Monday, October 4, 2010

Last Names in America

I subscribe to Dick Eastman's e-newsletter. His articles generally relate to Genealogy. About a month ago I received a message that Dick had posted three new articles. One article, "The Popularity of Your Last Name," caught my interest. He refers to a study conducted by the Census Bureau of the United States using the 1990 Census data.

It turns out that the Census Bureau of the United States has posted a file that contains 88,799 unique surnames found in a subset of the 1990 Census. The sample size is 6,290,251 people. After I read the methodology of the project, had I been Mr. Eastman, I would have entitled the article differently.

For many people the word popularity means well-liked or having high social status. In the case of the Census Bureau's study, popularity means common. A more descriptive title for Mr. Eastman's article is "How Common Is Your Last Name."

I have heard some people say that they believe that the language of the United States will change from English to Spanish within a few years. Having studied the way that immigrants assimilate into the American culture beginning in the late 1600s to now, I seriously doubt that English will be replaced by Spanish or any other language.

My initial reaction after viewing the list of surnames at the Census Bureau website was that the data confirmed my belief. The most common surname in the list is Smith. A Hispanic surname does not appear until the eighteenth name in the list. In the 25 most common surnames, three are Hispanic. Only three more Hispanic names occur in the list of the next 25 most common surnames. Of the 50 most common names, with the exception of the 6 Hispanic surnames, are very English. These include Taylor, Thomas, White, Clark, Young, King, Scott, etc.

As I mentioned above, this study was conducted with subset of the entire US population, which was 248,709,873 people in 1990. So the sample represents about 2.5% of the total population. Although I am confident that the statisticians who work for the Census Bureau are experts in determining how to select a representative sample to analyze, I was curious to learn more about this study.

It turns out that there was some concern that people living in disadvantaged areas may not have completed the 1990 census forms fully. The six million plus people represented in this study were re-enumerated in a separate enumeration. This was done to validate the data collected in the same areas in 1990.

After I understood the nature of the study and since many Hispanics reside in disadvantaged areas within the United States, I was actually surprised to find only six Hispanic surnames in the top 50 most common names. Now, I wonder how many Hispanic surnames, if any, would appear in the list if there was an analysis of the entire 1990 Census?

Apparently there are those who believe that Hispanic immigrants do not learn to speak English. As with other immigrant populations over the last 250 years, it is true that many immigrants never learn to speak English well. However, the next generation does learn to speak English. Living in a state with a large Hispanic population, I have first hand experience with Hispanic immigrants.

There is also some belief that all people of Hispanic origin speak Spanish. Successive generations of the descendants of the immigrants generally do not speak the language of the immigrant. I suspected that some of the aggregate data available from the 2000 Census might support this fact.

I looked at the language spoken at home of people five years and over. In 2000, 82.1% of the people spoke only English at home. That means that 17.9% of the people spoke some other language. Spanish represented a little more than half of the non-English languages spoken at home or 10.7% of the population 5 or older. Half of these people spoke English very well and half spoke English less than very well.

I stand by my belief that Spanish will not replace English as the language of the United States anytime soon, if ever.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lanaii and Google

I grew up with a name that no one could pronounce. My mother and father each were partially to blame. My father was in the US Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He remembered the name of an island in Hawaii that he believed was spelled Lanaii. However in the 1940s and still today, that island is spelled Lanai.

My father believed that Lanai was pronounced like Hawaii but with the letter L in the place of H and the letter n in place of the w. My mother, it seems didn't like the pronunciation of the name that my father proposed and chose to make the double i’s sound like the vowel y. So when people see my name in print and try to pronounce it, they rarely pronounce it correctly. I tell people that my name is pronounced like René with an L.

When my mother and father were having the dispute over how my name should be pronounced, very few people in the Midwest had been to Hawaii. Amongst my parents' relatives, there were none to dispute my mother's pronunciation. So at the start of each year school year, I faced a teacher who had no clue as to how to pronounce my name. One embarrassing moment was the first day in my science class of junior high school (now called middle school).

Mr. Hayda apparently had a class roster that was written in cursive writing. Many people in the area in which I lived were of German descent, so I think that my teacher assumed that the two dotted letters were the letter U with an umlaut. So when he called my name, he pronounced it with a u sound and said my name as Lanow. After that, Peter Hauschild called me Lanow the cow.

