Sunday, December 25, 2011

Surname Saturday - Mapping Polish surnames

There are many resources that can help you get a handle on your ancestors' surnames. One helpful resource are tools that can be used to map the frequency and distribution of a particular surname. These can tell you whether the name is specific to a particular region or is common throughout the country. If the name is relatively uncommon, these tools can help you narrow your search considerably. There are tools like this for many countries, including Poland. The site where you can map your Polish surnames is in Polish, but you should be able to figure out a lot just by context. Enter your surname in the box and click szukaj, which means "search".

There are two different types of maps one that gives the total number of the surname (Podział kompletny) and one that gives relative frequencies (Podział relatywny). To switch between the two types of maps click on these phrase to the right of a blue arrow.

With more common surnames the relative frequency map will be more useful because the absolute number will be highest in big cities, so you won't get the proper picture of where the name is most popular.

Also, pay close attention to the key for the map. The magnitude for the numbers will be quite different for a very common name like Nowak and a less common one like Szeszycki. The construction means "" and więcej niż means "more than". For Nowak the red is for "more than 2000".

But for Szeszycki, it is for "more than 12". This is a big difference.

The subdivision shown on the map is that of the county, or powiat. You can identify the county by moving the cursor over the map. For Szeszycki, you will find that the name is most common in the counties of Gniezno, Słupca and Krotoszyn, three counties, all in the province of Wielkopolska, or Greater Poland. This provides a place to start in your search.

Surname Saturday: Szeszycki

Exploring your Polish roots can be intimidating. This is understandable; Polish presents a number of challenges, but these challenges are not insurmountable.

One difficulty is the writing system. For Europe, Polish and other Slavic languages have a relatively large number of consonants (see The World Atlas of Language Structures). When the Latin alphabet was adapted to fit the sounds of Slavic languages like Polish and Czech, new letters and combinations of letters have to be used. Words beginning with "szcz" are enough to send anyone running for the hills. This combination of sounds is similar to the English "sh" sound followed by the English "ch" sound. Think of the phrase "Irish cheese". However, unlike English, this combination can start a word.

Knowing even a little about how these combinations are pronounced can go a long way in demystifying the language. A name like "Szeszycki" is more manageable when you realize that the "sz" is not too different from English "sh".

Monday, December 19, 2011

Exploring your linguistic heritage #1

As you explore your family history, it is easy to get caught up in names and dates, but there is far more to your ancestors than just this. Learning something about the geography, history and culture of your ancestors can be helpful for your genealogical research and rewarding in itself. One of the best ways to get to know the culture of your ancestors is through the languages they spoke.

To help readers explore the linguistic heritage of their ancestors, I am starting a new series of posts entitled "Exploring your linguistic heritage". The aim of these posts is to give readers a foundation and new resources to help them come to a more complete understanding of the languages spoken by your ancestors. Language is not only a research tool, but can also be something you are researching.

First, ask yourself what you know about your own linguistic heritage. Did you or anyone else in your family grow up speaking another language? As with all family history, a great place to start is by interviewing your own family members. See what they know about the languages your ancestors spoke. Even if your parents or grandparents don't speak the language they might remember phrases heard around the house or the names of recipes that may offer important clues.

The next step is figuring out where your ancestors lived. You can start with their country of origin, but realize that this is a very imperfect tool for finding out the language they spoke. Almost every country has speakers of other languages. Just because your ancestors are from France does not mean their first language was French. Your ancestors may have spoken German, Flemish, Breton, Basque, Catalan or an immigrant language.

Even if they did speak the most common language in the country, your ancestors might have known it in a form very different from the one you may have learned in school. The differences between dialects can be very pronounced in many countries. If you're ancestors are from Sicily, the language they spoke was probably very different from Standard Italian, different enough that some linguists would consider what they spoke a separate language.

