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"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."



How Do You Pronounce That Name?
Surnames Sound a
Challenge for Researchers

By James Pylant and Gary R. Toms

Reprinted from American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2
Revised 9 April 2006

 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's 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 said. 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:

  1. When people moved from one area to another, the sound of their surname may have been retained while the spelling changed to reflect the language of the new residence. These situations are relatively easy to determine, and most researchers can easily deal with this by being alert to spelling variations.
  2. In a reverse situation, the sound may change, perhaps even dramatically, while the original spelling from the language of origin is retained. Two outstanding examples of this are Mainwaring, as man-nering, and Mieriotto, pronounced mur-oh-tee.

This article focuses on surnames from both occurences, names for which the pronunciations and the spelling do not quite match. "Particularly in a literate age, you can get quite a bit of gap between spelling and pronunciation [of surnames]," according to Paul Roberts, a former professor at the University of Leeds, England, now engaged in research of the origins of certain surnames found in the Appalachian Mountain region. He uses Beauchamp as an example, pointing out that despite the spelling it pronounced beech-um. 2

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 spelling—as 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 Toliver 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

'Tis no longer du Bwa as so many suppose
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 (shown left) 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.

The list of examples will help the researcher become familiar with the type of surnames discussed in this article. This is by no means a complete list. Many readers will be aware of others which fit the criteria described. We encourage you to share those. If enough are received to warrant it, a supplemental list may be posted here.

Please note:: These examples have been collected by the authors over a period of 37 years, and reflect many different situations. Especially be aware that some pronunciations are localized, and the surname occurs under a more common pronunciation elsewhere.


Allier = all yer, alleer
Askey = harrisky
Bakerstere = bax ter
Barbee = bob bee
Battaglia = buh tal yuh
Beall = bell
Beauchamp = beech um
Behrens, Behrends = bear enz
Bodde = bow dee
Bohm = baum
Bownds = bounds
Burrell = burl
Caughman =cawf mun
Chapuis = sho pee
Cholomondley = chumley
Colquhuon = ca hoon
Costello = cost uh low
Coylton = cull tun
Crowe = crauw
Cukjati = shuh ka tee
Darlingscot = darscot
De Ville = de veel
Dier = deer (not dyer)
Donne = dunn
Dupuis = du pee
Eliason = E lee uh son
Faucher = foo shay
Fjoser = fee oh ser
Frieh = free
Geiger = gee guh
Gilbreath = gil breth
Goatham = goat um
Grandtully = grant lee
Hatfield = hatfull
Hoar = harr
Hoescht = herkst
Hough = huff, hoe
Hulme = hewm
Jaeckle = yack lee, yeck lee
Jeffries = jeff ress
Keats = kates
Kinard = ky nud
Koenig = king
Kuykendall = kirk en dahl
Le Cog = lay cock
Lehne = laney
Lied = leed
Partain = parr tun
Pelletier = pelter
Pieniadz = penny ants
Porcher = puh shay
Ralph = rafe
Riedel = rey dell
Rubarth = roo bert
Scheuch = shoyshh
Shough = shuff
St. Clair = sink lur
Taliaferro = tal liv er
Teuscher = toy sher
Towle = tole
Urquhart = ur cut
Van Slaigh = van sly
Waters = waiters
Worcester = woost er
Althorpe = al thrup
Athey = ath uh
Baldwin = boll den, ball den
Barham = barm
Baughman = bow man
Beals = bales
Beaufoy = boffy
Berkeley = bark lee
Boehner = bay ner
Bouchier = boxer
Brasseur = brassy
Burrow = burr
Caughron = cock run, cawf run
Chicheley = chess lee
Cockburn = co burn
Coquerel = cock ril
Cowe = coe
Creamer = cray mer
Crowfoot = craw ferd
Cusenbary = koosh en bre, koozen berry
Death = deeth
De Vore = dee voe
Diendonne = dud ney
DuBois = doo b'wah, doo boyce
Eames = aimz
Eyre = air
Featherstonehaugh = fan shaw, featherston hoar
Fohn = fone
Fullwood = fullard
Gein = geen
Girardeau = jerry joe
Gochener = go nower
Grosvenor = grove ner
Hebert = a bear
Hockenhull = hock nell
Hogg = hoag
Housley = ow slee
Iahn = yahn
Jameson = jim er son
Jordan = jur dun
Keitt = kit
Knoepker = kuh nep ker
Kolb = culp
Lachey = Luh chay
LeFavre = luh fave
Lidia = lie dee
Livesay = le va see
Peil = pale
Peulen = pauline
Poaches = po shay
Pylant = pe lawnt, paw lunt
Randolph = ran duff, ran dal
Rives = reeves
Salisbury = solls bree
Schlumberger = schlum ber zhay
Speight = spate
St. John = sin jun
Taplee  = taplee
Tignor = tick ner
Tuomey = too mee
Ussery = ush uh ree
Van Kleeck = van clake
Whitworth = whitter
Yedon = yah den
Ansderau = an drews
Bacot = buh coat
Balfour = bal fer
Barfield = bare field
Bayles = bay luss
Beaucattie = byoo kay dee
Behle = bay lee
Blount = blunt
Boemer = bay mer
Boutiette = boo tee yay
Buras = boo ross
Cahusac = kuh zack
Chapelle = supple
Childress = child erz
Colbaugh = cal bow
Cordes = codes
Cowper = cooper
Crough = crow
Cruwys = crews
Dalziel = deal, dee all
De Leow = dill oh
De Loach = dill oh
Donen = dah nen
Duchamp = doo shawn
Eleazer = el ee ay zuh
Farve = fav er
Fiennes = fines
Fooshee = fo sahy
Gehl = gale
Giesenschlag = geezin slaw
Girlington = gill en tine
Goupe = guppy
Guyn = gwin
Hechter = hesh tay
Hoeffer = hay fuh
Horger = her guh
Huger = you jee
Jacques = jakes
Jahnz = jants
Jung/Jongh = yung
Kerr = carr
Koch = cox, koke
Kuch = cook
Lassiter = last er
Lefever = luh fave
Leicester = lester
Logiudici = luh jah dus
Pierce = purse
Peyre = peh uh
Plowden = plew dawn
Radford = red furrd
Reagan = ree gun
Robertaille = robe it tie
Schachte = shack uh tee
Shore = shaw
Speissegger = spize ay juh
St. Paul = sem pul
Tatham  = tate um
Toms = toamz, toomz
Tuthill = tuttle
Van Dien = van dean
Walling = wald in
Wilde = vil duh, will dee



  1. Thomas W. Jones, "Howerton to Overton: Documenting a Name Change," National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 78 (Sept. 1990), No. 3, p. 171.
  2. Paul Roberts to Gary R. Toms, 1 October 1997.
  3. Written by Floyd Reading DuBois (1878—1952), the poem appears on the DuBois Family Association's website. Excerpted with permission of Terry DuBois, webmaster.