Sunday, March 10, 2013

Is Spelling Important?

This is a trick question. Of course, spelling is important to properly communicate and as we learn in school, noticed by people who are teachers in our school system. But if you look at a representative sample of comments on various topics online, spelling is certainly not on the top of some people's list of social conventions to observe. For my part, I am happy that computers now have spell checkers that tell me when I have misspelled a word. But that isn't really the issue here, the real issue for genealogists is whether the way a name is spelled has any significance whatsoever?

This becomes and issue because of some researcher's dogmatic ignorance of spelling changes. They insist on establishing relationships based almost entirely on the way the name is spelled. They also change the spelling of names found in source records to conform to their preconceived notions of how the name should be spelled. Their proclivity for a particular spelling seldom has any basis in historical fact, but is usually a tradition handed down to them by their parents or acquired when they had to spell their own name over and over again in school. Unfortunately, they also ignore sources and families and individuals based on their notion of the spelling of the names. For example, that can't be my ancestor because he spelled his name with an -en not an -on.

You don't have to be involved with helping people with their research for long before you run into this problem and it is a real problem. Sometimes, my explanations about the changes in spelling and the fact that third parties recorded the sources who did not know or care how the name was spelled, have some effect. But frequently, anything I say about spelling falls on deaf ears. I hear things like "My family spelled their name Kiowakowsky, not Kiawokowske so that can't be the same person" and nothing I say changes that attitude.

Names can be spelled a hundred different ways. Get over it. Spelling variations are a fact of life for genealogists. Get over it. Some of you ancestors didn't know the "proper" spelling of their own names. Get over it. Your ancestors likely changed the names or the spelling of their names when they moved to a new country. Get over it. The way names were spelled did not become codified until well into the 19th Century. Get over it. Some of your ancestors likely changed their names to avoid creditors, their family, their church, or their enemies. Get over it. People still change their names today. Get over it.

I suggest that everyone who does genealogy should review the fact that names change from time to time, just to keep from making the same mistakes over and over again. There are several books on the subject and countless online articles and commentaries. Here are a few books to start:

  • McKinley, R. A. A History of British Surnames. London: Longman, 1990. 
  • Black, George Fraser. The Surnames of Scotland; Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: The New York Public Library, 1946.  
  • Platt, Lyman De. Hispanic Surnames and Family History. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1996. 
  • Ewen, C. L'Estrange. A History of Surnames of the British Isles: A Concise Account of Their Origin, Evolution, Etymology, and Legal Status. Detroit: Gale Research Co, 1968.  
  • MacLysaght, Edward. A Guide to Irish Surnames. Baltimore: Genealogical Book Co, 1964.
You probably get the idea.

1 comment:

  1. This struck a chord because I had just posted a comment on the anguish caused by my ancestor's poor spelling. My response (http://ancestor-envy.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/is-he-talking-about-me.html) looks at how difficult some data providers make it to deal with spelling variants.

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