Once you have set the groundwork, you can start to explore this part of your heritage in depth. Please stay tuned for more posts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Daily", "Journal", "Dziennik" all mean genealogical gold

Newspapers are an often overlooked source of genealogical information. Obituaries are obvious, but newspapers may also include birth and marriage announcements or local news related to your ancestors. If your ancestor died under tragic circumstances, it is possible that the death will be mentioned in the news section. I was having trouble finding an obituary for my 3rd great grandfather, Daniel Foster, but I did find a brief account of his death in a newspaper from a neighboring county. He was a justice of the peace and died while trying a case.

When researching immigrant ancestors, make sure to search not only English language newspapers, but the newspapers published by the ethnic community to which your ancestors belonged. You may only be able to find your ancestors in their community newspaper. Even if there was an obituary or death notice in an English-language newspapers, there may also be an additional one in a foreign-language newspaper and, most importantly, the content may be different. Different cultures may have different conventions and traditions about what is included in the death notice.

The first step is locating the newspapers. A good place to start is the website for the NEH's United States Newspaper Program, which lists the state archives which are involved in the preservation of historical newspapers. Another good resource is the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Michigan, where you can browse newspapers by ethnic group (here). Some of these newspapers may be digitized alread, but many will have to be accessed on microfilm at the archive or through interlibrary loan.

You should also check genealogical societies and organizations dedicated to particular ethnic communities. The Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA) has searchable indexes for death notices in Polish-language newspapers in Chicago, Baltimore and Milwaukee, which will make the task of locating these records much easier. Be careful, because the given name used will probably be the Polish form of the name, not the English form which may be used in other records. My wife's great grandfather went by the name "Walter" Szeszycki in English, but in his death notice in Dziennik Chicagoski, a Polish language daily in Chicago, he is "Władysław". It may be helpful to use other sources like the Illinois Statewide Death Index to be sure you have the right person.

The PGSA also shows how to obtain the record and provides a valuable translation guide for Polish death notices. Although it is geared specifically to the death notices in Dziennik Chicagoski, it is also useful for translating other types of Polish records relevant to your genealogical research.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkey and Football

You may have noticed that the place of birth of your ancestors changed between the 1910 and 1920 US censuses. Your Austrian great great grandparents are suddenly Czech. Your ancestors were not confused, instead the map of the world changed as a result of World War I. Many of the countries that we now take for granted were part of great multi-ethnic empires. Two great empires were dismembered as a result of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

Before 1918 much of the Arabic-speaking world was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, often referred to simply as "Turkey". As a result, in early records your Syrian or Lebanese ancestors may be listed as being "Turks" or as being from "Turkey".

One such immigrant was Joseph Robbie, the father of Joe Robbie, the founder and original owner of the Miami Dolphins. In 1914 he married Jennie Reedy in Sisseton, South Dakota. In this record, which can be found in the South Dakota Marriages, 1905-1949 collection on, he is listed as a "Turk".

Just 6 years later he is listed as being from "Syria" in the 1920 Census.

Remember that just because your ancestor is listed as a "Turk" or as being born in "Turkey" does not mean that your ancestor were ethically Turks or spoke Turkish. Many of the immigrants from before WWI were Arabic-speaking Christians from what is now Lebanon and Syria.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Genealogy of Writing Systems

What do the surnames Staszak, Schöndorf, Chêneau and Jaroš have in common? Beside being in my family tree, they all share a common sound. Polish "sz", German "sch", French "ch" and Czech "š" are the same sound, the sound represented in English by the combination "sh" or in the International Phonetic Alphabet by the symbol "ʃ". Why are there so many ways of representing this sound in different languages?

To answer this question, we must understand that writing systems, like people, have genealogies. In this case, all these writing system have a common ancestor, Latin. The reason there are so many different ways of representing the "sh" sound is that this sound is not found in Latin. As the Latin alphabet came to be adopted for other languages, people came up with ways of representing sounds not found in Latin.

