the names is fairly obscure. One theory put forward on the GeneaNet (here) holds that the name is from the phrase garde à eau referring to a reservoir or mill race or is related to a place name Gardehaut in Côtes d'Armor. The evidence seems mainly speculative in either case.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Funeral Card Friday - Franciszek Labiak

In Blessed Memory of

Franciszek Labiak

He fell asleep in the Lord
on December 30th, 1953
Funeral, January 4th, 1954
at Five Holy Martyrs Church*
to Resurrection Cemetery

*Literally: Church of the Five Holy Polish Brothers and Martyrs

Polish is a very tough language to have to deal with. Like Latin, it is a highly synthetic language (see here), so you have to know some grammar to use a dictionary effectively. Fortunately, there are some very good resources for genealogist. The Polish Genealogical Society of America has many resources that may help you with your ancestors' Polish records, especially if they lived in Chicago. They have a translation guide for Dziennik Chicagoski obituaries (here) that can help you translate keywords, Polish first names, and the names of Chicago area churches and cemeteries. Although intended for obituaries, the guide is also useful for tombstones, funeral cards and really almost any genealogical records.

It is also worth tracking down contemporary English language records for your ancestors, as these may help you translate the Polish document. However, be careful as the information may not be exactly the same. In the case of Franciszek Labiak, who went by the English name Frank, there is an obituary in the Chicago Tribune from January 1-3, 1954. It reads:
Frank Labiak, late of 3106 W. 47th street, beloved husband of Anna Pearl, nee Heltmark; loving father of Bernard, Francis, Walter, Edward, Sylvester, Chester, Leo, William, and the late Gertrude, father-in-law of Veronica, Josephine, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Helen, brother of Agnes Schultz, Anna Dombrowski, Catherine Czesycki, Mary Deardowski, Josephine Vitek, and Samuel Labiak, brother-in-law of Casimir Schultz, Bernard Czeszycki, Michael Deardowski, and Charles Vitek, grandfather of 11 grandchildren. Funeral Monday, Jan. 4, at 9:30 a.m., from chapel, 4358 S. Richmond street, to Five Holy Martyrs church. Interment Resurrection cemetery. Union Town, Pa., papers please copy. Lafayette 3-4480.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Trees and More Trees

Historical linguistics is the branch of linguistics concerned with discovering the relationship between languages and understanding how languages change over time. Historical linguistics and genealogy have many things in common. Both are concerned with relationships and both require a systematic and thorough examination of the available evidence and careful argumentation. They also both share a fascination with maps and trees. Understanding something about historical linguistics can also help in genealogy.

Leveraging your knowledge
Understanding how languages are related can help you leverage the knowledge you have in one language for research in a related language. Like people, languages are grouped into families based on common descent. Some languages are very closely related, while others are more distantly related. More closely related languages typically have more words and structures in common. You can use your knowledge of English to help further research in other Germanic languages. Many of the words in German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages will be immediately familiar to speakers of English. You should be able to guess the meanings of verbs in German like beginnen, bringen, enden, fallen, helfen, kommen, kosten, landen, lernen, senden, springen, starten, wandern, and many others. If you know two languages are related, don't be afraid to guess the meaning of words that look familiar. You may make a wrong guess, but more often if you take the context into account you will be right.

Another important lesson from historical linguistics is that languages are often related in systematic ways. For example, the letter d in German often corresponds to th in English. You can use knowledge of this to help guess the meaning of words like danken "thank", denken "think", die "the", das "the or that", drei "three", dreizig "thirty", dein "thine", etc. Other examples of such systematic relations include German v and English f (vater and father) and German t and English d (tag vs. day). These difference are due to a combination of changes occurring in only one language and spelling conventions.

There is more to relationships than genetics
Another important lesson from historical linguistics is that languages are related in ways beyond common descent. Many of the similarities between languages are due to borrowing. Through the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church and science, Latin borrowings are found in every European language and most widely spoken languages of the world. Another language that had a huge influence on English is that of French. William the Conqueror and the Normans brought the French language with them fundamentally changing the English language. It is hardly possible to write a paragraph without some Latin or French borrowings. The science fiction writer Poul Anderson illustrates this by attempting to explain atomic theory in his essay titled "Uncleftish Beholding". It is useful to know which languages belonged to the same "community" and influenced the language you are working with.

