Accents: They’re Not Just Punctuation


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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