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Ethnicities and Names
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In your presentation "Identifying a People Group" you say a name is insufficient for identification.  Can a person's ethnicity be derived if you have a surname/family name and country?  If not, what's the minimum amount of information needed to derive ethnicity?

Names are related to ethnicity, since names take on the character of the language, region and group identity, as well as the history of families and social groups.  Thus we commonly associate various names with certain ethnicities or their histories.  This means that a surname is a rough clue to a part of someone's ethnicity.  And note, detribalized people are harder to peg down, like English-speaking Canadians and US citizens.  What tribe or ethnicity (or ethnicities) are they?

Changing Streams
But a name, surname or first name, is only one clue among many and can be misleading, because of changes experienced by a family or larger human group and their identity through history.  Individuals and families can change ethnic streams, language streams, and of course, geographical locations.

Foreigners may move to a new geographical location with a different ethnic character.  They bring their name with them. but they marry locally and join that local ethnic stream.  They adapt to the local culture and language.  And their children grow up in the local host culture.

Ethnic Heritage Cultural, Historical  and Genetic
Another term for ethnicity in practical terms is ethnic heritage.  But how important the ethnic history of a particular individual or family is depends on that person or family.  We might in our western scientific approach also associate ethnic identity or ethnic heritage with genetic heritage.

But this is an abstract level, in the sense that an individual could come to awareness of genetics in the scientific sense only comparatively late in life compared to the natural and subconscious development of family-ethnic identity as an infant and young child.  Ethnicity is inherent in family identity.  How it is understood is a more formal and cognitive level or function.  There is also a social component to ethnic identity, as any individual or family is always aware of the fact that they relate is various ways to other individuals, either blood kin or neighbours.

To what extent, for instance, does a migrant family retain their old-country practices and dress?  To what degree do they adapt and consciously choose to re-identify themselves as members of the new culture-group, ethnicity or language?

Some societies are blood-line oriented.  Others are totally incidental geographical gatherings.  The kinship heritage component is important for some groups and not for others, though either can be an ethnicity.

Ad Hoc Designations
Many ethnic designations are ad hoc to the era or country or cultural milieu.  Like "Scots-Irish" in the US.  This is a New-World ethnicity, which has very vague defining edges.  It refers to a broad steam of migrants from Scotland and Ireland, or perhaps more specifically to the Northern Irish of Scots origin, who flooded in as a group merged into settled rural and urban family groups in the 1800s.  So it is not very defining.

And the new Scots-Irish intermarried with Polish, German, English, Dutch, etc.  The defining characteristic was no longer in what geography they were born, but other commonalities found in the new- world setting.  So we are always redefining ethnicities, because ethnicities are always changes and developing.

One of the coalescing or cohering factors is often religion.  In some societies, religion is more important than others in determining the boundaries of ethnicity.  This has to be discovered and cannot be imposed by some metaphysical fiat.

Terry Irish, Viking, English or Frankish?
 My grandmother's maiden name was Terry.  She said they were always told they were Irish.  Terry is a name associated with Ireland.  But there are English Terrys, too.  And history tells us that it is originally a Germanic name, most commonly found in the French form Thierry.  But the French Terrys are French, and the Irish Terrys are Irish.

But the Irish Terrys came from the Normans, who were Germanic Vikings who conquered and settled in a little piece of the Gaulic mainland of the Franks, though inhabited by the earlier Gaulic tribe of the Bretons.  So the Irish Terrys are really from a Germanic heritage, that intermarried with Celts in France, Germanic Franks who spoke French, and then came to Ireland, where they also intermarried with the Irish Celts.

So it depends on the view you want.  How far back in history?  And which part of the broad mix?

A View
And now the Terrys are American.  So it depends on what you are asking, who is asking, why they want to know, and what they plan to do with the information.  All these factors affect the answer you are likely to get when you ask someone.  The answer may be tailored to the setting.  In persecuted minorities, such information may be withheld, or answers may be disinformation out of self-defense or pre-emptive security.  But we still try to learn the self-identity, because that is a determining factor.

This means a designation of ethnicity represents a view of identity.  We try to account for what we find, and relate it to standard definitions and categories for consistently.  In the long run a surname (which it sounds like you are asking about) is not very important.  But names, especially in traditional societies, remain valuable clues.  And in more tribal societies, the value of a name as an ethnic identifier rises.

