Resolving Conflicting Evidence in the Spelling of Names

Jasia of Creative Gene recently raised the question of how to record given names and surnames in databases and written family histories when the original records themselves provide different variants of those names.

Jasia provided examples from her own family where different records provided different surname variants, and where the original records provided spellings of given names in a language different from the native language of those named.

Jasia dilemma is one that is frequently encountered by genealogists and family historians.

Initially, I attempted to leave a comment on Jasia’s blog, but I worried that my response would exceed the length of her original post! And, so, I’ll discuss my opinions here.

Two suggestions that I have often heard are:

  1. Use the spelling of the name exactly as it appeared in the birth/baptismal record, and
  2. Use the spelling of the name as it appeared in the earliest proof document.

There is a great deal of sense in these recommendations; both seem to lead to the same conclusion. If one can find a birth/baptismal record written at or near the time of the birth (as is the case with most Polish Roman Catholic birth/baptismal records), one would have both the birth/baptismal record and the earliest proof document. In the absence of a birth/baptismal record made at the time of the event, the earliest proof document would fit the bill.

Names in Old Polish Records

Early Polish records are generally limited to registers of birth/baptism, marriage, and death recorded by the Roman Catholic parish priest. When civil registration of birth, marriage, and death were mandated by the state, the Roman Catholic priest acted was the Civil Registrar. People of all faiths, not just Roman Catholics, were required to register vital events at the local Roman Catholic parish.

Complicating matters is the fact that, prior to the 20th Century, relatively few Polish people could read or write. The same holds true for the rest of the world, although widespread literacy was achieved earlier in some parts of the world than others. When registering vital events, the spellings of both given names and surnames was left to the wisdom of the priest who may have been the only person in the village who would read and write.

Given names generally did not present a problem for the priest. Relatively few given names were in common use and the spellings of given names were fairly well standardized. Surnames were another matter entirely. Priests spelled the surnames as they heard them, leading to records where the spellings of the surnames could vary from record to record, especially when different priests recorded the same name.

Sometimes, spellings of surnames evolved. In my own family, Dziura became Dziurzyński, Trupiło became Tropiło, and Markowicz became Markiewicz. The spelling of a given family’s surname sometimes changed over time. Anglicization of Polish surnames after immigration to the United States was a common occurrence, though the families changed their names after settling in their new homes, not at Ellis Island as the popular press often declares.

Even more confusing is the fact that Polish records were written in a variety of languages, including Latin, Polish, Russian, and German. Although those named in these records were Poles who spoke Polish, their names were often recorded in a foreign language. The name of my ancestor Wojciech Dańko was recorded in Latin as Adalbertus Danko.

In the Russian partition, Polish names were transliterated from Polish to Russian using the Cyrillic alphabet. Transliteration back from Russian to Polish may result in a spelling that is significantly different from the original Polish spelling. In particular, Polish names containing the letter H cannot be accurately transcribed into Russian. Since the Russian alphabet lacks the letter H, that letter in a Polish name will be transcribed as the letter G.

The problem of identifying the “correct” spelling of a Polish name, therefore, originates in many ways. How, then, to best deal with the issue of which spelling to record in genealogy databases and written family histories?

The simplest approach, of course, is to simply record the name exactly as spelled in the earliest proof document. This approach doesn’t account for the fact that names are sometimes inadvertently misspelled and doesn’t account for the fact that names translated into a foreign language were seldom the names the people actually used.

The Genealogical Proof Standard

The Genealogical Proof Standard provides another alternative. The Genealogical Proof Standard requires:

    • a reasonably exhaustive search;
    • complete and accurate source citations;
    • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
    • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
    • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Thus, the Genealogical Proof Standard states that the researcher should examine the evidence and come to a conclusion based on a sound analysis of that evidence. And so, the Genealogical Proof Standard not only allows, but requires more than just routinely recording names as spelled in the earliest proof document.

How I Approach the Problem

When names actually changed with time, I record the spelling of the name as it was used at the time. My database reflects the changes in surnames as I observe them over the years, so that the surnames of children may be different from that of their father. Recording these changes adds another dimension to the family history since it documents real changes through time.

In cases where several different documents exist for a single individual or single family, a misspelled name in one document may be identified fairly easily. In this case, I record the correct spelling of the name, document the suspected misspelling with an analysis of the reasons I think the spelling in the document is in error.

Sometimes, identifying misspellings can be difficult. In the nine birth records of her children, my grandmother’s maiden name is spelled eight different ways. I have not yet found any proof documents earlier than the birth records of her children that recorded her maiden name. My grandmother’s maiden name, as recorded in these documents were (from the earliest to the most recent) Dziura, Dziurzyńska, Dziurznska, Ginsky, Dzevirzynska, Jusaka, Guginski, Dziurzynski, and Dziurzynski.

Resolving the correct spelling required weeding out the those that were clearly in error. Some spellings contained combinations of letters that don’t occur in the Polish language (there is no letter V in the Polish alphabet), and some were rough phonetic spellings of her maiden name. Two spellings reflected the fact that the surnames of Polish women usually had different endings than the corresponding names for Polish men. In addition, one source document revealed that the family actually changed their surname while in Poland, thus accounting for one more variant.

The resolution is that the original spelling of the name was Dziura, but the family changed the name to Dziurzyński in Poland. Being a woman, her surname would have been changed from Dziura to Dziurzyńska. Properly, I should list her surname as Dziura, which just happens to be the same as the spelling in the earliest source document. My conclusion, however, was based on an examination of all the evidence, not just the earliest source document.

