Expecting names to be spelled the same way

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes, and have some guidelines for avoiding them. In this video, I’ll cover my principles for handling different spellings of names, especially surnames.

I have five things I think about when looking at name variations:

  1. It’s the sound, not the spelling.
  2. Ignore duplicate letters and silent vowels.
  3. Drop the vowels, focus on the consonants.
  4. Drop the consonants, focus on similar sounds.
  5. Consider the possibility of anglicization.

First, the written word is an imperfect reflection of speech. It doesn’t reflect the vast majority of human communication, which is via body language and tone. There’s also nothing sacred about how a sound is represented in writing: my named is spelled Michael in the Latin alphabet, but those sounds are just as easily expressed in the Arabic alphabet مايكل. In other words, I could spell my name Mykul and it would sound the same.

Second rule is to ignore letters that don’t add a sound. Consider my surname O’Neill, which is sometimes spelled with O’Neil with one l, and rarely O’Neille with a silent e. Today, that’s three different names but the sound is identical and that’s what you key on. Third rule, drop the vowels. Let’s take Devaney and Divine, Divinney and Devane? Are they the same surname?

When you drop the vowels from all of those variants, you get three very clear consonant sounds: D-V-N. Now, I can mimic potential accents just by varying vowel sounds between those letters and see what sounds similar. Whether I have an a, e, i or u between the D and the V, it sounds about the same. Between the V and the N, the sounds represented by a, e or i work pretty well, too. The last vowel, after the N is a bit trickier though, with the ey/ee/eh sounds working, but not much else. The whole exercise yields at least twenty-four different spellings that yield very similar sounds. More important, the eh sound shortens the vowel, and gets me to Divine.

Dropping the vowels isn’t always enough: you also have to think about consonant sounds that are similar. Take baseball hall of fame pitcher Stanley Coveleski. If you limit yourself to the consonants C-V-L-S-K you could lose him. The C could be represented by a K or even a hard G. The sound represented by V in many languages is interchangeable with W. And the vowel sounds could by modified by W or Y. My final thought here is thinking about the impact of cultural assimilation.

As an example, think about ethnic German immigrants to Colonial Pennsylvania. The first generation of immigrants segregated themselves from the “English” because of language and cultural barriers, probably living near people from their same village in the Rhineland. Their children would have learned English language and culture more easily, eventually acting as go-betweens when necessary. The grandchildren might attend different churches than the Quakers, perhaps speak some German, but their identity would more closely align to their Pennsylvania community than to their grandparents’ village in the Rhineland. Along the way, an easy-to-say German name such as Schlauch would become cumbersome for descendants raised speaking English, and they would simplify to Slough.

Same goes for Stanley Coveleski: he was born Stanislaus, but adopted the anglicized Stanley. Patriotic pressures can also play a role: in my research, I saw a sharp rate of anglicizing names across all ethnicities after the Revolution, and a more limited Anglicization amongst Germans and Eastern Europeans during World War I.

Standardization of spelling on names is actually a recent phenomenon, and it’s a function both of increased literacy and of government programs. The former is pretty obvious: if you go back to Colonial period, you didn’t go to school, you apprenticed to learn a trade, whether it was farming from your parents, or as an apprentice blacksmith. If your trade didn’t require literacy, then you weren’t literate—or your literacy was limited to snippets of the bible. One-room school houses didn’t pop up until well into the 1800s. The latter… governments keep records for taxation and benefits, and when you have countrywide benefits programs such as social security and Medicare, you have to have a certain level of standardization and consistency to avoid fraud. When you don’t you have those programs, your name can vary without any real consequences. In other words, the further back you go from the 1930s in the U.S., the more you’ll see spelling variation.

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