Genealogy tools need to support more naming conventions

I just finished a video about differences in German naming conventions from today’s naming conventions in the U.S., and I started thinking about how dated and culturally biased most genealogy tools are.

Why do German naming conventions highlight this? Well, take a look this branch of my wife’s family tree in 1600s and 1700s Baden-Württemberg. Look at all those guys named Johann. Of course, they weren’t all named Johann, not really. Ethnic Germans from this period were typically known by their middle names, not their first names.

But Ancestry.com is completely beholden to Anglo-centric naming conventions and shortens those incredibly important middle names to a single letter. Ancestry also places a greater weight on that first name in searches, so I have to manually delete Johann to get meaningful results.

Another group of white, western Europeans has another variation on Anglo-centric naming: those of Spanish descent may have two surnames. The father’s first surname typically precedes the mother’s first surname. But modern sources tend to be anglo-centric, and the first surname is the only one recorded. When I was researching my sister’s partner’s Cuban ancestors, I had all sorts of trouble with the incorrect way ancestry.com’s search tools handled family names.

And it’s not like I’m not being hyper politically correct or something here. I’m talking about different practices of three different groups of white western Europeans. But all the genealogy tools out there only support a single cultural norm.

Still, genealogy isn’t just a Western European hobby. Working in the tech sector, my co-workers come from all around the world, and everybody is interested in their family history. For example, I know that Brahmin Hindus have maintained detailed genealogies across twenty+ generations. I was also told of a massive boulder in Mongolia upon which one Mongol family carved their family history over the course of generations.

So… if you’re of Han Chinese ancestry and record your family name first and your given name second, genealogy tools force you to use the anglo-centric convention. Or you’re of Egyptian Muslim ancestry, and prior to name standardization about a century ago (when people were required to use their paternal grandfather’s given name as a surname), your ancestors were typically known by your father’s name and possibly a tribal name. I might have been known as Michael bin Yusuf or Michael bani O’Neill, and I’m quite sure Ancestry.com’s search tool would return every single ibn and bani as a match.

Thing is, these aren’t hard things to build into code. Again, I work in the tech sector, and I can see in my mind how to abstract multiple naming conventions from the storage layer.

But I don’t think any genealogy tools company has bothered to do the work, not because it’s hard, but because it would be different.

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