In genealogy it is also important not to become to wrapped up exclusively on our ancestors blood relationships. They were also parts of communities and networks of friends which may yield evidence about our ancestors' lives.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tuesday's Tip - Preparing a language reference sheet

Preparation is always important in research, but even more so if you are planning to look at documents in a language you do not speak or read well. Before visiting a library or archive, it is important to know what kinds of resources are available. In what format are the documents? Are you going to be looking at data in forms (such as censuses and many vital records) or data in paragraphs (such as letters, wills and many earlier marriage records). The format will affect how you prepare. If you are looking at data in paragraph form, you may need to master some grammar. If you are looking at data in forms, you will have an easier time and might only need a dictionary.

Once you have an idea of what records are available, you should make a reference sheet that will help you navigate and find relevant documents. Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. What type of information might I find in these documents? (family relations, date of birth, place of birth, etc.)
  2. What words will I need to know to get this information? (words for months, numbers, basic prepositions, kinship terms, etc.)
List these words and find the equivalents in your target language using a dictionary. This way you will save time and not have to constantly flip through a dictionary.

For example, if you are visiting a cemetery, you will want to find out the names of the months, the words for husband, wife, son and daughter, the words for "born" and "died" and how to make possessives (see here and here), because these are all commonly found on tombstones. Make sure that if you find something you don't understand you take note and add it to your reference sheet for next time.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Surname Saturday - Simpson

Beside names which reflect place names (here) and occupations (here), a third very common source of surnames are partronymics, names which originally indicated the father of the name's bearer. These types of surnames often incorporate the word for son (or in some cases daughter) and are common in many languages. In some languages, like Icelandic, patronymics are still productive. For example Icelandic politician Björn Bjarnsson is the son of former Primer Minister Bjarni Benediktsson. The son's last name is determined by father's first name. In many other languages, including English, the patronymics have been fossilized and are passed like any surname from a father to his children.

In English, there are two basic types of surnames derived from patronymics, those ending in -s (Williams, Adams, Roberts, Rogers) and those ending in -son (Williamson, Robertson, Johnson, Jackson). The forms with -son are most common in areas where there was earlier a strong Norse or Scandinavian presence, such as Northeast England and the Scottish Lowlands. In the United States, names ending in -son are often associated with the Scotch-Irish. Many of the Scotch-Irish lived in these parts of Great Britain before they settled in Northern Ireland and eventually moved onto the United States where they formed a large part of the early frontier states, like Tennessee. My own Scotch-Irish Simpson ancestors made their way from North Carolina, settling in Cannon County, Tennessee for the first half of the nineteenth century, then briefly in Lawrence County, Missouri, then moving to Lawrence County, Arkansas, and finally to Washington State.

The name Simpson is clearly patronymic in origin, but the meaning of the parts is not obvious. First, the given name included in this surname is an unfamiliar shortened form of the name Simon. Like surnames derived from place names, surnames derived from surnames may retain archaic forms that reflect an earlier stage of a language. The name is literally "Sim's son".

Whence the /p/?
This brings us to the second problem, where the /p/ in the name comes from. This is where the linguistics comes in. The /p/ is the result of a common process that occurs when certain kinds of sounds come together. In the case of Simpson, there is an /m/ followed by an /s/. The sound /m/ is called a nasal sound. This means that the sound is produced by lowering the soft palate and allowing the air to flow through the nasal cavity. If you make an /m/ or /n/ sound you can feel the air coming out your nose. The /s/ is an oral sound, meaning the air is flowing through the mouth. The /p/ emerges because of the timing of these two sounds. Notice that the /m/ and /p/ are both made by pressing the lips together. First, the lips are closed and the soft palate is lowered to make an /m/ sound. Then, the soft palate is raised closing off the nasal cavity, the pressure behind the lips builds up, the lips are opened creating a /p/ sound and then the tongue goes into position allowing enough air to pass through to make an /s/ sound. Thus, we have a new sound creeping into many words.

