April 03, 2008

#01-093: Talking about Ancestors

very elaborate family tree, with illustrations of the individuals on it, going back five generations, all surrounded by angels and other Renaissance figures
A rich duke's family tree

Note: You may know how to talk about your grandfathers and your grandmothers. But what about the people before them? Learn more exact terminology for discussing your ancestors.

Get Ready: How many of your ancestors can you name?

On April 4th or 5th, Chinese people celebrate the Qing Ming Festival, a day for honoring one's ancestors by sweeping and decorating their graves. Let's talk about ways to discuss one's ancestors.

The first thing we need to look at is the word "ancestor" itself. We seldom use this to refer to people we knew personally. I would say, "My grandfather was a Dixieland musician," not "My ancestor was..." or "One of my ancestors was." He's too closely-related for me to use such a distant term.

In fact, if we know the relationship--even if we didn't know the person--we usually say it: "My great-great-grandfather James immigrated to the U.S." We reserve "ancestor" for when we aren't certain who it was ("One of my ancestors came from Africa,") or when we are talking about a group ("most of my ancestors came from the British Isles.")

Now, you probably know "grandfather" and "grandmother." Usually that's enough. But if we want to be specific, there are two common ways to say which grandfather or grandmother. I can say, "My paternal grandfather was a Dixieland musician," or more directly (but less elegantly) "My dad's dad (or father's father, etc.) was..." "Paternal" means "of the father," and "maternal" of the mother.

Beyond that relationship, we use "greats." My grandparent's parent is my great-grandparent; his/her parent is my great-great-grandparent; and so on. (Beyond that we usually don't know exactly, so often end up saying "ancestor"!)

Now, which great-great-grandparent? There is no common vocabulary for this, so we end up describing it in more words: "My maternal grandmother's mothers' father" or maybe "My maternal grandmother's maternal grandfather," but most will find this confusing. We might even say, "My mom's mom's mom's dad," perhaps counting on our fingers as we go!

Like many Americans, I'm a "mongrel," with ancestors from all over the place. My father's maternal grandmother (my paternal grandmother's mother, my dad's mom's mom) was born in America, but never spoke English, only French. At least one of my paternal ancestors was brought from Africa as a slave; my mother's side is mostly from the British Isles, with such white-bread names as Thompson, Stevens, Fletcher, Hodge, and White.

So, like many, I have a colorful genealogy. We have nothing like "tomb-sweeping" in America: although I lived most of my life in the city where my grandparents are buried, I've never been to their graves. To get to all of my ancestors' graves, I'd need to travel on three continents. But first I'd have to figure out who they all are!


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancestor

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. ancestor
  2. genealogy
  3. grandfather
  4. great-grandparent
  5. great-great-grandparent
  6. maternal
  7. mongrel
  8. paternal

  1. grand-parent's parent
  2. of mixed breed; insulting when said of humans
  3. someone four generations back
  4. someone who came before us, but usually we don't know many details
  5. of one's mother
  6. study of one's "family tree"
  7. mother's or father's father
  8. of one's father

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for April 3, 2008, just before my Chinese students would be honoring their ancestors.

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. f; 3. g; 4. a; 5. c; 6. e; 7. b; 8. h