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Name and Word Spellings

As you read through older records, you'll often find words and names spelled in a variety of ways, even in the same document. Even in more recent records, you may come across typos and other inadvertent spelling errors. While misspellings of words may only be slightly bothersome, spelling problems related to names can make deciphering records and tracing families difficult for today's genealogists.

For example, Roland Shumate, a Family Tree Maker user from Baltimore, Maryland, knows about name spelling changes firsthand. Roland's surname was thought to be German or Dutch, but it turned out to be French: Choaumote. The name had been changed when his ancestors immigrated in 1700. Roland's great, great grandfather's name was Jean Dela Choaumote. With the correct surname in hand, finding records pertaining to Mr. Shumate's ancestors is much easier.

Why Do Spelling Inconsistencies Exist?

First, name spellings weren't standardized several generations ago, so many people spelled even their own name in a variety of ways. In addition, many people couldn't write, and those who wrote for them when the need arose sometimes had minimal spelling skills and just spelled phonetically, writing down what they heard.

More drastic name changes often took place when a family immigrated to the United States. The family may have Americanized its name by dropping syllables or difficult letter combinations, translating their name to English, or changing it completely. In addition, immigration officers often made mistakes or had to guess at more difficult name spellings, doing their best to spell out what they heard. You can find similar problems in census records when the enumerator interviewed newly-arrived immigrants. See our excerpt from Elsdon C. Smith's American Surnames. He details the ways in which immigrants' names changed upon arrival to the United States.

Finally, spelling mistakes exist simply due to human error. Record-keepers and transcribers aren't any more perfect than the rest of us!

Problems with Pronunciation

All kinds of records were prone to spelling mishaps, including vital records, church records, and of course the immigration and census records mentioned above. Throughout all of these documents, the following letters were often confused due to verbal miscommunication: B and P, D and T, F and P, F and V, G and K, J and Y, S and Z, V and B, V and W, and W and R, depending on the accent of the person who was saying the name and the person who was writing it. In addition, C and S could become CH and SH. Also, double letters, such as RR or LL, could turn into a single R or L, and vice-versa.

Vowels were prone to change as well. I, IE, EY, and Y were often interchanged and the same happened with O and OE, A and AY, and other similar vowel combinations. E could be added to or dropped off of the end at will (and the same goes for S). Vowels could also be dropped out of the middle of a name, leaving several consonants in a row. These are all letter changes to keep in mind when you are looking for a family name in a record set. Let's take a look at an example.

Current spelling: Grover

Alternate spellings: Grovr, Grober, Groeber, Grower, Krover, Krober, Kroeber, Krower, Crover, Crober, Croeber, Crower.

Try saying all of these different spellings out loud. They all sound fairly similar, and with the right accent they could sound virtually identical. You might want to try the same exercise with some of your family names. The idea is to find new spellings of a surname that sound similar to the current spelling.

Errors Caused by Handwriting

Other types of ancestor-hiding "mistakes" to watch out for have to do with handwriting. Older styles can be difficult for us to read today, and there are some styles that were not even taught in schools, but by notaries or others to their helpers. The secretary hand, the court hand, the italic hand -- each had distinct letter forms and abbreviations.

In some older handwriting styles, capital L and capital S often were written so similarly that it was difficult to tell the difference between the two. The same is true for capital I and capital J. In addition, rounded lower case letters such as A, O, and U could also appear identical, especially when the A or O was left slightly open at the top or the U was almost closed at the top. One final handwriting problem is the SS. This letter combination was often written as SF, and even a single S was occasionally written as F.

Remember, you can run into these types of errors not only when looking at handwritten documents, but also when you are looking at records that have been transcribed from older original documents. When reviewing a record with an unfamiliar handwriting style, it is important to record all the letters of the alphabet on a sheet of paper and list the variations that you come across. This self-training takes very little time and saves a lot of errors and forgetting.

Just Plain Typos

Here are a few of the more common ones to watch for:

  • Letter transpositions — "Grover" becomes "Rgover" or "Smith" becomes "Simth"
  • Adjacent letters on the keyboard —"Grover" becomes "Grober" or "Smith" becomes "Wmith"
  • Dropping a letter — "Grover" becomes "Grver" or "Smith" becomes "Smit"

Word spellings most often are just an inconvenience, but changes in name spellings are much more significant. It is important to keep different possible name spellings in mind when you are researching, so that you don't overlook records that might refer to your family.

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