Luo or Luhya
When I hear the name Omamo, I will know that the person is from one of the Nilotic groups called Luwo, from Southern Sudan through Uganda in to Kenya.  In Western or Central Kenya, I will know the person is a member of the Luo cultural or tribal group. When I hear the speech I can tell definitely the person is a Luo.

Okelo is another Luo name.  But then if I meet a man named Okelo, which is also a common Luo name, but I hear him speaking to his wife or children in a Bantu tongue, I will know he is a Luhya person from a Luo background who has joined the Luhya Bantu stream of culture and language.  The Luo and Luhya are neighbours, and sometimes enemies.  They have intermarried for generations.  Names are helpful but not definitive.

In Kenya I had a dear friend and colleague named Zepher Okello.  Working down-country among the Kikuyus as we were, near Nairobi, he always made it clear he was a Luhya, because the Kikuyus would first assume an Okello was a Luo.  When they learned he was a Bantu- speaking Luhya, and not a Nilotic-speaking Luo, this put him in a different category of identity with them.

It put him in a different view for them.  His Luo name indicated he likely had some Luo ancestors, but he spoke the Bantu language Luyia, so he was a Bantu, not a Nilote.

In the smaller and more isolated tribes, the name may be more highly definitive.

Three Generations
It seems to me that names are at best only one clue among many.  Sometimes a name will correlate highly with other factors indicating the ethnicity.

You need three generations of information to see if there is any commonality of name association.  Then you still need geography, language and other factors that go into ethnicity.  The list of key factors is given in my article What is a People Group.

Over three generations you can get some clue as to the direction of cultural assimilation. See my presentations and articles on Assimilation.

Ideas of shared worldview go into this, but are somewhat complex.  See my PowerPoint presentation Describing a People Group.  This includes some questions to ask to determine groups and segments by worldview, self-identity and group boundaries.

But self-identity is the critical factor.  A name does not give you the critical core value of that person's or group's own idea of who they are, or what group they are part of.  It gives you only one part of their past heritage.

We can identify human individuals, families and social groups as units, but there is a critical historical dimension that gives a dynamic character to the question.  The group has continuity through history, and that group can go through various changes.

The designation name can change, the language can change, the geography can change, they can merge or divide.  As time passes languages change, in sound and structure, and the names associated with members of the group or groups that speak that language will change in the same way.

North American Mix
Do you know anyone in North America who has one genetic or cultural heritage?  All Scottish, all Polish, all English?

For that matter who are the English?  A mix of old Celtic, Irish Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman, Viking, Jewish, German and Russian refugees (e.g., Peter Ustinov).

What does the name tell about their being English today?  This indicates a political component, that may be chosen or imposed, as well as cultural and linguistic components.

Is a person born of Scottish immigrant parents in Canada a Scot or a Canadian?  Well, what passport does he carry?  Where do they own land?  What do they feel to be home?  Are they becoming citizens?  What accent do they have?

My wife has an ancestor who came to America from Prussia, on of the German states of Europe, in the 1800s.  In the 1880 census, he is listed as John Miller. but his place of birth is reported as Prussia, as well as both of his parents.  German is listed as his mother tongue.  John is married to a woman born in Mississippi in the US.

Now we know that "John Miller" is not a German name.  So his name here does not tell you anything about his ethnicity.  It does not even tell you what country or language group his family came from!  We cannot tell whether John himself told the census enumerator his name was John Miller, or the enumerator decided to translate the name.  John's son is listed as John Miller Jr.  My wife's family did not even know they had been German.

All through the Germanic languages and even others in Europe, you have occupation names.  Thus Mueller (German), Moller (Danish) and Miller (English) are naturally understood as the same name.  Migrants to America often Anglicized their names, because they were moving into the English-speaking stream (We also know that sometimes the immigration officials "helped" them with this process by writing their names down as some English name, rather than the original ethnic-language name of the immigrant.)

You see the importance of personal intent and self-identity here?  We see this with other families name Groene > Green, Braun > Brown, etc.  At what point did the original migrant stop being German? We see a pattern of assimilation.  German ethnicity moving to American Anglo ethnicity, to put it broadly.

