Sunday, February 10, 2013

Did they understand what they were saying?

A common myth among genealogist is the belief that their name was changed by the immigration officers on purpose. The important thing to understand is the immigration officer and the rest of the people they came in contact with did not speak their language. English was not the common form of communication for immigrants.

The heavy accents from immigrants both English speaking and non resulted in many errors in spelling. What the English ear heard from the person speaking would play a major part in how the name was spelled. Even today people are terrible listeners. It takes a great deal of skill and practice to be able to write down what you hear correctly. When a person was speaking a foreign language or one with a heavy accent the challenge became extreme.

Compound that with the fact that the majority of people did not know how to read. So when the clerk wrote their name down like they thought it was spelled our ancestors were unable to read it. Our ancestors lacked the ability to say if it was right or wrong.

In my own searches I was doing working on a Polish immigrant and had difficulty in finding a paper trail on him. I knew he had lived in the same place for a extended period of time once he came to the United States, but was unable to locate any information. I started to do name variant searches along with some wild card searches. These resulted in me finding his first name being spelled seven different ways. Finally he ended up shortening his name and Americanizing it. After that point he was easy to find.

When you know a person lived in the same place for a extended period of time, but you can not find them look for variations in name spellings. Look for the English version of the name. Identify shortened variations or even the use of nicknames. Analyzing why this person is missing is critical in getting back on the paper trail.

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1 comment:

Georges Rex said...

Much the same may be said of census takers. I have found a couple of misspellings which may have been due to accent even though the ancestors in question were litterate.