Census Hurdles – Language Barriers

2013-10-07 09.54.11 amI have deep Germanic roots. My grandfather told stories of how his grandparents sat around the table and spoke in German. They were not the immigrants, in fact, I’ve traced back several generations beyond theirs and still haven’t found the immigrant ancestors! This tells me that they were proud of their heritage and carried their culture with them through many generations. Our country is made up of countless cultures all blending together and collectively adopting English as the primary language.

Imagine the census taker. He rode around on a horse or in a buggy or walked. He would have had to deal with the elements, hot sun, soaking rain or blustery wind. He knocks on the door of a farmhouse and is greeted by the farmer’s wife… and a thick accent. If they were not native English speakers, their ability to communicate and answer the census taker’s questions were likely limited.

l have encountered many times what I can only imagine is a problem with understanding thick accents. I have worked on the Limmer family for a long time. They have proven quite challenging to find in the census however. I would never have guessed the differing ways to spell “Limmer” but have had quite a time learning all about it:

  • Leemer
  • Leeman
  • Limer
  • Lammer
  • Lamer
  • Laman
  • Lamman
  • Limar
  • Limmar

And so on… Pondering this difference in spelling, I began to understand the plight of the census taker. First he had to try to understand what they were saying, then he had to try to spell it. And if he asked “How do you spell that?” he would have had to try to understand what letter they were saying. Pronouncement of letters varies from language to language, which I learned from taking Spanish in high school and German in college. (What letter was that?) I can only imagine.

This understanding was highlighted for me here in the 21st century. I went to lunch with my mentor Birdie Holsclaw. The lady at the counter asked for her name so they could call it out when her sandwich was ready. When we sat down, I caught a glimpse of her receipt: “Bertie.” She just typed what she heard. No accents involved! Now, imagine a German sandwich maker…

3 thoughts on “Census Hurdles – Language Barriers

  1. “L” surnames have often been misindexed as “S”, in the dreadful indexing job on ancestry.com, which was outsourced to a foreign country I’m told. I work on LANDIS/LANDES and a great many of them are indexed as SANDIS. If you’re missing some of your LEEMER-LAMER folks, try searching with an S start and some wild cards.In addition to problems from the census taker trying to understand a foreign accent, remember that we are not seeing the original census pages in most cases. Several copies were made, and we all know how errors can proliferate in each succeeding copy.

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