Language and Tribe
You may recognize Steinberg as a Jewish name, but what is the nationality?  How complete an ethnicity does that give you?  Is this Steinberg family German-speaking, Yiddish-speaking, Russian-speaking, English-speaking?  Language and other associations are involved.  The ethnicity we commonly refer to as Polish Jews are actually Yiddish-speaking (German-language and geography based) Jews primarily in Russia, though all through Eastern Europe.

Names get attached because of a certain period of the history, a certain language in the history of the ethnic stream or a certain aspect of culture out of many.  Or a name can develop because of a mis-identification by others, whose name for them gets circulated through broader international society.  Thus Gypsy, Roma, Domari, Romany, etc.  Family names may be more stable or continuous, but then they change with marriage and other social factors.  Often surnames are ethnic clan names, caste-occupation names.

Legal and Arbitrary
There is an intermix of identities in today's world:  genetic, cultural history, language, place of birth or residence, political requirements for official identity.  The term "ethnicity" is sometimes used to refer to various ones of these and their combinations.

This means there is a somewhat arbitrary character, or to put it positively, a definitional factor:  You have to be sure what you are referring to.  In some countries there are legal or social definitions for just that country, that might not necessarily be consistent with actual findings and approaches or definitions in the human sciences like Anthropology.  Like the designation of Race on a census, the options vary according to usages and definitions there.

Thus in one sense, I am not sure what is required to determine the ethnicity of a person, because it depends on what you have in mind.  In my context, I look for a current self-identity of a family and the larger social group to which they relate, a tribe, people, ethnic group.  These terms are interchangeable, and serve as working terms.  Cohesive self-identity with a shared identity and sense of history seem to be common characteristics.

Self-Identity Again
An identifying question then is self-identity:  what other families or groups of people or nations do they themselves feel they are related to?  Sometimes your answers will not correlate to known objective facts of history, genetics, language, geography or other identifying parameters.  This indicates that ethnicity is partly a matter of will.  But at least it indicates that ethnicity, in some classifiable sense, depends on the self-identity of the group.  So a concepts of ethnicity has to have a dynamic aspect to account for the human variable that won't fit a database- field data boundary.

Let me do some more musing on situations and examples before trying to draw some summary perspectives that might yield guidelines.

In many places we find mixed societies, like in North America, where a name may represent one steam of the history of someone's ethnicity, but it cannot capture the total ethnicity.  How many Americans are part of only one ethnic group?  If you add up the surnames of mother, father, the four grandparents, and the eight great- grandparents, will you come up with one solid ethnic origin?  Only rarely.

On the other hand, in Kenya, if you meet someone named Kamau, you can bet he will tell you he is a Kikuyu.  As you probe further, though, you will perhaps find that his mother was a Maasai.  Maasai and Kikuyu have been intermarrying for a couple of centuries.  But the Kikuyus, like the Icelanders and other ethnicities around the world, do not have surnames.  At least they did not until recently, when modern systems required a standard listing for official purposes.  Even so, people will have a variety of names, associated with different levels of their social identity the stages of their life, and this applies to virtually all African tribes.

The Kikuyu people have an inclusive social structure, which in general incorporates individuals or whole families or clans from other ethnicities.  The naming system of the Kikuyu people ensures the bequeathing of a Kikuyu identity, even if one parent is of another tribe or race.  This is a strengthening mechanism, adding to the tribe.  Kikuyu people are of a wide range of physical type and color.  But in general if he speaks Kikuyu, he IS Kikuyu.

If the parents follow the Kikuyu naming pattern, the first boy will be named after the father's father.  The second boy after the mother's father.  The next male children will get the name of the father's brothers, etc.  The girls follow a similar pattern of the mother's family.  This perpetuates the clan names, and indicates kinship.  If the non-Kikuyu parent does not agree to carry on this pattern, the clan link is lost.

And the next question is whether he speaks the Kikuyu language.  Language is a key factor is ethnicity, both perceived and self- identified.  He might say he is Kikuyu but he does not speak Kikuyu.  What if he moves into the English-language stream, and can no longer speak to his grandparents in their native language?  He and his family have to decide what it means to be Kikuyu.  But they are kin whether he is Kikuyu or not.  You see the problem?