The same processes is also found in many other surnames, such as Thompson "Thom's son", Sampson "Sam's son", Hampson, Lampson, Hampton, Hampstead, etc. Sounds like /p/ which are not original may not occur in every spelling of a name, especially in older documents and inscriptions. There can be a lot of variation in spelling, including with and without the /p/. This is important especially when using the Soundex system, because Simpson (S512) and Simson (S525) will have different codes.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Lexicographical Puddler

Sometimes the most challenging linguistic problems are encountered in your own language. One of the few absolutes about language is that it changes over time and as much as we might try there is nothing we can do to stop it. Because of this, the genealogist will often encounter words or phrases that are unfamiliar, even in English. Sometimes, even familiar words might be used in ways that are different from current usage. One of the best available resources for figuring out the meaning of obscure or archaic words is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Although many libraries have print copies, it is easiest to search the online version. The online version requires a subscription, but in many cases you can gain access through your library. On most public library websites you can find a list of databases to which the library subscribes. Many of these sites can be used remotely, simply by entering your library card number or logging in. Here is an example of the dictionaries and encyclopedias available at the Seattle Public Library, including the OED.

What is a Puddler?
With changes in technology and society, the occupations that people have change. As the occupations change so does the language. One unfamiliar occupation I have encountered is that of "puddler", a very common profession among my wife's Irish ancestors in Chicago, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Among these ancestors is Francis Donohoe, who is living in in 1850 in Birmingham, Pennsylvania (now a part of Pittsburgh).

A dictionary like Merriam-Webster will often do the job, but may require more digging and yield not quite as rich entries. For example searching for puddler will lead to the verb puddle which gives a rather circular definition, "to subject (iron) to the process of puddling". From here, we can look up puddling yielding the more useful definition of:
the process of converting pig iron into wrought iron or rarely steel by subjecting it to heat and frequent stirring in a furnace in the presence of oxidizing substances
However, the OED has a separate entry for puddler. The first sense is that of "a dabbler, an amateur (as it is used in the post's title). The second sense is the one we are looking for, that of "a person who puddles iron". There are dated examples included and a link directly to the relevant sense of the word puddle with further examples and etymological information. The entry reads:
5. trans. Metall. To heat and stir (molten pig iron) with iron oxide in a reverbatory furnace, so as to oxidize and remove the carbon and other impurities and produce wrought iron. Cf. puddling n. 4. Now hist.
The OED often provides a far richer and nuanced picture of the meaning and use of words, especially archaic words you might encounter in your genealogical research.

As a more genealogical aside, in this case, this unusual profession proved vital in connecting family that moved around a lot and did not leave many other records. It is important to remember that occupation information can prove very useful and shouldn't be ignored.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Translating names with Wikipedia

Deb at Adventures in Genealogy has a useful post on resources for tracking the changes in our immigrant ancestors' given names. When going back, it is helpful to have some sense of what our ancestors' names might be translated to in their native languages or what the name might have become in the US. Because of common histories and religious traditions, many originally Hebrew, Greek or Latin names have been adapted to various local languages. Peter, Per, Pierre, Boutros, Pietro and Pedro can all trace back their name to the Greek pétros (Πέτρος) 'rock' from the Apostle Simon Peter. In many cases, our ancestors simply changed their name to the appropriate English version. However, in other cases, they might have kept the old name (like my great grandmother Suzanne), adopted a similar sounding name with a different origin (M*A*S*H's Jamie Farr's given name was Arabic Jameel "beautiful"), or chosen a name with little obvious similarity.

Wikipedia as a tool for discovering different versions of a name
One useful tool for discovering different versions of a given name is Wikipedia. Take the name Matthew. In English, find the Wikipedia page for St. Matthew. It is best to find the earliest bearers of the name. Now find the sidebar on the left and look for a list of languages. You will find a list of more than fifty languages. The language names are in their own language, so you might have to figure out what the native name for a language is. In some cases, it is easy to make an educated guess. In other cases, the names will be unrecognizable, such as Cymraeg for Welsh, Magyar for Hungarian or Suomi for Finnish. Now try a few. You can find that the French (Français) version is Matthieu, the Geman (Deutsch) version is Matthäus, the Czech (Česky) is Mattouš, the Lithuanian (Lietuvių) version is Matas, and the Breton (Brezhoneg) version is Mazhev.

