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Genealogy - Tips to help in research

Surname Spellings and Variations

When we think of tracing our family tree, we often envision following our surname back thousands of years to the first bearer of the name. In our neat and tidy dream, each successive generation bears the same surname - spelled exactly the same way in each and every record - until we reach the dawn of man.

The dream comes to an end, however, when confronted with the cold hard facts of genealogy research. For the majority of human existence surnames were not even used. According to legends, China first initiated the custom of using surnames during the reign of Emperor Fu Xi (2852BC), but their use didn't begin in the European world until about the eleventh century, with some patronymic surnames in Scandinavia bestowed as late as the nineteenth century. Surnames, for the most part, evolved during the past eight hundred years to help distinguish one person from another as the world's population grew. The acquisition of surnames has been influenced by many factors, including social class, naming practices and patterns, and even unusual events.

Even tracing your ancestors back to the point where they first acquired surnames can be a challenge as surname spelling and pronunciation has evolved over centuries, making it unlikely that your present surname is the same as the original surname bestowed on your distant ancestor. You may have a slight spelling variation of the original name, an anglicized version, or even a completely different surname. This may have occurred for such reasons as:

  • Illiteracy - the further back you go in your research, the more you will find cases of ancestors who couldn't read and write. Many didn't even know how their own names were spelled, only how to pronounce them. Therefore, when they gave their names to clerks, census enumerators, clergymen, or other officials, that person wrote the name the way that it sounded to him. Even if they did have the spelling memorized, the person recording the information may not have asked. Example: the German HEYER has become HYER, HIER, HIRE, HIRES, HIERS, etc.
  • Simplification - Immigrants, upon arrival in a new country, often found that their name was difficult for others to spell or pronounce. Therefore, they often simplified the spelling or altered their names to relate them more closely to the language and pronunciations of their new country. Example: the German ALBRECHT becomes ALBRIGHT, or the Swedish JONSSON becomes JOHNSON
  • Necessity - Those from countries with alphabets other than Latin had to transliterate them, producing many variations on the same name. Example: the Ukranian surname ZHADKOWSKYI became ZADKOWSKI
  • Mispronunciation - Letters within a surname were often confused due to verbal miscommunication or heavy accents. Example: depending upon the accents of both the person speaking the name and the person writing it down, KROEBER could become GROVER or CROWER
  • Desire to Fit In - Many foreigners changed their names in some way to assimilate into their new country and culture. The most usual change of surname was to translate the meaning of their surname into the new language. Example: the Irish BREHONY became JUDGE
  • Desire to Break with the Past - Immigration was sometimes prompted in one way or another by a desire to break with or escape the past. For some immigrants this included ridding themselves of anything, including their name, which reminded them of an unhappy life in the old country.  Example: Mexicans fleeing to America to escape the revolution
  • Dislike of Surname - People forced by governments to adopt surnames which were not a part of their culture or were not of their choosing would often shed themselves of such names at the first opportunity. Example: Armenians forced by the Turkish government to give up their traditional surnames and adopt new "Turkish" surnames would revert back to their original surnames, or some variation, upon emigration/escape from Turkey
  • Fear of Discrimination - Surname changes and modifications can sometimes be attributed to a desire to conceal nationality or religious orientation in fear of reprisal or discrimination. This motive constantly appears among the Jews, who often faced anti-Semitism. Example: the Jewish surname COHEN changed to COHN/KAHN or WOLFSHEIMER shortened to WOLF

Tips to Searching Surname Variations

Thinking 'out of the box' is often required when it comes to finding your ancestors in genealogical indexes and records. Many genealogists, both beginner and advanced, fail in the quest for their ancestors because they don't take the time to search for anything other than the obvious spelling variants. Don't let that happen to you! Get inspired when searching for alternative surname spellings with these quick tips:

  • Say the surname out loud and try to spell it phonetically. Ask friends and relatives to do the same, as different people may come up with different possibilities. Children are especially good at providing you with unbiased opinions since they tend to spell phonetically anyway. (BEHLE, BAILEY)
  • Use a dictionary to find the foreign language equivalent of the surname. Translating the surname back into the native language of your ancestor may provide you with new clues.
  • Be aware of the silent 'H' in the English language. Surnames that begin with a vowel may be found with a silent 'H' added to the front (AYRE, HEYR). The silent 'H' also can often be found hiding after the initial consonant (CRISP, CHRISP).
  • Other silent letters such as 'E' and 'Y' may also come and go from the spelling of a particular surname. (MARK, MARKE)
  • Surnames beginning with a vowel may be found under any of the vowels, especially those that have similar pronunciations. (INGALL, ENGEL)
  • Even if your family usually spells your surname with an ending 'S,' that doesn't mean you shouldn't also look under the singular version, and vice-versa. (OWENS, OWEN)
  • Letter transpositions, especially common in transcribed records and compiled indexes, are another spelling error which may make it hard to find your ancestors. Look for transpositions that still create a recognizable surname. (CRISP, CRIPS)
  • Other common transcription errors you should look for include dropped letters (KOTH, KOT) and adjacent letters on the keyboard. (JAPP, KAPP)
  • You need to be aware that the "pre-researched" family histories sold by many companies are generic and are not likely to have much in common with the history of your particular family, many web sites offer alternative spellings for a given surname.
  • Try adding prefixes, suffixes and superlatives to the base surname to come up with new surname possibilities. (GOLD, GOLDSCHMIDT, GOLDSMITH, GOLDSTEIN)

Changes and variations in surname spellings are of utmost importance to genealogists, as it is likely that many records are missed when only one form of the family surname is considered. When searching compiled indexes and transcriptions, the first thing you should do is to take into account possible spelling mistakes which may have occurred by accident. If you can't find older family records, think about the way your family surname may have changed. Looking for records under these additional spellings may help you to find records you have previously overlooked, and even lead you to new stories for your family tree.


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