Our last lesson dealt with place names that are not clear indicators of the town where the immigrant ancestor lived in the old country. There is another problem that plagues many researchers, even when the place name they find is indeed a town name. That problem relates to reading and understanding the actual town name. Most often this problem arises when the immigrant came from a non-English speaking country, but sometimes these problems even occur with English speaking ancestors!
Problems with the language
The problems discussed in this lesson all deal with the fact that many immigrants (the majority over almost 400 years of immigration), did not speak the language of the country to which they were immigrating. Most countries where immigrants arrived were much like the United States (or, in earlier years, the British Colonies) in that they were usually colonized, or at least governed, by the English. Therefore, the common language in the new colony or country was English. However, similar problems arose for non-French speaking immigrants arriving in French colonies, non Dutch speaking immigrants in Dutch colonies, and non-Spanish speaking immigrants arriving in Spanish settlements. For that matter, this problem also happens on occasion among English speaking immigrants in areas where English was not the predominant language, or where the English speaking immigrant used a dialect that may have been difficult to understand.
Fortunately there are not too many kinds of these problems, and they can be easily overcome with a little study, and an understanding of the immigrant's language. This is one reason it is so important to find out, early in your research, the language(s) your immigrant ancestor(s) spoke, as well as the countries they came from. Remember, many countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, Austria, and others had residents who spoke a variety of languages and dialects.
Here are four areas to watch for as you work towards understanding the foreign place name you have searched for so diligently:
- Foreign Terminology
- Foreign Versions of Place Names
- Spelling Problems
- Places with Similar Spellings
Perhaps the most perplexing problem in dealing with foreign place names is that so many of our ancestors spoke a different language than we do today. Therefore, we do not understand simple words that were part of our ancestor's vocabulary, but, because of their foreign sound, we mistake them for place names. This can be as simple as mistaking the German word "geboren" (meaning "born") on a tombstone for the foreign birth place. Or, it may be as difficult as determining when archaic terminology is being used in a dead language such as Latin, hence the confusion over Borussia, a church-Latin term for Prussia. Usually the problem is somewhere in the middle, such as not recognizing the ancient term Albion for England or Caledonia for Scotland.
Researchers may quickly learn that "shire" is the British term for county, and that a "shiretown" is the equivalent to an American county seat. However, researchers with non-English speaking ancestors may not realize that "estância" is Portuguese for ranch or estate, while "megye" is Hungarian for county and "sogn" is Danish for parish. One of the more common mistakes made by less experienced researchers is to believe their German ancestor came from the town of Königsreich in Prussia, when in reality the record was referring to the "Kingdom of Prussia." Remember, if you can't find the place name you are seeking in a gazetteer of your ancestor's country, try a dictionary in the appropriate language!
Foreign versions of place names
Another problem with immigrants who did not speak the language of their new country is that some place names are spelled, and even pronounced differently in different languages. Just as the German name for James is Jakob, foreign cities may have alternate names in English or other languages. Sometimes a city may have more than one spelling, even in its own country! Such is the case with one of the largest cities in Belgium. In French, the city is called Anvers while the local Flemish-speaking residents refer to it as Antwerpen. In English, we simply call it Antwerp. In Switzerland, the problem may be even worse. The city Americans think of as Geneva has French (Geneve), German (Genf), and Italian (Ginevra) versions, within its own country.
As these examples show, the spelling may not be radically different, but with lesser-known towns, these problems are magnified. The ancient Bavarian city of Regensburg appears on many non-German maps as Ratisbon, its old English name. Some languages create additional problems. Consider languages that do not use the Latin alphabet common to English and most of Europe (Greek is a good example), and transliteration styles differ from translator to translator.
It is difficult to predict if an English version of a place name will favor the country's native spelling, or be similar to the name in another language. Most commonly, if the local spelling is not followed, the French, or perhaps Latin, version is used. This is clearly the case with the German city of Cologne, whom the native inhabitants call Köln, or in past centuries, Cöln.
The following examples of other major cities whose English name does not match the native spelling:
The following examples of other major cities whose English name does not match the native spelling:
- Native Spelling = English Name
- Braunschweig = Brunswick
- Cassel = Kassel
- Kobenahvn = Copenhagen
- Lisboa = Lisbon
- Munchen = Munich
- Napoli = Naples
- Pizen = Pilsen
- Praha = Prague
- s'Gravenhage = The Hauge
- Warszawa = Warsaw
- Wein = Vienna
- Zaragoza = Saragossa
Major cities are more susceptible to this problem, as foreign versions of their names often exist from past years. However, it is often impossible to judge what is a "major city." A useful tool to assist in learning different names of medium and large places, consult Webster's New Geographical Dictionary (Springfield, Mass., 1972 and later editions).
Of course where there are different languages between the immigrant's old country and the new country, there will be spelling problems. Many languages pronounce letters, and letter combinations, differently. Thus phonetic problems may occur, as for example the French "i" which sounds like "zi" in English. The German "sch" usually appears in English as "sh," while the German "j" sounds like "y" in English.
Even English words may become misspelled when transported across the ocean to America. Some British accents were not well understood by clerks in North America whose English stemmed from a different location in England. One of the most common problems is dropping the initial "H" in proper names (of persons and places). Thus the town of Horsebridge (in Sussex) could be pronounced as "Orsbridge" and then written by a clerk as "Uxbridge," a suburb of London.
