Research Roadblock: Names

Do all genealogists encounter roadblocks like this?

Do all genealogists encounter roadblocks like this?

The topic for the 22nd edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy is roadblocks and breakthroughs.  I like the using the term “roadblock” for those genealogy research problems rather than the term “brickwall” because a roadblock seems more like an obstacle I can “get around” or overcome.  We can always detour our way around a roadblock; knocking down a brickwall is possible, but it requires some heavy duty equipment.  I’m an optimistic genealogist, because I believe you never really encounter a brickwall unless all possible records for an individual or a locality do not exist.  Roadblocks, however, crop up all the time – even on what seems like the simplest genealogical task.  Just like a real roadblock you might encounter while driving, you usually don’t expect it and may not know the way around it.

The most common roadblock in my research has been related to NAMES.  That is, you know what name you are looking for, but you can’t seem to FIND it in an index.  Causes for these name roadblocks include foreign spelling, foreign accents, bad handwriting, nicknames, and name changes.  Many of my ancestors’ Polish and German names have caused delays in my research, but you can often detour around the roadblock if only you know the way.  In this post, I’ll offer a few tips that may help you with name roadblocks.  Although my own ancestry is Central and Eastern European, the tips to breaking through this particular roadblock are useful no matter where your family’s history began.

1. Use alternate searches – if possible, search for the first name and other identifiers rather than the surname.  If you can’t find a family on a census record, find the possible address using other sources and then search for the address instead of the name.  I was able to find my Zawodny family this way when the census had them listed as Cawodny.

2. Get creative – if the first letter of the last name is incorrectly indexed – whether through bad handwriting or bad indexing, try variations.  Try writing out the name in the style of handwriting used at the time the record was compiled.  Would a handwritten “P” resemble an “F”?

3.  Watch out for nicknames – don’t overlook your ancestor because they are using a nickname, their middle name, or the “foreign” first name from their home country.  Ludwig, Louis, Lewis, or Lou could all be the correct first name for an individual.  Some researchers get stumped looking for Uncle Bill or Aunt Stella only to discover that they could have found the record looking for Bołesław or Stanisława.

4. Learn all about the surnames from your immigrant’s home country.  In Poland, surnames can have masculine or feminine endings – so Piontkowski’s wife or daughter is Piontkowska and Zawodny’s wife or daugher is Zawodna.  These practices were still used in the US in the early 20th Century.  Russian and some other Slavic languages use similar feminine forms.  In German, feminine forms are uncommon today, but in older records you may see the suffixes –in, -yn, -s, -z, or –en added to the male surname for feminine forms of the name.

5. Try phoenetic sound of name for alternate spelling that Soundex might not pick up.  Sometimes we forget that our immigrant ancestors had accents.  Since the information in some records came from your ancestors speaking directly to someone collecting the information, it is important to remember their native language and its pronunciations.  In many cases, the use of Soundex in indexing will cover up for many of these phoenetic mistakes – but not all.  Take time to learn the nuances of your family’s native languages.  A simple example of a mis-spelled name on a census record that was likely caused by the immigrant’s accent is my great-grandfather’s Polish surname, Pater.  It is a relatively simple name as far as Polish names go!  Rather than the English pronunciation of the name, PAY-ter, the Polish pronunciation is PAH-ter, much like the Latin word.  On the 1910 census, the family is listed as “Potter” – a reasonable assumption based on how it is pronounced.  Fortunately, Soundex will catch this error.  But what happens when the pronunciation is very different?

Many foreign languages have letters that the English alphabet does not, and each of these letters has a unique pronunciation.  Unless you know how to “say” the name in the foreign language, you may hit a roadblock.  Some examples include:

Polish ą – pronounced “ahn” but it is often transcribed as a simple “a” in English.  So the Polish surname Piątkowski may be indexed as Piatkowski.  But, if you heard the name pronounced, the English transcription should be Piontkowski.  If searching for “Piontkowski” using the Soundex code, an entry under “Piatkowski” would not show up.

Polish Ł or ł – pronounced with an English “w” sound, this Polish letter confuses non-Poles.  It may be transcribed as a simple English “L”, or the lowercase version may become a “t” since that is what it looks like.   Or the record-writer has heard the name pronouced and makes it a “W” so that the surname Łaski is indexed as it sounds to the American ear – Waski.

German ü – Americans don’t know what to make of German umlauts.  Sometimes the umlaut is simply ignored, so the surname Müller is spelled Muller.  Other times it is listed as Mueller, since the “ü” has a “ue” sound.  But just as often I have found it as Miller, as if the ü is two letter “i” – and since English doesn’t have words like Miiller, it becomes Miller.

I could continue with examples of the different letters found in foreign languages from the French ç to the Hungarian Á to the Croatian Ð.  Aside from the unique letters, researching foreign names has to take the language into consideration – a “ch” combination in one language may sound like an “English” “ch” or a “k” instead.  In German, the sound of an initial consonant “B” often sounds like a “P”.  The point is to be aware of the way the immigrant’s original language sounded, because it may account for some of the incorrect spellings you will encounter.

I can’t emphasis enough the importance of learning about the language from which the name is derived.  It may give you enough knowledge to break through that roadblock!

Recommended reading:

Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, Second Edition by William F. Hoffman (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1997).

First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings by William F. Hoffman and George W. Helon (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1998).

Dictionary of German Names by Hans Bahlow (Max Kade Institute, 2002).

[Written for the 22nd Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: Roadblocks and Breakthroughs]

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2 thoughts on “Research Roadblock: Names

  1. Hello Donna,

    My uncle DZIEWIĄTEK settled in USA about 100 years ago, known later as DZIEWIATEK or DWIATEK. I had been searching his surname in the federal censuses, but it all failed. Some time after the well known webpage I was using for the research, gave me a tip that he may be written as DZIEWISTAH. Indeed, this name was read from an image, however I could read there DZIEWIATEK not DZIEWISTAH. Sometimes a genealogical roadblock comes from the recent past (a volunteer who seen an image and typed a surname into computer database), so it does not come from real source. Of course, I am happy that I was still able to find what I was looking for 🙂

    Regards from Poland,
    Maciej

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