But it Sounds Like…

As a genealogist I often work with transcriptions of documents not originally written in English.  Of course I also work with documents written in English.  A lot of the time, even if the document is one which a person filled out themselves, spelling of names and places seems a bit “off”.  We can clearly see documents written in English in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and earlier, where significant changes in the spelling of a name makes it difficult to track a person, and we have to rely on other information like occupation, children’s or spouse’s names, birthplace, address, and other date.

Think of how this gets compounded when the person doesn’t read or write English, or in a very heavy accent is pronouncing a name or place and another person is writing what s/he hears.  A fairly common name like Schwartz (German for “black”) can be written in many ways.  Some of these might be SZWARC, SHVARTS, SZWARTZ, SZWARZ, SWERCZ, SWIERCZ, SWIRCZ.  Now imagine looking at the original documents written in Polish or Hungarian (both of which use the Latin alphabet but have more letters than English), or at Cyrillic (the alphabet used to write Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian and other languages)  or Yiddish documents (written in using the Hebrew alphabet), neither of which use Latin letters, and trying to determine which of the names could sound like “Schwartz.”

So, what’s a person to do?  Try not to be completely wed to the way the names you are looking for should appear.  Keep your mind open, after all, what if the name really began as Schwatzkopf, Schwartzbrodt or Schwartzberg?  Google the alphabet for the language you are looking at so that you can understand what letter combinations make which sounds – this will be a great aid to picking out names – you can try some combinations of the letters before hand so that you have an idea of how the name should look!

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