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Why Couldn’t My Ancestor Spell Their Name the Same?

You’re tracing your family back, and the spellings sometimes just go crazy. Centuries ago, often they had little schooling and did not know how to spell... but even people who wrote very well could be very free in how they spelled their name.

I’m not even talking about Americanizing their name (Schmidt to Smith, Klein to Clyne or Little), but one and the same person goes back and forth on how they spell their name. I’m just going to focus on German names; each language has its own spelling peculiarities.

Great-grampa Harschnek reliably spelled his name -nek, except when he’d occasionally go with -neck. Some of his cousins stuck with -nek, some made the spelling more German-looking and less Slavic with -neck; one went so far as to change it to Haarschnek ‘Hair-Snail’, which doesn’t even make sense, or at least I sure hope it doesn’t! But that’s a case where pressure to assimilate played a role.

When an educated ancestor wobbled on how they spelled their own name, sometimes it was to associate themselves with a particular language. When French was chic, Johann and Jakob might decide they were now Jean and Jacques; if they wanted to emphasize that they knew Latin, they might spell it Johannes and Iacobus- but in the pub with the boys, they might be Jaan or Köbli. People might use multiple variants of their name just walking down the street- there’s the baker? German. Ah, the judge and schoolmaster? Better put on the Latin! A noble just back from the royal French court? Anything but French would be declassé!

But even when people stayed in German, the names could legitimately vary. One of my ancestors spelled his name both Carl and Karl in the span of one sentence. The two spellings are pronounced the same, and people thought little of using any reasonable spelling. People with little schooling might use unreasonable spellings, we get that here in the U.S. as well.

What are some more of those common variable spellings? Spellings that were pronounced the same?

In German, hard C and K were interchangeable:

Carl~Karl, Konrad~Conrad, Clara~Klara, Claus~Klaus

Soft C and t and Z are generally pronounced as “ts”

Coelestin~Zölestin, Cecilia~Cäcilie~Zäzilie, Francisca~Franziska, Ignatz (Ignatius), Innozenz (Innocentius), Lorenz (Laurentius)

Indeed, in much of eastern Europe, the letter <c> is always the “ts” sound, so while the French or Germans would read Franc as ending in a -k sound, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and others would think it the same as German Franz (“frahnts”). Back in Poland, names ending in -cki are still pronounced "-tskee". For example, the name Bernard led to the Polish version Biernat; turn that into a family name and you get Biernacki ('byernatski'). And if you've got Central European ancestors, you could easily have some set in writing in German, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Church Latin etc. Keep an eye open for the same name and person to have more than one spelling, as the family diverged or moved from one area to another.

Latin hard Ch (largely confined to names based on Christ) and K were rarely interchangeable in earlier centuries- if you could spell, you were trained to spell the Christ part the old way:

Christian, Christopher or Christof, but people forgot that connection in Kerstin or Karsten, so you find Carsten as well. Christine, Christfried, Chrystostom "Chrystostom?" That was the name of a famed Byzantine Greek churchman, "Mr. Goldenmouth". Waow. Ok, if you get a name like that, I guess you want to get the spelling just so.

Another common variation is t and th. In German, they are pronounced the same, but in the old handwriting, adding the -h made it easier to recognize the t-, so people added or dropped that -h- at will:

Walter~Walther, Werter~Werther, Roswitha, Thaler~Taler, Feldtaler~Feldthaler

If Latin had used th, then people tried to keep the t (Theodor, Thomas, Martha), but they didn’t always succeed.

-c~-ck: In German spelling, -ck is supposed to go before short vowels, and yet you’ll see names like Piek~Pieck. Throwing in the extra -c- was a fad in the 1600’s- and if you could maintain that spelling even after, it showed off your education.

Umlaut ö = oe, ä=ae, ü = ue. To this day, if you can’t type an umlaut, you can substitute the spelling with -e.

Müller ~ Mueller

Coelestina ~ Zölestina

Schönhaus ~ Schoenhaus

Weyerhäuser ~ Weyerhaeuser

Don't be surprised if an ancestor used the -e variant, especially as a capital letter: Ueberroth, Oesterreicher, Aenneke.

People used to be a lot less picky about spelling. Well, it's been said before, “it’s a d___ed poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word!” ...Ah, well that's one way to look at it...


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On that note, WHY must always be Johann(es) Carl, Johan Georg, Johan, Philip? And for the females everyone seems to have Maria or Magdalena?


One of my favorite name change stories involves the French opera star Philippe Jaroussky. His great-grandfather fled Bolshevik rule during the Russian Civil War. Arriving in France without knowing a word of the language, he was asked for his name. After some gesticulation he at last gathered that he was being asked to identify himself and duly responded, "ya russky" (I am Russian). Et voila - the Jaroussky family name was born.


My great-great grandfather Messervy emigrated to the U.S. with his Norman French-speaking family as a teenager. To stop English-speakers from stressing the first syllable and invoking "messy" connotations, he dropped one S. Thanks to his efforts, now strangers prouounce my name ... um, on the first syllable still. But at least now if I meet another Meservy, it's a good bet that we are no more distant than 2nd cousins.

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