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Frohen Geburtstag, Bach! Happy birthday, Bach!

Johann Sebastian Bach from Eisenach

(Here's some Bach music for the background if you'd like.)

Now, you probably aren't descended from Johann Sebastian- although who knows- the man had 20 children from his two marriages, 11 of whom reached adulthood. But it’s the old master’s birthday, and we’ll take that as a happy excuse to talk about names like Bach. Bach (and other German names ending in -ach) have a hard time in English, because English doesn’t have that rough -kh sound (outside of parts of Scotland). We usually pronounce it in English as “bahck”, and just a few hard-core people use the German pronunciation. Just how do you pronounce that name in German?

Now what if you have a name like that and you don’t have hordes of music majors protecting the (semi-)German pronunciation of your name? In the 1600’s, 1700’s, well into the 1800’s, Americans generally anglicized Bach into Baugh, that’s what would happen. If you have a Bough in your family, it might well trace back to that English word bough ’tree branch’, but a Bough or particularly Baugh is apt to mark a German ancestor. But why the gh? British and Americans were accustomed to hearing Scottish and Irish and Scots-Irish still using the kh, and ‘akh’ was written -augh. MacNaughton, MacDonough, Cavanaugh, Gaughan were still often pronounced with the old rough kh, and so when Germans showed up, their names got the same treatment:

Strasbach became Strasbaugh (‘Streetcreek’) Richardsbach became Rickbaugh (‘Richards Creek’) Grünbach became Grumbaugh (‘Greencreek’) Braunbach became Brumbaugh (‘Browncreek’) And of course, Bach came over as Baugh. Some German-American Bachs still pronounce their family “Bock”, as close to Bach as English comes; others long since switched to the English pronunciation “baw”, where the kh/gh had long since gone silent.

‘Bach’ is German for stream- in English we use stream, creek, crick, and words like that... including the northern England dialect word beck (‘a stony creek’). That’s also the North German or Plattdeutsch word. Our great-grandfather came from a farmstead with the Plattdeutsch name Muusbeck; High German would have had Mausbach, ‘Mouse Crick’. I could only guess why it got that name.

If you want to know more about the crazy English spelling of -ough, go visit


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