Spelling and Your Ancestors
(The following article is excerpted from Val Greenwood’s acclaimed textbook, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. 3rd Edition, pp. 32-35, which is described at the end of this excerpt.)
The lack of standardized spellings and the use of phonetic spellings can be very sticky problems. If you go back just 100 years you will find that a large percentage of the population could not read, more still could not write (and many people were able to write only their own names), and even more could not spell. Most persons who did write did not concern themselves particularly with so-called standard spellings, but rather spelled words just as they sounded–phonetically–with local accents. Also realize that the early settlers of America were emigrants from many foreign lands. There were many accents, and when records were made the scribe wrote what he heard, accent and all.
What is the significance of these facts? It means that you will oftentimes be called upon to decipher scripts in which you will puzzle over simple words just because they are misspelled and written in an unfamiliar hand.
However, the main problem is in the spellings of names (especially surnames) and places. In the will which he made in 1754 in Pasquotank County, North Carolina, Jeremiah Wilcox’s surname is spelled two different ways–Willcox and Willcocks. In other documents it is spelled still other ways–Wilcox, Wilcocks, Welcox, Wellcocks, Welcocks, etc.–but Jeremiah could not write himself (he made a mark for his signature) so he probably had no idea as to what the correct spelling was or if it was ever being spelled correctly. The name and its spelling were entirely at the mercy of the person who chanced to make the record.
This highlights the fallacy of a practice common in many modern families–that of assuming that if the name is not spelled in a certain way it cannot belong to the same family. Persons with such ideas will pass over important genealogical records because the name happens to be spelled with an “a” rather than an “e,” with an “ie” rather than a “y,” or with one “n” rather than with two. Be especially careful of this when the two related spellings of a name are found in the same geographic area. The connection, of course, is not guaranteed, as it is not guaranteed even when the spellings are exactly the same, but it is worth investigating the possibility.
Also, because of this spelling problem, we must be extremely careful in our use of indexes. We must consider every possible spelling of the name sought. It is very easy to overlook some of the less logical (to us) possibilities and thus many valuable records. Local dialects and foreign accents often make a significant difference. The pronunciation of a name may be quite different in Massachusetts than it is in Georgia, and so might its spelling.
In law this is called the Rule of “Idem Sonans.” This means that in order to establish legal proof of relationship from documentary evidence it is not necessary for the name to be spelled absolutely accurately if, as spelled, it conveys to the ear, when pronounced in the accepted ways, a sound practically identical to the correctly spelled name as properly pronounced.
A few years ago I worked for some time on a problem where the same surname was found spelled twenty-four different ways in the very same locality, some of them even beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. The correct spelling of the name (supposedly) was “Ingold,” but the following variations were found: Ingle, Ingell, Ingles, Ingells, Ingel, Ingels, Ingeld, Inkle, Inkles, Inkell, Ingolde, Engold, Engolde, Engle, Engell, Engles, Engells, Engel, Engels, Engeld, Angold, Angle, and Ankold. These several variations were all found in the same family at the same time. Would you have considered all of them, or would you have stopped with those that began with “I”?
Other less likely possibilities for this name are Jugold and Jugle. Such errors could easily occur in an index because of the similarities between the capital I’s and J’s and the small n’s and u’s.
Another family changed the spelling of its name from Beatty to Baitey when moving from one location to another. In still another instance the surname Kerr was found interchanged with Carr. Whether these spelling changes were intentional is unknown, but the intention makes little difference. In one family three brothers deliberately spelled their surname in different ways–Matlock, Matlack, and Matlick. In his history of the Zabriskie family, George 0. Zabriskie reports having dealt with 123 variations of that name, though certainly not all in the same locality or the same time period. [END of excerpt]
If you found this excerpt fascinating–and helpful–you might want to take a closer look at Val Greenwood’s handy textbook, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. 3rd Edition. Among other things, The Researcher’s Guide contains an in-depth discussion of death and other vital records in the U.S., including where and how to find them. This third edition incorporates the latest thinking on genealogy and computers, specifically the relationship between computer technology (the Internet and CD-ROM) and the timeless principles of good genealogical research. It also includes a new chapter on the property rights of women, a revised chapter on the evaluation of genealogical evidence, and updated information on the 1920 census. Arguably the best book ever written on American genealogy, it is the text of choice in colleges and universities or wherever courses in American genealogy are taught.
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Of Related Interest . . .
Reading Early American Handwriting
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