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.