England Research Strategies for Name Spelling Variants (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Strategy for Research[edit | edit source]

The most common reason for not finding a required entry is that you are not looking for the spelling under which it happened to be spelled that day! Prior to the Education Act of 1880, affecting children born from 1875 onwards, there is no guarantee that your ancestor could read or write. How, then, could he advise the registrar or vicar as to how his name or birthplace was spelled? For the researcher, the solution is to make an alphabetical list of all the possible spellings, including phonetic ones and mis-spellings. When a name starts with a letter H, try dropping it. If it starts with a vowel (including Y) then change it and also try adding an H to all the variants as well. Consider poor handwriting and how it may have been interpreted using these suggestions. When names have additional letters added or removed at the beginning, this sends you to a completely different place in the index. You may end up with a very long list of variations to try. Then carefully rethink your time period and proceed to check the indexes again.

Consider the variations I have found in my Dartnell One-Name Study as shown below. The study encompasses 10,895 individuals ranging from the 14th century to date, the name assigned to each person being the first recorded instance for him. The first row indicates the longest way of spelling the surname, and in this the letters in parentheses are sometimes missing altogether. The column under each letter shows the variations encountered so far.


Chart: Possible Spellings for Dartnell

D A (R) (T) (A) (N) E L (L) (E) (S)

E F CK E H A N D


I
D ER L AE R



O
K I M AI




OU
S O NG AW




O
ST U R EA




Y
TH Y V EE






TK
W EI






TT

HA






X

HO









I









IA









O









OW









U



Number of variant letters, including null options (missing letters)
1 7 3 11 8 9 15 3 3 2 2


Multiplying these totals together gives the number of possible spellings, an incredible 8,981,280. Of course far fewer have actually been found, a mere 152, and of these 109 (71.7 percent) occur only one to three times. When searching for ancestral documents it is always wise to be aware of all likely options otherwise important entries could be missed. It is common for a few variants to predominate, and just over half of these individuals bear one of the top eight spellings, as shown in Chart 3. What is even more interesting is that they are split into two Soundex groups depending upon whether an R is present in the first syllable. Another 19 Soundex codes can be found in the remaining 144 spelling variants.

Chart: Commonest DARTNELL Spellings

Spelling Soundex Code Number of Individuals
Dartnell D635 2,196
Dartnall D635 1,266
Dutnall D354 870
Durtnall D635 631
Dutnell D354 160
Durtnal D635 158
Dutnal D354 134
Durtnell D635 109
8 spellings
5524 individuals (50.7%)


Spelling Groupings on Indexes[edit | edit source]

The Soundex system has obvious limitations, but is nevertheless a useful tool for many indexing projects provided that its presence and purpose are understood. In the Dartnell study quoted above, the 152 spellings of these related people end up in no less than 19 Soundex groups!

D135 D354 D622 D634
D225 D356 D623 D635
D254 D364 D624 D636
D325 D365 D625 D654
D340 D524 D631


The more common Dartnell andDurtnall types are in D635, whilst those without the R, such asDutnal ending up in D354. The older variation with a CK or K instead of the T, such as Darknoll or Darcknul, code as D625. Yet all these people are related, and prior to the 20th century I have very rarely found less than three spellings per person during their lifetimes. One also has to consider what other surnames code the same way as the one you are studying, some examples being shown in Chart 4. Fortunately there are not too many, but consider the James andJones sharing the same code J520 (Palgrave 1996), and pity the poor Smeath, Snaith or Snead researcher who ends up coded S530 with all the Smiths!


Chart: Soundex Partners for DARTNELL

Soundex Code My Surname Coded in Same Group
D354 DUTNAL etc None known
D325 DARKNOLL etc Drgan, Dragon, Durcan
D635 DURTNELL etc Derdon, drayton, Dryden


Old Parochial Registers (OPR) of Scotland[edit | edit source]

For Highland Mac- names, in addition to the usual variation in word spelling, it is wise to note the variations in spelling of the prefixes. Some clerks preferred Mac, others Mc, and yet others abbreviated to M’; and some used a space after the prefix, others did not. The fiche version of the OPR lists surnames strictly alphabetically but the CD-ROM version, known as Scottish Church Records because it also includes some other denominations, groups them according to the Soundex system so all versions are conveniently together.

Foreign Alphabets[edit | edit source]

Foreign alphabets having extra letters can be a source of confusion to the unilingual anglophone, yet recourse to a dictionary or language primer is easy. Indexing may have been done using the foreign alphabet, or according to an anglicized version. Thus for Denmark the FamilySearch Catalog (FamilySearch Catalogue) uses the Danish alphabet where Æ, Ø and Å follow Z. However, the PVRL (Parish and Vital Records Listing) anglicizes Æ to AE, Ø to OE, and Å to AA and alphabetizes accordingly. This is not too difficult where initial letters are concerned, but it takes a little practice for the anglophone to master the order of middle letters!

Spelling and Pronunciation in Documents[edit | edit source]

Be vigilant to observe all possible variants the first time you read a document. By carefully examining the variations one can deduce the pronunciation, thus:

  • The name Gupp was pronounced with a soft G because it is found as a variant of Jupp.
  • Was Gudge pronounced with a hard or soft G, and with a short or long U? Discover what variations there are in the registers. In this case Judge was found as a variation, rather than Goodge, thus one deduces that it was said with a soft G and a short U (Lodemore).

Additional Information[edit | edit source]

See Spelling of Surnames and Given Names for additional information.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.