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.