Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is your surname on the map of the United States?

This year's February issue of National Geographic features a map of the United States with surnames covering territory from Hawaii to Maine and Alaska to Florida. This namescape is supposed to give the viewer an idea of the distribution of common last names, reflecting North America's immigration history. The surnames have different colors indicating their language-based origin from countries in Europe and Asia.

Overall, there is lot of blue—from light to dark for England, Wales and Scotland. Green names in the Boston area belong to Irish folks. French names are scattered along the Canadian border in Maine and around New Orleans. Spanish names dominate in the southern parts of California and Florida. Scandinavian and German names are found frequently west of Lake Michigan. Interestingly, the surname Miller is sometimes displayed in the “German color.” German newcomers apparently anglicized—or should we say americanized—their surname from Müller to Miller.

You'll look in vain for names that would specifically indicate Native American, African American and Jewish origin! Well, Native Americans are not (recent) immigrants; but don't they have names? During the time of slavery, black people often took (or got?) the name of their owner and today's descendants, therefore, have often British-sounding names. The Jewish population, like many other ethnic groups, are concentrated in particular parts of the country, which do not show up in sufficient detail. Little Italy neighborhoods and Basque Shepherd communities are too small for surname presence on the grand scale. Imagine, printing a similar map for New York or Los Angeles: the printer would probably run out of colors—and even letters.

Keywords: immigration, naturalization, integration, population dynamics, ethnic diversity, name persistence, name change

What's in a Surname? National Geographic February 2011 [].

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