Accents: They’re Not Just Punctuation

June 24, 2013  - by 

Last week, I downloaded an intriguing New York passenger list. To my surprise, the customs agent wrote the names and places in German—in beautiful, old Gothic script including letters and diacritics specific to the German alphabet. A batch like this creates some questions:  Am I supposed to index letters like ü and ß? Are accents and umlauts considered punctuation or not? If I should index them, then how do I do it?

The short answer is to index them. Accents, umlauts, and other diacritical marks are part of the letter or character, not separate punctuation. The indexing program includes features to help you index these necessary special characters.

Diacritical marks often change the meaning of words and even create new letters. In Spanish, papá means dad, but papa means potato. In French, congrès means congress, but congres means eels. In Swedish, ö is the 29th letter of the alphabet, completely separate from the letter o. You won’t find Örebro listed next to Oskarshamn in a list of Swedish towns.

To index special characters, you have several choices:

  • Use the International Characters icon
    FamilySearch indexing, International Characters Icon
    . To learn more, refer to the indexing user guide.
  • Use your computer’s Character Map
    Character Map Icon
     (or Character Palette), or change the keyboard input language.
  • Use shortcuts. For example, to get the letter ñ, press Alt+0241 (for PC) or Alt+N+N (for Mac).

If you still feel unsure about indexing unfamiliar characters, here are nine tips to remember:

  1. Get help. FamilySearch and local indexing administrators can help answer your questions, and so can the indexing community on the Facebook page or other online community forums and groups.
  2. Look for clues. Use other information on the document to determine the origin of the names, such as the places of birth or nationalities.
  3. Use Google. Search online for alphabets for different languages. For example, a search for the Hawaiian alphabet reveals that it only has 13 letters, including one called ‘okina which appears simply as .
  4. Type what you see. If you struggle to decipher the writing and other resources don’t help, fall back on one of our favorite basic indexing guidelines, and type what you see.
    • Also, if a diacritic is lacking or added in where it seems odd, still type what you see when it comes to names. For example, if François is written as Francois, index the name as Francois. Don’t correct the spelling of names. Though, most of the time, you can correct the spelling of place names. Review the field helps to know when corrections are okay.
  5. Use wildcards. If you cannot decipher an international character, use a question mark (?) to replace one letter. If you cannot decipher multiple international characters in a row, use an asterisk (*).
  6. Arbitrate your native language. As an arbitrator, the indexers and researchers rely on you to get the answers right. Your arbitration time and skills are vital to the indexing effort, but if you don’t know the language, please don’t arbitrate the batch.
  7. Have patience with arbitrators. Even experienced arbitrators have to make tough decisions. Many times, both indexers give great answers, but even a slight difference forces the arbitrator to choose. No matter what, continue to follow the instructions, and do your best indexing work.
  8. Learn to read new languages. FamilySearch provides many handwriting tutorials to help you learn new skills. It will take time, patience, and dedication, but you can learn to read a new language. Don’t get discouraged; ask for help often.
  9. Return the batch. You can return batches for other indexers to complete if you don’t feel up to the task—no penalty to you.

Diacritics and a world full of languages can give your indexing experience some variety and spice. Just remember to index languages familiar to you and include accents, umlauts, and other diacritics whenever they are present, but do not index punctuation like periods, commas, and parenthesis. There’s always help available if you have questions. Happy indexing!

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  1. I did some indexing in 2012. I was just looking through your comments. I noticed the Oklahoma Five Tribes land grant records mentioned. How awesome! I would like to do indexing with those for a winter project. GH

  2. Having worked as a director of a county historical society, starting as an assistant. Over the years, I did research for many individuals and families using many types of records, including census, school, church, cemetery, military, to give an example. One of the things I have learned through my research was being able to find records on line that would coincide with the work I did and qualify it. Often I use my methods to verify spelling, I did this on a military record. The spelling was not accepted by either the second indexer or the arbitrator. This could have been taken care of if I would have had the ability to send the hyperlink and a copy of the online military info on the individual. Some how we need to be able to do this. It validates why we used that spelling.
    Thank you for considering this.

  3. Deciphering it is hard if you are not familiar with the language thru years. For example some Spanish written by a priest in the early 1600’s, the writing sometimes is joined by a syllable to the next sentence. Get familiar with the calligraphy.

  4. I would like to add a reason to index diacritics that this article does not mention. People don’t want to index them because it doesn’t affect a database search. But if you become familiar with diacritics by indexing them, then you won’t get them mixed up with other letters. I see, for example, “ł” indexed as “t,” “ą” indexed as “g,” and “ć” indexed as “i”. The search engine will not compensate for those mistakes.

  5. I could be wrong, but weren’t ship’s passenger lists normally compiled by the ship’s captain or other officer at the port of embarkation? And usually in the same language as that of most of the passengers? If I recall, no permanent records were created at the port of arrival, although my experience is primarily with New York City.

    1. I’ve been doing the “U S Muster Rolls for the US Marines 1798…” As I have reviewed the arbitrations on them, I have found that my correct spelling of a ship was changed to an incorrect spelling (on almost 40 people), the name of a ship correctly identified on the sheet that was being completed was replaced with the name of the ship that didn’t go with the record (on almost 40 people), that records marked blank from #6 to #40 were filled in with the name of the ship for the 5 records that were on the page and correctly identified and finally that the name of a ship correctly taken off of the record below the names at the bottom of the page instead of at the top of the page was marked as incorrect on all of the records. The directions say the name is usually at the top, not that it is only at the top. I always google the names of the ships and usually see a picture of them with the correct spelling of the name before I put it in the record. I also look up the marines names if they aren’t in the look up list to see if they are “real” or if I am misspelling them. When I start a new project I try to look at arbitration to learn how to do the project right. I understand arbitration must be very difficult to do and I appreciate those who do it. I’m hoping that my complaints will result in some clarification of the directions for this particular project. Thank you.