19 May 2009

Names and Literacy

Being able to read blogs is something people with computers can easily take for granted. How would you feel in front of a computer if you were unable to read and write?

Two of my great grandmothers were probably illiterate, as were several of my great, great grandparents. I do not appear to have had any particularly well educated ancestors at all!

Harriet nee Lloyd had her first name written as Hariet in some official records, though she signed her name with a cross. Her daughter Dorothy was my mother's mother.

Annie nee Spottiswoode or Spottiswood or Spotswood or Spotiswood, signed her name with a cross, too. Her son George was my father's father.

Illiteracy and poverty

Perhaps it is a tragic coincidence that both Harriet and Annie died before my grandparents reached the age of five. I am lucky that, in spite of their early poverty, Dorothy and George reached adulthood.

Poverty and language barriers

Sometimes, foreign names can be a problem in family history research. For example, I have already mentioned my search for records in Belgium, even though I can barely understand French and have no understanding of Dutch at all.

Even so, I managed to find records there right back to my great, great, great grandparents, the Gysemans of Napoleonic times. Their surname may have sometime been written as Gijsemans or Geysemans, but I was fortunate to trace them with the assistance of some very helpful people at the town hall in Lier - just by email.

Sometimes, language can be a further barrier to the development of literacy and understanding. My husband is of Italian ancestry. Many of his family members who migrated to Australia in the 1880s and early 1900s could neither speak English nor read and write in any language.

They spoke dialects rather than the official national language of Italy, meaning that they would have had difficulty communicating with people from outside their own region. Their names on records are often either spelled wrongly, or the given name and family name are mixed up, or the records do not exist at all.

Several of my husband's ancestors, including his paternal grandmother, never had birth certificates, nor even wedding or death certificates, perhaps because they did not know they were required, or because they could not communicate with officials.

How difficult must it have been for them to get along in daily life? Is it much the same for migrants and refugees today, especially those who are illiterate?

Update - December 2010:

I have since managed to locate some of the missing certificates of my husband's ancestors. By finding the spellings of their names as used in church records (and by providing a rough guess of dates), I was then able to find information in civil registers.

Here are some Wikipedia links about the history of education/literacy:

History of education - general world overview

History of education in England

Learn more about the civil registration of important events in people's lives:

Civil registry - Wikipedia article

Civil registration and the World Health Organisation

Human rights and registration of vital events

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I especially appreciate historical insights.