When it comes to names in documents written in Latin, I prefer to translate the names into Polish, since those are the names that were actually used by those named in the documents. Adalbertus Dańko therefore becomes Wojciech Dańko and Sophia Szymańska becomes Zofia Szymańska. In Russian documents, the names can be difficult to transliterate to Polish, and so I continue to search records earlier in time to find the correct spelling when the records for the same parish were written in Polish. Such a search revealed that a name I originally transliterated as Niedzialkowski was actually Niedziałkowski, an important difference in Polish. Russian (and English, too, for that matter) has no equivalent for the Polish letter ł.

Sometimes, the names people were given at birth were not the names by which they were known for most of their lives. This issue frequently applies to immigrants, but sometimes applies to those born in the United States, too. For those whose names were changed, I prefer to use the name they were given at birth (we’re back to the earliest proof document, here), but I make note that the person’s name was changed. And so, Stefania Chmielewska was also known as Stephania Meleski.

There will be times when, despite near-heroic efforts, a researcher will still encounter difficulties deciding how to record a name. In general, I try to use the name given at birth/baptism, translated into the person’s native tongue. However, I do examine all records where the individuals and their family members are named and I apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to resolve conflicts and discrepancies.

Copyright © 2008 by Stephen J. Danko

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7 Responses to Resolving Conflicting Evidence in the Spelling of Names

  1. Jasia says:

    I’m doing the happy dance Steve! Hugs and kisses to you my friend. Your analysis is greatly appreciated. I have to say that my Legacy database has become a mass of inconsistencies as I’ve changed my mind about how to record my family names over the last few years. Everything you say about how the priests were often the only literate folks in a village and they spelled surnames phonetically as they heard them is stuff I’ve known to be true and struggled to deal with. Whether or not to use the female endings for surnames has also been something I’ve waffled on. Add to that the fact that Legacy will not accept the Polish letter characters and I’ve never been fond of using the ~ to indicate a Polish letter and you can see how I’ve ended up with my dilemma. I now have a database of names that have no resemblance to anything! They don’t look like the original records (Latin and Polish or Cyrillic and Polish), family members don’t look like they’re related, the whole thing certainly doesn’t look like it’s full of Polish and English names and that’s exactly what it should be!

    Each time I’ve gotten fed up and decided to change the way I’ve entered my records I’ve considered how to change them and given it a good deal of thought before going through and making the changes (It’s very time consuming!). But inevitably somewhere down the line I’d regret my choice and go through the whole process all over again. I really need to find something that I can stick with and that makes sense to me. (How many times have I said that before!)

    I think I need to start with a program that allows for the Polish letter characters as that issue more than any other has caused me to make repeated changes to the way I record family names… it’s seems I’m always trying to compensate for not being able to spell them the Polish way. Unfortunately I don’t know of any programs that allow for Polish characters besides the old PAF. Do you?

    I also think I want to add a matriname for my maternal line. I’ll probably designate that name in parentheses.

    Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this issue of how to record name variations. This really has been a constant pain in the dupa for me!

  2. Cheryl says:

    Excellent response to Jasia’s dilema! I enjoyed your post, in particular the perfect advice on how to record name variations, a great reminder of the standards in the industry. You also informed many of us I am sure, of other aspects we may have been unaware of. The example of the variations of your grandmothers maiden name for example, was an eye opener. Making sure it was in the correct language and going having a name change, let alone the spelling errors…..Great topic, great response!

  3. Kathryn says:

    I’ve grappled with similar issues with my husband’s Greek family and I have used a device that reflects your “changes through time” approach. In my database I use the English version “Nickles” for family who immigrated to the U.S. and reserve “Nikolaides” (and the female version, Nikolaidou) for those who never left Greece. (Of course, I respect the wishes of the one cousin who refused to use the Americanized name!) I also use the Greek alphabet and original spelling at the top of all charts that I create.

  4. Bronwyn Klimach says:

    A week without Internet access caused me to look into the information I already have. Sooo obvious now that Johnann SYPEREK = Jan SZYPIEREK, any number of Jan SCHNEIDER and Jan SZNEJDERs may be the same person, but then again perhaps not… Yes, I really need to adopt a unified system that works, and fast (minimum residue sanity being at stake here…)!
    Meanwhile after a few days I had come up with exactly the same conclusions as Donna has so beautifully expressed here: http://pastprologue.wordpress.com/2008/03/12/genealogical-regrets/
    Somehow Steve I doubt you have ever succumbed to any of these disorganisational traps ;-)

  5. Apple says:

    Thanks! This will help me with my husband’s German and Italian names. Right now I have everyone with the same surname listed exactly the same so as to make them easy to find in my index. I have recorded the name as it was spelled on each individual record in the notes section for each person.

  6. Ralph says:

    Thanks a whole lot Steve for the above text which describes virtually all the problems found. The grandmother with 8 different names really hit home!
    I have a grandmother who currently on has 3 different names. Having no birth/baptismal record for her, but on the births of each grandchild she is listed as Schnalke, Schmalke, and Schmelke. In addition, at the same time nearby I found another birth where the mother was listed as Schmelke showing the same place origins as the grandmother. This could be just a similarity, or possibly more important. Are the two women related? In an old Ahnenpass this same grandmother is listed as Schwalke.

    I have looked at certain sites that give distributions for German surnames in Germany and Poland. To my surprise, only Schnalke and Schwalke exist now!
    If the name was Schmalke or Schmelke it has now died out.

    I have added a link on my site to this blog, under general genealogy.

  7. Jim Sanders says:

    In Genealogy there are a lot of spelling mistakes, nicknames and spelling abreviations. When trying to find your ancestor you need to be aware of these. You may also need to know how to find them in an index when this occurs. Check out the blog about names and genealogy. It offers a number of suggestions on how to perform some searches when this happens.

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