The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

How I Traced My Family Lineage Back To 1600’s Germany


Family and ancestry can be one of the strongest motivators to learn a foreign language.

Almost 5 years ago (wow it’s already been that long!), I made the decision to start learning Irish (Gaeilge) when I was still living in Australia. It was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever done and it literally changed the course of my life.

However at the time I made the decision to learn it, I knew it had absolutely no practical use to me whatsoever.

It isn’t a language spoken by anyone where I’m from, has no real career value for me and on top of all that is an endangered minority language with an uncertain future.

I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever get a chance to use it at all (though thankfully 8 months after I started, I did actually travel to the Irish Gaeltacht to use it and have since been able to use it all over the world).

I’ve always believed and known from experience that starting a foreign language without a solid purpose for doing so almost inevitably ends in failure. Languages are a long-term – lifelong in fact – commitment so without the right motivator behind you, they will eventually get put aside or abandoned when other distractions come along.

With Irish I had family as a motivator driving my determination.

Although practically speaking it was useless in my situation being so far from Ireland, my mother’s side of my family is from Cork and I had previously met distant relatives of mine while living there so I felt compelled to reconnect with my family’s heritage culturally and linguistically.

Perhaps you can relate to this.

Maybe not with languages but perhaps you know the feeling of satisfaction you get by reconnecting with your origins the way that I have.

I think it’s a difficult thing for many people in Europe and elsewhere to understand when ‘colonial descendants’ want to reconnect with their historical roots. Most of us in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada are just a few generations out from a long sea voyage.

I believe that a sense of ancestral belonging is important for every human being.

 

What I discovered with a day of sleuthing around on Ancestry.com

This week I started using Ancestry.com.

I know everything there is to know about my mother’s side of the family in Ireland but my father’s side has always been a total mystery to us. We tried over the years to find out information but we just never had any luck with it.

This always bothered me not knowing the full story of my family.

So I thought I’d give it a whirl to see what I could dig up and after a few days of sleuthing around, what I found was really eye-opening and brought me a lot more closure.

Of course with a last name like Nagel, I knew the family must of come from Germany at some point – that much was obvious.

But that was all I knew or suspected to be true.

Amazingly the records I found through Ancestry.com were so detailed that I was able to trace most of my father’s line back to the 1600’s to a precise little cluster of villages in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany (the northernmost state right below Denmark).

And ironically it’s the only part of Germany I’ve never visited despite having spent lots of time there. 🙂

The Nagels had clearly stayed in this one little area for centuries and only in recent history made the voyage to Australia.

Among the documents I was able to find were:

  • Personal, handwritten diary entries of family members going back to the early 1800’s where they discussed their life and reasons for wanting to move to Australia
  • Handwritten ship manifests detailing the vessel they left on, port they sailed from and time
  • Photos of family members and even houses they owned at the time – some of which are still standing
  • Birth, death and marriage certificates, newspaper articles and more

Interestingly, even after my family moved to Australia they were still marrying fellow Germans who came from neighbouring villages back home.

 

Fascinating stuff! 🙂

To add an extra layer of wow, it turns out that my great-grandmother’s family was from Tuscany in Italy which on top of being totally new information also means I can (if I ever wanted to) apply for Italian citizenship under Italy’s jus sanguinis (right of blood) laws.

This has all given me a lot of closure and I now feel like I know more about not only my family but myself.

And having a baby of my own on the way means I have more information to share with him/her too.

 

My new-found interest in and desire to learn German

As with Irish, this has really piqued my interest in the German language.

What I’m a little uncertain of at this stage is whether my family spoke German as a first language or Danish since the area was part of Denmark at the time and only later became a part of Germany.

Heck, they may have even spoken Frisian being so close to the Western coast. 🙂

Whichever it is, I was looking for another language to focus on for the rest of 2016 and now my heart’s firmly set on finally tackling conversational German.

I’ve also decided to make Schleswig-Holstein my next European immersion destination.

For now I’ve started experimenting with a few language apps to dip my toes in the water (namely Mondly and Glossika German).

Both of these companies got in touch with me recently and I’m enjoying their Android apps so far.

I’ll be jumping into some conversation lessons on italki with native German speakers too starting this week and making use of some of the other resources I’ve shared here.

What I’m really looking forward to is being able to sample a variety of different resources for German since I’m always asked about different programs/books that I honestly have no answer for. I also receive product samples from companies occasionally related to German that I’ve never had an interest in exploring.

There are loads of German courses I’m eager to explore.

This will be a great chance to do so.

