Surnames Sound a Challenge
By James Pylant and Gary R. Toms
Names are at the heart of genealogical research. Most family historians are well aware that surname variants are not to be overlooked in research. Some routine changes in spelling can be anticipated and are easily recognized as variations of the surname of interest. Examples would be Layfollet or Lafarlett for LaFollett.
A slightly different situation occurs when an older spelling is retained, but the pronunciation changes. This produces the challenge of surnames for which the spelling does not match the pronunciation. This can mislead a researcher, or even seriously impact on the success of those who do not take it into account. One family genealogist, after failing to find her ancestors, questioned family members again and learned that the surname she was searching is spelled Burrow, not Burr, as it's pronounced by her Southern kinfolks. Surnames in this category are the focus of this article.
Two circumstances, in particular can produce situations which may be confusing or which can stymie the researcher. Retaining an original spelling and its "foreign" sounding pronunciation was difficult for most immigrants. To Americanize a surname, one of two things might happen. The pronunciation might be changed to match the spelling, or the reverse might be true. An entirely new spelling was sometimes adopted to keep from losing the preferred pronunciation. In some instances, both spelling and pronunciation were Americanized.
Thomas W. Jones' success tracing an elusive ancestor came after learning the surname Overton was originally Howerton. "Cultural or ethnic variations in the sounds of certain letters also result in substitutions that modern genealogists simply do not expect . . . .," Jones stated. 1 Similarly, an Oskisson genealogist now suspects that her family's name was originally spelled Hoskinson.
The situations which lead to surnames with spelling quite varied from the pronunciation can generally be attributed to one or two occurrences:
The situation often comes full circle, when a spelling develops to reflect the actual sound of the name, leaving the original spelling behind. This is what occurs when a name like Talliferro/Taliaferro, pronounced tah-li-ver, changes to Toliver or Tolliver. A researcher may first encounter the name under such a spelling, which clearly reflects its pronunciation. That researcher may be unprepared for the original spelling when it is encountered later.
For the unwary researcher, not considering the possibility that a name may have a spelling distinctly different from its sound can be harmful. It can result in stonewalls when the surname is not found in an expected record source. The name may actually be there, but in a way that the researcher does not recognize. In a worst case scenario, the researcher might flounder for months or even years before being able to bridge the gap between the newer, phonetic spelling, and the original spelling in another locality. Another problem occurs when the name is followed to another locality where it occurs interchangeably under the modified (familiar) spelling and the original spellingas well as variations of both, of course. The researcher may never feel confident that all records have been found. Worse yet, he or she may miss an entire segment if unaware of the original spelling.
This is especially likely to be the case when the researcher begins with a changed spelling closely reflecting the sound of the name, and tries to follow it back to a locality where the original spelling dominated. Consider, however, researching Tolliver in East Tennessee, in a family whose spelling had changed to conform to pronunciation. The unprepared researcher might lose the family when the records in a Virginia locality only show it as the original Talliferro.
Certain languages, with spelling rules very different from English, can provide sounds close to that language. German names are especially prone to this. Behle sounds like Bailey; Gehl is pronounced gale, and how about Leimkuhler? It is pronounced lime-cooler. Other examples are of French origin, such as the surname Allier, which has variations in both pronunciation and spelling. While retaining the original spelling, it may be pronounced as the Anglicized all-yer. Others vary the pronunciation to al-leer. Still others with that surname chose to change the spelling to resemble the original French pronunciation, hence the variant Allyea.
In the United States, the French Du Bois, while retaining its old spelling, has dropped du bwa in favor of an Americanized sound. A verse in a clever poem written for the DuBois Family Association reminds us of the New World pronunciation:3
And it is not Du Boys, and of course not Du Boze
Du Boy is not right, nor is Du'Bois correct,
For the accent is not where some people suspect
Please read this out loud so the sound of your voice
By this rhythm records that our name is Du Bois
In some instances, even with names which appear to be of English origin, the sound and the spelling can take divergent paths. This can easily happen when an old pronunciation continues while the spelling evolves. Toms, generally pronounced tahmz and related spelling of Tomes, are pronounced in some localities as toemz or toomz, which are disctinctly different. The latter pronunciation is what one would expect from Toomes, or Tombs, but not Toms.
The situation really becomes perilous when the research leads to a locality where the name has its original spelling, and another surname occurs in the records which appears to match the sound of the name, but actually is pronounced differently. If a researcher focused on Bales ancestry delves into the records of certain east Tennessee counties, the surname Bayles appears to be a match. It is not, however. In that area, it is pronounced bay-less and is sometimes found with that spelling, as well. In contrast, Beals is pronounced bales in that area, even though the spelling may suggest beels.
The researcher must also be alert to the fact that some of these pronunciations are local variations. The same surname, with the identical spelling, may have a more common pronunciation in Middle or West Tennessee and points south from there; Jordan as jurr-den and Toms as toomz are good examples of this. Each of these pronunciations is unique to a certain area, and probably the areas to which families moved from there. Jurr-den, for example, is the pronunciation in Middle and West Tennessee and points south from there; Jordan is pronounced jor-dun in most other areas.
Pop culture also has influenced surname pronunciations. Lachey might sound like latchy, laychee or lackee, but the popularity of singer Nick Lachey brings attention to the pronunciation luh SHAY. In the last century, many Americans with the Irish last name of Costello came to be called cos-TELLO, instead of COS-tel-low. The emphasis on the prefix rather than the suffix is likely an influence from Lou Costello. The famous comedian, though, had changed his name from Cristillo. (Similarly, the late mobster Frank Costello was not Irish, but an Italian born as Francesco Castiglia.)
It is our purpose in this article to challenge your thinking, to give you different ways of looking at surnames involved in your research, beyond the simple variations imposed by the spelling tendencies of various clerks. Such a mode of thinking may help you avoid some pitfalls when dealing with this type of surname situation.
To assist you in this process, we have prepared a list of such names to accompany this article. For maximum benefit, you may wish to read aloud the phonetic pronunciations provided in the list. This same technique can be helpful when you encounter an unfamiliar surname: say it aloud, several times, changing the accented syllable or the vowel sounds. Listen for the sound of a name which is familiar to you. That may suggest an alternative spelling to include in your research. We encourage readers to study this list, and think carefully about the spelling, and pronunciation of the surnames involved in their research.