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.

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