Figuring out Matěj Jaros
You can also search the different language versions of Wikipedia if you have the name in another language and want to find out what the English version might be. For example, take the Czech name Matĕj. This is the first name of one of my wife's ancestors from Písek in what is now the Czech Republic. Matěj has always been somewhat of a challenge to track because he would often come up with different names in different records. He is listed as Michael in the 1900 Census and his wife's death certificate, Matt in the 1910 Census, Matthias on one of his son's birth certificates, Matej on his death certificate and tombstone. Once you have found the Czech Wikipedia for Matěj, find the sidebar and click on English. Here you will find that the English version of Matěj is Matthias, explaining at least one of the records.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Surname Saturday - Bergmann

Some names require a lot of digging to discover their meaning or origin. Surnames derived from place names often fall into this class as they can reflect the entire history of a region. English place names come from every period of its history, with many having obscure Celtic or even pre-Celtic origins. Other surnames have very transparent meanings. Bergmann is one such name. The name consists of two parts berg and mann which in German translate to "mountain" and "man", respectively. As a compound, the term is used for "miner", possibly offering a clue to your ancestors' occupation. Berg is also a common element in many German place names (Königsberg, Nürnberg) and can easily be confused with burg "fortress" (discussed here). This confusion is particularly common for English speakers who do not distinguish between short vowels /i, u, e/ followed by /r/ and thus pronounce burg and berg the same way.

Besides German, these same elements are also common in other Germanic languages. Berg also means "mountain" in Dutch and Swedish, while Danish has bjerg. The name Bergman without double /n/ is also a common Swedish surname, as with the director Ingmar Bergman and the actress Ingrid Bergman.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wampanoag and the First Thanksgiving

While you enjoy a slice of pumpkin pie, you can reflect on the linguistic contribution of the first Americans. One theory has it that the word pumpkin comes from the Wôpanâak word pôhpukun meaning "grows forth round". Wôpanâak, along with English, was one of the languages you would have heard at the first Thanksgiving. By the late 1600s, many documents were being produced in the language including a bible and documents of interest to genealogists, like deeds and wills. The language ceased being spoken in the middle of the 19th century, but is now being revived as a part of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dealing with synthetic structures in Latin

In a previous post, I talked about two different ways of organizing language and then in a later post showed how to deal with possessives in French. Today, I want to discuss another way that languages indicate the meaning of and relationships between words. In many languages, a word will change form depending on its function. In language like English or French, much of the work is accomplished by using separate words. In Latin, the same is achieved by changing the endings of the word. Let's see how this applies to possessives in Latin

Take the following church record:

Many of the names are no doubt very familiar looking, but have unfamiliar endings.
There are two different sets of endings, a masculine set (-us, -i and -um) and a feminine set (-a, -ae and -am). You are probably familiar with the ending -us and -a from famous Roman names like Julius, Octavius and Augustus or their feminine forms Julia, Octavia and Augusta. This form is called the nominative and is the form which you can look up in the dictionary. The two other forms have different funtions. The endings -um and -am are the accusative endings used to indicate the object of a verb.
Julius amat Octaviam.
Octaviam amat Julius.
Julius Octaviam amat.
These three sentences all mean the same thing; the word order isn't important, the endings are everything. The final pair of endings (-i and -ae) are the most important for identifying possessives. These forms are called genitive and are used to mark the possessor.

We can now return to the marriage document. Let's take a single line.

We have an ampersand (&), which is a special form of the conjunction et "and". We have two names, Stanislai and Antoninae. Both are in the genitive and should be translated as "of Stanislaus" and "of Antonina". The final puzzle is the word filiam. Now you should be able to recognize this as an accusative form and look up the form filia in a Latin dictionary. You will discover that it means "daughter". The line above means "daughter of Stanislaus and Antonina"

You should now be able to identify and translate these types of structures providing family relationships in Latin documents.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Surname Saturday - Kingsbury

Every Saturday I will publish a brief comment about a different surname. For the first of this regular feature, I will start close to home with my own middle name.