There are four ways to do this. The examples below show some of the many ways that the "sh" sound is represented.
1. Combine letters to represent new sounds (Polish "sz" German "sch" and English "sh")
2. Modify existing letters by adding extra symbols called diacritics (Czech "š" and Turkish "ş")
3. Use a letter in a new way (Maltese "x")
4. Create a new symbol or borrow one from a different writing system (I can't think of any examples for this sound, but there are cases for other sounds like Old Norse þ for the "th" sound in "thorn")
In many cases, especially with languages without a long written history, the new writing system was often created by an individual or a committee. However, in languages with long written histories, things are much more complicated. For example, French is an ancestor of Latin in two ways. It owes not only its alphabet to Latin, but the language itself. The "ch" which represents the "sh" sound developed from an earlier "k" sound, or hard "c". The development in this cases was more gradual and less deliberate.

Although we often assume a deep connection between a language and how it is written, this is perhaps the aspect of a language that is most easily changed. Turkey did away with the Arabic script in the first half of the twentieth century and adopted a modified Latin script. In some cases, a single language or two very closely related languages may adopt two different systems, like Serbian (Cyrillic script) and Croatian (Latin script) or Hindi (Devanagari script) and Urdu (Arabic script).

For genealogists, an awareness of these differences between scripts can come in handy. A single surname may be spelled in many ways depending on the context. For a German name starting with "sch" like Schulz, don't be surprised if it is rendered by an English speaker as Shulz. Things are especially complicated for a language like Czech. A name like Jaroš may be spelled Jarosch, as it frequently was when Bohemia was a part of the German-language-dominated Austrian Empire. In Poland, this name might become Jarosz and, in the English-speaking world, Jarosh. Knowing something about the history of your family and where they're from and the languages of the region can help you better search for your ancestors.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Where exactly are they from?

Obituaries can provide very valuable clues for discovering the origins of immigrant ancestors. However, you need to be careful with information that may have become lost in translation as it passed from the original immigrants to their children or newspaper editors who may not have known your ancestors' language as well or at all.

For example, the first paragraph of Henry Kappmeier's obituary1 provides information about where he and his wife were born.
Mr. H. Kappmeier was born at Furstenthum Waldech at Pyrmont, Germany, Dec. 14, 1830. He came to America in 1854 and married Maria Bergmann of Koenigriech, Hannover, April 11, 1858. Their marriage took place in the now Chicago Avenue Evangeical Lutheran church, Rev. Hartman officiating at the ceremony.
If you are not familiar with German, you may assume that Henry was born in a village called Furstenthum Waldech and his wife in a town called Koenigriech. A simple mistake was made either by Henry's descendants or the newspaper. Furstenthum and Koenigriech are not the names of places, but are the words Fürstentum, meaning "Principality", and Königreich, meaning "Kingdom". Henry was from the Principality of Waldeck and Maria was from the Kingdom of Hanover.

When dealing with a foreign language, the first and most important rule is not to make any assumptions. If you are having trouble locating a place with Google Maps, it might be worthwhile checking a good dictionary like BEOLINGUS, an online German dictionary. Some of the words that you think are just part of a place name may have a meaning that will help you better interpret your records.

1. A copy of the original obituary from the Beecher Herald (Beecher, IL) can be found at Karens-Gen.Com.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Bureaucratic Morass: Navigating French Records

The French Revolution brought us two things, a way of organizing the state and a word for describing it, "bureaucracy". Of course, government has always taken place at different levels. Some terms used to this day, like "county", are rooted in feudalism. Literally, a "county" is the domain of a count. Other terms for places are related to the organization of the church, for example, "parish" in Louisiana. Modern states have also added many other terms to an already complex vocabulary for the various divisions of the state.

For a genealogist, the many different levels of government can present difficulties. These words are in a sense untranslatable. The meaning of a term cannot be understood without reference to the particularities of the organization of a country. For an American, the term "state" has a significance which it will not have for other speakers of English. Thus when approaching a new country, it is important not only to translate the names of the various units of organization but understand the system on its own terms.

Making your way in France
The different levels of organization in post-Revolution France present their own particular difficulties for genealogists. The largest unit is the "région". The names of the regions will probably be the most familiar to you. They include "Alsace", "Aquitaine", "Brittany" and other famous names. If you have a family tradition concerning where your family is from in France, the names of the regions may provide important clues. However, you need to be careful because the names of regions may not always correspond to the more traditional use of these terms. The city of Nantes was traditionally a part of Brittany, but now belongs to the Pays de la Loire region.