Many languages use special characters or, diacritics, to reflect different sounds of some letters. Perhaps the most common is the German use of "umlauts" the two dots that appear above the vowels a, o, and u in some words. Sometimes these are translated into English, and other languages, with the letter e following the vowel. Thus ä becomes ae. Another German letter not found in English looks like the Greek letter beta: ß. This is simply a double s, but readers who do not know the language may wonder why a capital B is in the middle of a word.
With less common languages, these problems are magnified. The Danish island Mon, formerly was spelled Möen, and given the diacritics in both versions, would likely be misspelled in an English setting. Eastern European languages often use diacritics seldom seen in North America, and therefore usually wrongly transcribed. An example is the Polish L which is pronounced similar to the English "wv" but will usually be transcribed as an "L." You can imagine the problems of a clerk who does not know Polish, trying to write the spoken word, which does not include the L sound.
Of course, spelling rules were seldom any more consistent in other languages then they were in the English of our ancestors. Thus, the spelling of a place name may be different than it is today, only because our ancestor may not have followed the same spelling rules (if he followed any at all) that are used today. Thus misspelling of a place name can be a difficult problem, but certainly not anything we could blame our ancestor, or the clerk, for. We should instead be grateful they even recorded a place name, and work towards deciphering it.
In a similar vein, we may misread some place names. Some of our ancestors used a different form of handwriting than we use, such as the Gothic hand used by many Germanic languages. With such handwriting, the letter w may look like an m, or the r may resemble a, u, or v. Even when clerks or our immigrants used a Latin handwriting, they may have formed their letters differently. When you don't know the language of a document, be sure to get expert assistance, to avoid misreading the text, and mistaking one word for a place name, or misreading the place name.
Places with similar spellings
The previous lesson included a caution that often the same place name is shared by several towns within the same country. In connection with the terminology and spelling theme of this lesson, it is important to note that many towns, even with a unique name, have names that are very similar to other towns in the same country. If the town name is slightly altered in the new county, it may be difficult to determine which of several towns with similar spelling is the ancestral home.
One example will suffice. The German state of Hesse includes towns named Biebelnheim, Biebelsheim, and Biebesheim. Clearly the potential for identifying the wrong town among these three exists, even if the word is spelled correctly in American sources. Sometimes the only solution is to search each of the towns with a similar spelling, because you can't be sure that the spelling actually was correct.
Remember you must first determine what language your ancestor spoke. Three easily obtainable ways to find that information are:
- The 1900, 1910, or 1920 U.S. Federal Census Records. Even if your ancestor were dead by 1900, the census would tell the language your ancestor spoke if you could locate even one of his or her children because the questions asked were: what country were you born in and what language did you speak, and what country was your father (mother) born in and what language did he (she) speak.
- Home sources could show writing in a foreign language for the ancestor in question. Have one or more of these papers analyzed by a language specialist or a genealogy specialist to determine the language being used if you do not know. Sometimes the language listed on the census might be German, but a document could be in Yiddish.
- Look at the writing on old photographs, words in the picture itself, church records in this country, or labels on the immigrant's trunk. All could provide clues to the language being spoken.
Second you must determine the country the ancestor came from. Although these will be covered in greater detail later, the following sources will generally help you:
- Items 1 to 3 above.
- The 1850 to 1880 U.S. Federal Census; or the 1851-1891 Canadian and British Isles Census Records indicate the country of birth.
- The country of birth or clues to it can also be found on death certificates, naturalization papers, voting registers, military pension records or enlistment papers, marriage applications, medical or insurance papers, the birth record of a child, etc.
In the meantime, review any place names you have found so far, and determine if any of the linguistic situations we've discussed pertain to them. Then check the right tools (as listed below) and see if you have really located a place name, and what that place name was in the ancestral country.
- Foreign terminology - Look up the word in a world gazetteer. If not found, ask yourself if the gazetteer was published within decades of your ancestor living there? Try a gazetteer specific to the country you are dealing with which again was preferably published around the time your ancestor lived there or 20-30 years later. If you still don't find it, look up the word in a language dictionary or word list. Genealogy language word lists are available on the SourceGuide CD available for under $10 by calling the Distribution Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 1-801-240-1000. These sources are available at most major libraries or at a local Family History Center (some may need to be ordered on loan through the Family History Library) in your area.
- Foreign versions of place names - Use the same sources listed under #1 above and also try locating a map produced around the time your ancestor lived there.
- Spelling problems - Ask for assistance from a language or genealogy expert for that country. You may find an expert at your local Genealogy Society (check www.fgs.org for a list of societies). Perhaps a local Family History Center has an expert or they could fill out a "Reference Questionnaire Form" and request help from the Family History Library. Genealogy Research Associates, Inc., provides such a service on the Internet at www.graonline.com (starting 1 October 1998) or at www.familytreemaker.com/graprfrs.html or by calling 1-801-363-3463. Request service 2001, Deciphering Handwriting, or 2002, Translating a Foreign Record.
- Places with similar spellings - Start with the name given, but search the other possible towns to be sure the correct town was located (especially if the first town did not contain your ancestor's records or a possible discrepancy exists between the information you have located and what is found).
Well, the time has come at last. We've provided about as many cautions as we can for the journey towards your ancestral place name. We don't want you to spend too much time searching in the wrong place. We will begin the discussion of which records are the most helpful for locating the actual birth place under specific situations with our next lesson.