The name Kingsbury is an English name which reflects English's Germanic roots. My own ancestors and those of most American Kingsburys settled in New England during the Great Migration. Like many other surnames it was originally a place name. The second part of the name bury reflects the old English word burh meaning "an enclosed or fortified place". The name Kingsbury would then mean "the fortified place of the King". The ending bury is also found in many English place names, such as Canterbury and Salisbury and as a result surnames. Related endings are also found in other Germanic languages, such as burg in German (Hamburg) or borg in Scandinavian languages (Göteborg).

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the company of saints

It is useful to learn the words for "saint" in the languages of your ancestors. Saint names occur in surnames, church names and many place names. Knowing these words can help you make sense of records by letting you identify the names of people and places. In English, these terms are fairly simple; we use the same form for both male and female saints and have a single abbreviation St. In many European languages, there are different forms for different genders, and sometimes abbreviations and other special forms before names.

Saint in Spanish
In Spanish, the masculine form for "saint" is santo and the feminine form is santa. However, when followed by a name, the masculine form is usually the reduced form San, as in San Francisco (Saint Francis). Some exceptions with the full form include Santo Domingo and Santo Tómas.

Saint in French
In French, the masculine form is written the same as in English,
saint, and the feminine form has an extra "e", sainte. In saints names, these are typically abbreviate to St. and Ste., respectively. These abbreviated forms are very common in French Canadian place names and even in the US, such as St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve in Missouri. Labels on records in the Drouin Collection ($ Ancestry) point to the towns of St.-Evariste-de-Forsyth (Pope Evaristus) and Ste.-Marie (St. Mary).

Saint in Polish
While the words for "saint" in French, Spanish and many other languages are quite similar to English, in other languages they are unrecognizable. Take German Heilige (hl.), Albanian shenjtori (Sh.), Czech Svatý (Sv.), Finnish
Pyhä or Polish Święta (św.).

Let's look at an obituary from a Polish newspaper in Chicago. We know that names of
saints will be preceded by the abbreviation św. We can also guess that an obituary might mention a church or a cemetery. Looking up "church" and "cemetery" in a Polish dictionary gives us kościół and cmentarz.

We can identify four separate "saints". Having looked up the words for church and cemetery, we can make out a Church of "św. Jana Bożego" and a cemetery of "św. Marii". Using an educated guess and confirming it, we find that the church is St. John of God and the cemetery is St. Mary, a cemetery on the South Side of Chicago. The other "saints" are not as clear, but a little more digging reveals the first saint to be St. Casimir, which is related to a society he belonged to, and the fourth saint is not really a saint, but refers to the "blessed" sacraments. This points to the original meaning of "saint" which is "holy". English is actually unusual in the fact that it distinguishes between holy people (saints) and other holy things (Holy Family, Holy Trinity, etc.).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dealing with analytic structures in French

In my last post I talked about how understanding how languages are organized can help you make sense of a document in an unfamiliar language. Today, I want to talk about tackling a document in French, a language with many analytic structures. In analytic structures, meanings are indicated by separate words, not by changing the words.

Languages like this are generally easier to deal with, because the word you see in a document is more likely to have the same form in a dictionary. For example, possessives in Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) have the same basic pattern as English possessives with of ("the daughter of Prudence Martin"). Like English, the possessed person or thing comes before the preposition and the possessor comes after it.

The prepositions used in the Romance languages are related to each other, so you can learn several for the price of one. For example,
French de
Spanish de
Portuguese de
Italian di
This construction is especially useful for genealogists because it is often used to indicate a family relation ("the son of John Smith").

Knowing just a few small things can yield a tremendous amount of genealogical information to those willing to brave the French language and handwriting. Take, for example, a collection of records like the Drouin Collection ($ Ancestry). One doesn't need to understand everything, just be able to pick out the interesting genealogical tidbits.

The example above is taken from the marriage record of Augustin Blais and Marie-Louise Mercier in 1800. The underlined section says:
augustin blais majeur fils de jean baptiste blais
This translates word for word into English as
Augustin Blais grown son of Jean Baptiste Blais
With a good dictionary you can get a good idea of the content simply by looking up each word. The only potentially tricky part is the word majeur "major". Here the meaning is "of age" or "grown". In English we use the word minor in the same context ("a minor child"), but not so much major (although the term of majority is used somewhat archaically to mean "adulthood"). If you use Google Translate, you will simply have majeur translated as "major". However, if you use a decent online dictionary, you will see that it can also mean "of (legal) age".