The next level down is the "départment". This is the second most important level for genealogists. Departments maintain their own archives, many of which can be easily accessed online. In my own research, I have extensively used the websites for Côtes-d'Armor and Morbihan in Brittany and Loire-Atlantique in Pays de la Loire.

Below the department level are the "arrondissement" and the "canton". You can usually just ignore these levels.

Finally, you come to the "commune". The commune is the most important level for genealogists. This is the level at which most records are collected. So, if you are looking for a marriage, death or birth record, you will need to figure out the commune name.

So, to recap, you need to identify both the commune and department in which your ancestor lived. The department will tell you where you need to look for an archive with the correct records. Once, you have found the right place, you will need to find the records for the commune. Only knowing the birthdate and birthplace of my great-grandmother, I have been able to trace back her ancestry to before the French Revolution across three departments.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How do you spell that?

If you have been following the news recently you may be wondering how exactly you're supposed to spell the name of Libya's dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi. In addition to Muammar el-Qaddafi, you will find Muammar al-Gaddafi, Moammar Kadafi, Moammar Gadhafi, Muammar Kaddafi and many others. So how can there be so many ways of spelling one name?

The answer to this question may prove helpful in your own genealogical research. For people who only have Western European ancestry it will not be much of an issue. The alphabet found in most Western European languages have their origins in the Latin alphabet, although extra symbols and letters have sometimes been added. In French, a symbol called a cedilla can be placed under a c to indicate that it is pronounced like an [s], for example in the name François. In German, vowels are can have two dots placed above it as in the surname Müller which changes how it is pronounced. Small changes may occur when a name is anglicized. Three different things may happen:
  1. The name may stay the same dropping the special symbols (Jaroš becomes Jaros)
  2. The name substitutes the English sounds that better reflect the original language (Schöndorf becomes Shoendorf, because German sch is the sames as English sh.
  3. The original name is replaced with a name in English which is similar of a translation (Müller becomes Miller)
However, if the language has a different writing system, things can be much more complicated. In Arabic, as with the name al-Qaddhafi, the name is originally written in Arabic script:


This adds an extra layer to the name. First, it has to be transliterated in to the Latin alphabet. For there to be any consistency there has to be an agreed upon standard. With Chinese, this standard is pinyin. However, this has not always been the standard. Thus, we now have Beijing, but this used to be transliterated as Peking. It's the same name just a different way of representing it.

To make things even more complicated, the way a letter is pronounced may depend on the dialect. So with a name like al-Qaddhafi, there a number of ways to approach the issue of putting the name into our alphabet. First, you can render the name using conventions for Standard Arabic. In this case /q/ is used, a letter which represents a sound not found in English but which is produced a little farther back in the throat than our /k/. Second, you can use the closest sound in English. In this case, the English /k/ will do. Finally, you can represent how it is actually pronounced in the region. In this case, it is represented with /g/.

You want to know three things about a letter in a language in a different script.

  1. How is it typically rendered in English? Is there a single widely used system?
  2. Will the letter be produced differently in different places?
  3. What does it sound like? Does it have an English equivalent? What is it closest to in English?
These questions may help you track your name if it comes from a language like Russian, Hebrew, Greek, Hindi or Arabic which is written using a different script.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tombstone Tuesday - Josephine and Joseph Fuka


Josephine Fuka
Born 24 June 1864
Died 27 Febuary 1944

Joseph Fuka
Born 15 April 1861
Died 18 May 1920

This is a pretty simple inscription, but the use of lots of abbreviations can make things tough. In a previous post, I presented a chart with the Czech names for the months, with different forms including the abbreviations.

Another thing this tombstones illustrates is one of the ways that Czech can form feminine names. In this case we see the name Josef "Joseph" and the feminine form Josefa "Josephine". You simply add -a to the masculine form of the name. For tombstones this will generally work, but in other contexts things get more complicated. There is also another pattern you will see for surnames. These, however, are topics for future posts.