So Kamau is half Maasai, half Kikuyu?  What is his ethnicity?  Requiring a decision may violate the realities of the situation.  And what if one of his other names is Ole Kisotu, for his Maasai father.  And there will be differences according to whether the family moved to the Maasai boma (village) or the Kikuyu farmstead.  The determinations are made by the social conventions of those families and that society.

Genetics and Ethnicity
Genetics and ethnicity are not the same.  What about a Chinese infant adopted by a white American couple and raised in their society?  Is the child Chinese or Anglo-American?  Thus usually our categories and concepts of ethnicity are arbitrary; they are formal or informal according to law or custom.

Only Some Information
Names tell you some information and provide some clues, but ethnicity is more complex and less easy to pin down.  It is more a working concept, and it varies from society to society.

Since ethnicities are always in flux to one degree or another, new ethnicities are always developing and others are dying out.  Genetic streams continue, but ethnicities as social units are another matter.  Some do, some don't.  Individuals may have a continual genetic stream, and whole families or clans may remain related while others disperse.  Geographical proximity does not ensure a close social tie, even of blood-kin.

This means each case has to be evaluated on its own grounds and integrity.  Again self-identity must be taken into account, and often is a distinguishing factor between otherwise identical groups of related individuals.

This is a rather impressionistic commentary, to give the feel of the problem.

Reference Points
Here are some factors to keep in mind:
1. Individuals and families, can change ethnic streams.  Even whole tribes or clans.  So a name may be an historical artifact.

2. A surname gives you only 1/2 of one generation's heritage.  A child whose surname is Schmidt is he German?  Well, I don't know yet.  
    What was his mother's maiden name?  McIntosh?  That does not sound German.  But is the child Scottish?  We do not have any clues yet to tell us.

    Where do they live?  Scotland?  OK, a German refugee married a Scottish girl and they have settled in Scotland, so now Mr Schmidt is a Scot?  Likely, a Scot with a German surname.  And little Johnny Schmidt he is certainly not a German, is he?  But how does the family relate to the surrounding community?  Maybe Mr Schmidt still thinks of himself as a German, but his wife and son as Scottish.  But do the Scottish community consider Mr Schmidt a Scot?  And do they accept Johnny as Scottish, since he has a Scottish mother, and was born in Scotland?  We have to ask.

    There are communities in the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, and west through the Ozarks, where no matter what your name or how long you have lived there, you are a foreigner, because your folks did not settle in the isolated clannish mountain communities at the time of the Revolutionary war or the Western frontier movement.  Likewise Afrikaner communities in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa.

3. Group self-identity is a critical component, so you have to learn more.  Who do they feel they are related to, why?

4. Language is one defining factor communication across groups is one factors of ethnic boundaries.  A different language is usually an indication of a separate ethnicity.  But in India, caste has more weight and priority in self-identity than even language.

5. Ethnicities are always changing, new ones developing, others passing away.

6. Ethnicity includes a component of (or can be affected by) geography and broader society.

7. Religion may be a significant factor in some societies.  For instance, a Spanish-surnamed person whose native language is now English.  Is the person Roman Catholic or Protestant?  That might indicate what social group she associates with or identifies with.  In Texas, for instance, this would be a mild distinguishing factor, though not necessarily definitive.

8. Self-Identity entails a deeper shared Worldview, which is harder to elicit and describe.

Minimum Factors
I am not used to thinking in terms of the minimum amount of information, but in how much more can help clarify the situation.

It seems the minimum factors you would have to have are:
national or genetic heritage (including parent's ethnicity)
self-description in ethnic terms or group identification
geographical history
current associations

In a detribalized society like much of the US, helpful for determining self-identity would be formal factors like:
choice of race on census
minority heritage claimed
religious affiliation

Also related
Assimilation:  Articles and Presentations
Classifying Ethnicity:  Coding and Comparing Ethnic Information:
        How the Peoples and Languages Codes of the Harvest Information System Facilitate a Broader Knowledge Base of World Ethnicity
Ethnicity, Language and Population
Ethnic Names and Codes: Correlating People Lists:
        How Codes in the Registry of Peoples Enrich the Exchange of Ethnic Information
Identifying a People Group
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels
Peoples and Languages
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity


First written in an email answer to a query 6 December 2007
Finalized as an article and posted on OJTR 29 April 2008
Last edited 6 July 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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