Next week, we will turn to the much more complicated example of synthetic structures in Latin. In Latin, it is not enough simply to look up the words in similar cases; you have to learn something about the grammar first.

Analytic and synthetic structures

Morphology deals with the way words are formed. To describe the ways in which languages are different linguists have come up with many terms. While the terms are not necessarily important to the genealogist, the ideas behind them can be. Today I'm going to write about two ways that the meanings of words and their relationships to other words are indicated in languages. Knowing what types of structures are likely to be found in a language can help the genealogist know how to approach documents in that language.

Sometimes words stand alone and the relationships are indicated by the occurrence of other words or by the word order. This type of structure is called analytic. In English, we can indicate a possessive relationship by using the preposition of. The word before the of is possessed and the word after possesses. For example,
the son of John
the daughter of Ingrid
Languages where analytic structures are dominant are called isolating languages.

In English we also have another way of indicating a possessive relationship. Instead, of using an extra word like of, something is added to one of the words, in this case an -'s. This type of structure is called synthetic. For example,
John's son
Ingrid's daughter
Languages where synthetic structures dominate are called inflecting languages.

Most languages are somewhere between these two ideals, with a mixture of analytic and synthetic structures. English tends more to the isolating side of things, especially when compared to other European languages.

In two upcoming posts, I will show how this knowledge can be put to use in two different languages, French and Latin.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

One Nation, One Language, Not Necessarily

The connection between one's country and one's language is taken for granted by most of us. We assume that someone in France speaks French, someone in Germany speaks German, someone in Poland speaks Polish, and so on. While not always foolproof, this is now a fairly safe statement for many countries. However, when dealing with our ancestors, one must be careful about making assumptions about the languages they spoke. Empires like Prussia, Russia and Austria encompassed many different ethnic groups speaking as many different languages. For those researching Polish ancestors, it is not uncommon to find the country of origin listed as Prussia (or Germany), Russia or Austria, since all three empires controlled parts of what is now Poland from 1815 to the end of World War I. A map of Europe in 1815 shows how the current territory of Poland was divided between these three powers. Warsaw was in the Russian Empire, Krakow (Cracow) in the Austrian Empire, and Gdansk (Danzig) and Wrocław (Breslau) in the Prussian/German Empire. Borders change over time and thus depending on the. time period you may get different answers to questions of origin.

Take Walter Barney Szeszycki. Based solely on citizenship documents, you might assume that as a former subject of Germany he may have primarily been a speaker of German.

However, other evidence shows that this was not the case. The above document is no reason to discount family traditions which have always ascribed Barney with a Polish identity. The surname is decidedly Polish and not German (note that names can be tricky and may not always match with identities and languages). Finally, other documents provide clear support for Barney as a speaker of Polish. His church marriage record is much more specific about his place of origin, giving a village and the province of Posen.

The Province of Posen, although a part of Prussia and later the German Empire, had a Polish ethnic majority. Any doubt about Barney's language can be eliminated by examining census records. Some later censuses provide information not only about the place of birth but also about mother tongue. Documents after WWI show a shift from Germany to Poland as the place of birth and clear mention of Polish as Barney's mother tongue, as can be seen in the 1920 census.

The question of what languages our ancestors spoke can be a complicated one. We should always be careful about the assumptions we make about them. Clues about your ancestors' languages can be uncovered by doing research about the places they lived and about the origin of their surnames in addition to an exhaustive examination of the available documents. Special care needs to be taken when dealing with ancestors from certain parts of the world, such as Central and Eastern Europe.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


In the course of your research you will at some point encounter a language problem. In many cases your ancestors spoke or wrote in a language other than English. Most American genealogists and family historians will encounter documents in many different languages when researching their ancestry. In researching my own family, I have had to read original documents and navigate webpages in French and German. I have also helped my wife uncover her family history by helping her translate obituaries from Polish and grave markers from Czech. I have always enjoyed the challenge of tackling new challenges in unfamiliar languages. In this blog, I will use my background in linguistics and passion for genealogy to give tips and tools for helping readers to research in other languages.