This monument (full picture below) is located in Resurrection Cemetery on the South Side of Chicago.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Surname Saturday - Le Bourhis

Genealogy rarely provides simple answers to the question of who our ancestors were. We want something that we can hold on to, something that changes the way we see ourselves. We often embrace part of our ancestry. We try some recipes, take a dance class or start learning a new language. At the same time, we ignore the complexity that is there. We may downplay other parts of our family's past. Even in those cases that seem most clear cut, you may find surprises.

These complexities are sometime found even in the names of our ancestors. For all of human history, people have been moving around and mixing. Evidence for this is written in to our DNA and often displayed in surnames. Most names cannot be simply described by phrases like "an English name" or "a Russian name". Sometimes, names will even combine elements from more than one language.

One such surname is that of my second great grandmother, Marie Eugénie Le Bourhis. Marie Eugénie was born in Nantes, France on August 26, 1879. Her parents were from the department of Côtes-du-Nord (now Côtes d'Armor). Her father was born in Plouguernével, where many generations of Le Bourhis had lived before him.

The origin of the name is complicated. The name in its current form is clearly French; it includes the French definite article Le "the" and the name follows French orthography (spelling conventions). The name itself, however, has its origin in the Breton language, the Celtic language of Brittany. The area these ancestors were from was Breton-speaking. Bourhis comes from the Breton word bourc'hiz ['burxis], which means "people who live in a small market town". The word bourc'h by itself is the word for "village" or "small market town". Notice the combination c-apostrophe-h. It is used to indicate a velar fricative like the German ch in Bach. Without the apostophy ch is pronounced like English sh.

There is a suffix -ad in Breton which is used to indicate an inhabitant of a place. For example, Brittany is Breizh and so breizhad is one way of referring to a person from Brittany. In the plural, -ad is replaced by -iz and so breizhiz means Bretons. Bourc'hiz follows this same pattern with the singular form bourc'had, and thus means "inhabitants of a small market town". Bourc'hiz can also have the meaning of "middle-class" or "bourgeois".

There is one further layer to this name. The Breton word for a small market town is a Germanic borrowing. This word is related to the -burg of Hamburg and the -bury of Kingsbury (discussed here). This borrowing occurred long ago, perhaps before the Bretons migrated to France from Great Britain. The same Anglo-Saxons invasions that brought this word may have also caused the migration.

So, when someone asks what kind of name Le Bourhis is, you can simply state that it is Franco-Germano-Celtic.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Online French Records - Nantes

Thanks to my discovery of online records in France, I have had a couple of very productive months of genealogy. The branch that had long been the one that I knew least about has grown substantially over the last several weeks and continues to do so. This is the branch of my great grandmother who I wrote about in an earlier post. She was born in Nantes, France.

Many French records are kept in the departmental archives. France is divided into 100 departments. The department is one of the most important administrative divisions. If you are looking for records, you will have to figure out what department your ancestors lived in. Nantes is in the department of Loire-Atlantique (formerly Loire-Inférieure). The departmental archives have an extensive collection of online records, including Parish records of baptism, marriage and burial from the 1500s to 1792 and civil records of birth, marriage and death from 1792 to the beginning of the 20th century. In order to do effective research you will also have to find out the commune that your ancestors lived in. The commune is the smallest administrative unit and the most important for tracking down the records.

My great grandmother was born in the commune of Nantes in the department of Loire-Atlantique. However, in this case, the commune records are not kept in the departmental archives like the rest of the communes of this department. Nantes, the largest city, has its own municipal archives with the same types of records in addition to a number of other online collections of records, pictures, maps and photographs. Several indexes are provided for locating records. You should start with the table décennale which provides a ten-year indexes for records. For my great grandmother, my search for her birth record would start with the table décennale of births (naissances) for 1893-1902. On page 212, you will find the entry for Suzanne Jeanne Gardahaut. This entry will point you to record #343 in the register for the 6th canton in the city of Nantes for the year 1900. With this information I can begin my search of the appropriate register and find the birth record. In this same set of records, you will also find the birth record for my uncle Léon Eugène Gardahaut (pictured above). However, because he was born before my great great grandparents married, he is listed under his mother's surname, Le Bourhis.

