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Lesson 7:  Reading the Place Name, part 2

Our last lesson dealt with place names that are not clear indicators of the town where the immigrant ancestor lived in the old country. There is another problem that plagues many researchers, even when the place name they find is indeed a town name. That problem relates to reading and understanding the actual town name. Most often this problem arises when the immigrant came from a non-English speaking country, but sometimes these problems even occur with English speaking ancestors!

Problems with the language

The problems discussed in this lesson all deal with the fact that many immigrants (the majority over almost 400 years of immigration), did not speak the language of the country to which they were immigrating. Most countries where immigrants arrived were much like the United States (or, in earlier years, the British Colonies) in that they were usually colonized, or at least governed, by the English. Therefore, the common language in the new colony or country was English. However, similar problems arose for non-French speaking immigrants arriving in French colonies, non Dutch speaking immigrants in Dutch colonies, and non-Spanish speaking immigrants arriving in Spanish settlements. For that matter, this problem also happens on occasion among English speaking immigrants in areas where English was not the predominant language, or where the English speaking immigrant used a dialect that may have been difficult to understand.

Fortunately there are not too many kinds of these problems, and they can be easily overcome with a little study, and an understanding of the immigrant's language. This is one reason it is so important to find out, early in your research, the language(s) your immigrant ancestor(s) spoke, as well as the countries they came from. Remember, many countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, Austria, and others had residents who spoke a variety of languages and dialects.

Here are four areas to watch for as you work towards understanding the foreign place name you have searched for so diligently:

  • Foreign Terminology
  • Foreign Versions of Place Names
  • Spelling Problems
  • Places with Similar Spellings

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