 

Tips on how to find ancestors and trace lineage

Here are some tips that helped me find the information I have so far (using a tool like Ancestry.com):

  • Try variations of spelling with names. One thing I noticed was that German and Italian names were written differently at different times and sometimes Anglicized versions were used (e.g. two of my ancestors named ‘Friedrich’ in German were listed at times as ‘Fred’ or ‘Frederick’).
  • Sometimes you have to fill in gaps by checking electoral rolls or census data to see who was living in the same house at a certain time. Some of the spouses who I couldn’t easily find were found by seeing who was living together at the same address in particular years.
  • Check newspaper archives. I found numerous wedding/engagement listings and so on in local newspaper articles going back to the 1800’s. These are easily searchable online depending on where you’re from.
  • Also check police gazettes. I found listings for two of my ancestors in an old police gazette that listed misdemeanors.
  • If you’re using Ancestry.com, use the ‘Hints’ section to find distant relatives who may have pieced together parts of your story already and use that information to complete your own tree. I actually found distant relatives on there who had linked to various people in my family tree and by combining our information, we were able to complete the whole picture.

It’s quite a bit of work, especially the records for your family aren’t straightforward and easily searchable.

But it’s so worth it and even if you aren’t interested in learning the language of your family’s past, you’ll gain a clearer picture on where you come from! 🙂


How about you?

Have you ever learned a language for reasons of family or ancestry?

Comments

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Got something to share?

  1. German – always an interesting choice!

    Just curious (I won’t ask again), how did the multi-language marathon experiment go a while back? I was curious for a few reasons, such as to know how the brain put up with it. For ex, if it seemed to adapt (plasticity), reject (cognitive overload), “shut down” after working (as in needing a nap or rest), etc, but mainly just to know how it turned out.
    Thx again

  2. Hi Donovan,

    What is the name of the village or villages your ancestor came from? I grew up in that area (Meldorf, to be precise). I even had a fellow student in high school with last name Nagel.

    Concerning the language your ancestors have spoken: neither Danish nor Frisian, but Low German (“Platt”). Frisian is spoken further north in “Nordfriesland”. Schleswig-Hostein was ruled from Denmark but was almost entirely German, except the region between Flensburg and Schleswig which had (and still today has) a small Danish minority.

    Cheers,
    Harald

  3. Guten Tag Herr Nagel,

    I’m studying Arabic, so I check your page from time to time, but I actually come from Schleswig-Holstein 🙂 I assume your ancestors spoke German and Plattdeutsch. The reason why they most likely did not speak Danish is because the lower part of Schleswig-Holstein, namely Holstein, is not the “Danish part” of SH. On the other hand, the northern part, Schleswig, was part of Denmark and still has native speakers of Danish until today. When you travel to Germany make sure to visit Flensburg (right at the border), you will notice there many shops with Danish advertising and street signs in Danish as well! It’s a beautiful city as well.

    I’m sure you ancestors spoke German though, I think back in the day it was more of a diglossic situation, as it is today in the Arab world 😉 Unfortunately, nowadays there are not many people who can speak Plattdeutsch (Dialect/Language spoken in the region) as a native language anymore. It has very much disappeared and Hochdeutsch took over. Of course there are some people in smaller villages who know how to speak this dialect, but it’s nothing like in the Arab world where everyone speaks a dialect as a mother tongue 😉

    I wish you good luck with German, but I think for you it won’t be as difficult since you are an experienced learner and don’t demonize languages, or their difficulty.

    Ah and I suppose you can speak a lot of Arabic when you are in Germany as well, especially Levantine, with all the Syrians living here now 😉

  4. Hallo Donovan
    Ich bin zufällig auf deiner Seite gelandet 🙂
    Wie schön das du Deutsch lernst!
    Die Dialekte hier in Germany sind ja nun sehr vielfältig, doch leider sprechen immer weniger Menschen Dialekt.
    Ich lebe in der Nähe von Köln und sende dir liebe Grüße.
    Astrid

  5. I only recently discovered @mezzoguild and your site really speaks my language;-) especially this post! It was curiosity about my Italian roots that led me to learn the language, which I’ve been studying on and off most of my adulthood. And having kids motivated me to double down on the language in order to pass it on. It even led to our taking a family year abroad not far from an ancestral village in Genoa, where our girls immersed in Italian public school. That alone sealed the deal with the language. Just ask my daughters (in Italian!).

    Ancestry.com is a great site for research, though folks should prepare to subscribe if they want access to some of the best records. (And it sounds like you found some great ones!). Anyone starting this journey should also know about FamilySearch.org as well. Many of the same records are available there for free. And once someone knows an ancestral village, they can search the Catalog to see what records exist for that town. It’s possible to hit the jackpot and find state records, or church records going back centuries.

    And Donovan, if you end up pursuing Italian dual citizenship, welcome to the journey. Sounds like since your line follows a female ancestor, you too would head down the path of a 1948 case. Those patriarchal Italians are finally allowing folks to claim citizenship through a female born before 1948, but it’s much more involved than the typical jus sanguinis case…

    Anyway, glad I found this site and thanks for sharing your passion for language learning!

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