Once you have found a record, it will often give information that will help in finding other records. For someone who has done genealogy mainly in the US, you will probably be pleasantly surprised by how informative the records are.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Surname Saturday - Rogers

By a strange coincidence, the one surname (so far) that occurs on both my mom's side and my dad's side is Rogers. By another coincidence, on both sides I have Rogers marrying other Rogers, the only two cases of same surname marriages in my family tree. On my dad's side are my fourth great grandparents, Josiah Rogers and Jane Rogers, and on my mom's side are my fifth great grandparents, Abel Rogers and Hannah Rogers.

Josiah and Jane lived in Warren County, Tennessee. They are generally believed to be cousins, although I have not found direct evidence of this. According to the 1850 Census, Josiah Rogers was born in North Carolina around 1798 and Jane was born in Tennessee around 1801. I believe Jane Rogers is the daughter of Levi Rogers and Sarah Cope, based on the will of Levi Rogers and circumstantial evidence from the 1850 census. In his will, reference is made to both a Jane Rogers who is a daughter and a Josiah Rogers, the only male Rogers in the will not described as a son. In the 1850 Census, Jane and Josiah are living near Levi Rogers' sister, Polly, and several of Levi's children who are mentioned in the will.

Abel Rogers and Hannah Rogers lived in Lyme, Connecticut. They married on Feb. 19, 1874 at the New Haven Second Church in Lyme. According to his Pension file, Abel Rogers was employed as a teamster in the United States Service during the Revolutionary War.

The surname Rogers is derived from a patronymic, a name which provides information about the father. Rogers means "son of Roger". Forms with a final -s are the primary English way of forming patronymics, although surnames derived from patronymics with -son are common due to Scandinavian influence in Scotland and the northern parts of England as are those with the French prefix Fitz- (French fils "son") and Celtic Mac- or Mc- (from the Gaelic word for son).

Rogers and Soundex
Michael John Neill's Genealogy Tip of the Day was about the problems you can encounter when dealing with languages other than English. He gives some very good advice about being wary when doing Soundex searches on French surnames in particular. It is important to keep in mind that Soundex was designed with English in mind, so often falls apart when dealing with non-English names. Soundex is a great tool, but even with English names the results may miss something. In an earlier post I discussed some of the problems with the surname Simpson and the variant form Simson. Rogers is another name that can cause some problems for Soundex. One of the most common variants of Rogers is Rodgers. The alternation between "g" and "dg" is one that will result in different Soundex codes. Rogers has the Soundex code R262, while Rodgers has the code R326. If you have names where either "d" or "dg" can occur, like Rogers, Padgett or Egerton, you need to be careful when using Soundex.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tombstone Tuesday - Matěj Jaroš

ZEM. 18 SRPNA 1914

Here rests
Matthias Jaros
Died August 18, 1914
Rest in peace dear husband and father
Now we part in sorrow, in heaven
we will meet together

Czech Dates

If you have only worked with Western European languages, be ready for new challenges when working with a language like Czech. The Czech language is a Slavic language, distantly related to English, German and French, but more closely related to Polish, Russian and Serbo-Croatian. It has sounds, structures and vocabulary that may be unfamiliar and difficult at first. One important difference that a genealogist is likely to encounter is the names of the month. In most of the languages of Western Europe the names of the months are derived from their Latin names. As a result, it is usually fairly easy to guess the names of the months in languages like French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch or German. However, in Czech, you will have to learn or look up the names for the months.

To make things even more difficult, the forms you will find in a dictionary are not the ones you will most likely encounter. Czech is a language like Latin (here) where the relationships between words are signaled by special endings. In dates, you will find the genitive form, which indicates possession, just as in English we use the preposition of in dates, "the third of December". Thus, we find the form srpna "of August" on the tombstone instead of the form srpen, which we would find in a dictionary. It is also common to find abbreviations for the months. The Czech months are listed below, first in the nominative (the dictionary form), next in the genitive as it will appear in dates, and finally in the abbreviated forms.