After my family moved to California, my teachers didn’t seem to have a problem with attempting to pronounce my name. Houses being built in Southern California often were advertised as having a lanai. At that time, typically Hawaiian houses were built with a lanai, or as mainlanders would call it, a veranda. Unfortunately for me, the structure called a lanai on new houses was a patio. So when teachers first called my name, they pronounced it like the Hawaiian word lanai. After that a few kids called me patio. Within a year or so, the kids had become more mature.

A lanai (veranda) and the island of Lanai are not pronounced the same. And, neither is pronounced the way that my name is pronounced. Hey! The spelling looks the same, but that is because we look at the spelling from an English language point of view and ignore the subtleties of the Hawaiian language.

Lanai, the veranda, is pronounced la-nī (short a, long i). Lanai, the island, is pronounced La-na-ee (short a, long e). Over the last several years, I found that the island of Lanai was often written as Lana’i to distinguish it from a veranda, the lanai.

I periodically do a Google search on my name to see what Google finds. The Google search-process knows about the island, Lanai, as well as the structure, lanai. Google assumes that I made a typo when I enter Lanaii but allows me to say that I mean to search for Lanaii and not for Lanai. The search results are interesting.

When my father was in Hawaii, very few mainlander Americans had been in the Hawaiian Islands. So I was not surprised that my dad and mom together created both the spelling and the pronunciation of my name. It wasn’t until 1990 that the island was opened to tourism with the building of the first resort hotel. Until then, the island was primarily used for growing pineapples and access to the island was limited.

When the results of my search on Google appeared, I was very surprised at the number of hits that were about the island of Lanai but spelled Lanaii. Some of the hits contained the word Lanai’i. It would appear that the Hawaiians have been successful in getting mainlanders to pronounce the name of the island correctly. However, it also appears that people are making the same mistake that my dad made years ago.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What's in a name?

Many immigrants to the United States modify their surnames after they arrive. And in some cases they even change their given name. In most instances, immigrants change names to make them sound more American. I saw this tendency in practice as early as the late 1660s in New York following the British take over of the Dutch colony.

I found the names spelled one way in the records of the Dutch Reformed Church and another way in the English civic records. For example, the Dutch names Teunis, Jacobus, Aefje and Engeltje were written, respectively, as Anthony, James, Eva and Angelica in the English records. The spelling of surnames also evolved as the colonists moved from one colony to the next. Most of the changes in the spelling of surnames in America came about because names were spelled phonetically.

As each wave of immigrants came to America, immigrants modified both the first and last name if it sounded too foreign. My grandmother's father and grandparents came from Norway. In Norway, the family was known as the following: Martin Semmingsen, Mari Amundsdatter, Andreas Martinson, Kari Martinsdatter and Karl Person. Within a few years of their arrival, they were called Martin Simonson, Mary Simonson, Andrew Simonson, Karen Peterson and Charley Peterson, respectively.

Sometimes immigrants would change their name because it was too hard for Americans to pronounce. After years of people mispronouncing his name, a friend of mine named Ashok shortened his first name to Ash. I see this practice extensively with the Vietnamese immigrants. Although most have not Americanized the surnname other than to spell it using the English alphabet, many Vietnamese immigrants have Americanized the given name.

My husband's ancestors came to the United States from Eastern Europe. Unlike my great-great grandfather who made his Norwegian name sound more American, my husband's ancestors in two instances changed the name all together. One side of his family changed the name from Moswz to Klaine, while another side changed the name from Sluszny to Ehrlich. We recently met a second cousin who had some inkling of how that name evolved.

Historically, most names, both first and last, have a meaning. Just do a Google or Yahoo search on your name and there is a very high likelihood that you will find the meaning and derivation of your name. Jack told us that Sluszny and Ehrlich mean the same thing, honest or honorable.

I spent a little time on Google and found that Ehrlich, a German name, does indeed mean honest or honorable. Sluszny, a Polish name, means correct. I happened to come across a similar name used in the Czech Republic, Slušný, that means proper, decent or correct. So I can perhaps see how my husband's grandfather and great uncle got Ehrlich from Sluszny. At this time, I do not know why the two of them changed their surname to a German version.

As I explained the result of my research to my husband, he told me that he could see why someone would like a surname that means honorable. He reminded me that we address judges and Congress people by the title, Honorable. As much as I can see why we would call a judge, the Honorable Judge so-and-so, I am not sure why we should give such a title to many of the people who hold political office.