EnglishCzechGenitive formAbbreviations

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Surname Saturday - Schoendorf

Paul Schoendorf, my great-great-grandfather, settled in Cleveland, Ohio at the end of the 19th century. He came from a village outside Gersheim, which is now in the German state of Saarland, near the border with France. The name Schoendorf has a number of features that are very typical of German names. Words and names are often long and complex in German. However, by breaking words into their parts it can be easy to discover the meaning of a name. In turn, this my give clues to the origins of your family.

The name Schoendorf can be easily broken into two parts. The first part of the name comes from the adjective schön, meaning "beautiful". The second part of the name is the German word Dorf, which means "village". It is a common element in many German place names, perhaps most famously in the city of Düsseldorf. And, because it is common in place names, it has also become common in surnames, as in the name of the founder of Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York. Together, the meaning of Schoendorf is the somewhat generic "beautiful village".

The Umlaut
You may have noticed that the word for beautiful in German has the letter O with two dots written above it (ö). This character is usually referred to as an "O with umlaut". The name Schoendorf would also be written with this symbol in a German-speaking country. So, when looking in German databases, it may be necessary to type the name as "Schöndorf". When the umlaut character is unavailable, instead of simply dropping the two dots, the letter is written with a following E. This is also a very common convention that has been followed by many German immigrants when adapting names. For example, the very common German name of Müller is often found as Mueller. If you have a name, which you think is German, that has vowels "oe", "ue" and "ae", you may want to consider substituting these vowel pairs for the vowel with umlaut, "ö", "ü" and "ä". You may find something new this way. If you are going to type these characters a lot, you may want to look into the keyboards settings on your computer. If not, it is easy to produce these symbols in Microsoft Word. Simply type ctrl + shift + ; and then type the desired vowel. You can then copy and paste where needed.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bilingual Tombstones

Tombstones or funerary monuments with inscriptions in more than one language have been around for thousands of years. After the Romans defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, some of the inhabitants of North Africa put up funerary monuments with inscriptions in both Latin and Punic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. In a few cases, Greek was added to the mix For example, one monument from what is now Libya reads:
Punic: brkt bt bʕlšlk 'm qʕ'ʕly hrb
Latin: Byrycth Balsilechis f(ilia) mater Clodi medici
Greek: Βυρυχθ Βαλσιαληχ Θυγατηρ μητηρ Κλωδιου ιατρου
"BRKT daughter of BʕLŠLK, mother of Qʕ'ʕLY the doctor"
-from Bilingualism and the Latin language by James Noel Adams, p. 216
Bilingual inscriptions are also found in many American cemeteries. It is a common practice in some Jewish communities where tombstones are inscribed in both Hebrew and English. If you come across a tombstone, or any document, in two or more languages, you should not assume that the two inscriptions say the same thing. Although they often contain similar information, they may be different in important ways.

Tombstone of Sarah Ethel Saul

Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta is the final resting place of author Margaret Mitchell and golfer Bobby Jones. It is also the home of two significant Jewish sections, including Atlanta's oldest Jewish burial ground. The two sections have many bilingual tombstones. The tombstone of Sarah Ethel Saul illustrates just how different inscriptions in two languages can be. The English inscription identifies her simply as a mother, gives her name and her birth and death years.

The Hebrew inscription on the other side provides much richer genealogical information.

At the top of the tombstone are the letters pe nun, which is an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase meaning "Here lies". The letters with either one or two dots are used to indicate abbreviations. Roughly, the Hebrew translates is:

H(ere) l(ies)
the esteemed and modest woman
Mrs. Sarah Ethel, daughter of Mr. Hayyim
Mordecai, wife of Mr. Joseph Saul.
She died 5 Tevet (5)686.
She was 90
at her death

Note that the date is given using the Jewish Calendar. The thousands are often left out in the year. There are many calendar converters online, such as the one here.

The final letters (not translated) are a reference to 1 Sam 25:29, "May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life".