Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Americanization of Foreign Names

 When I first began to research my family history, I started with a branch on my mother's side of the tree. Her father's side of the family had been in the United States since the 1600s. They were Dutch. As I found records of births, marriages, deaths, etc. I found the name of an individual recorded using different spellings.

This was largely due to the fact that the people recording the name wrote the name phonetically. For example, I have relatives who were named Anneke. I often found the name written as Annetje, Annetie, Anneken, Annatje, Antje and Anna. The last spelling was the beginning of Anglicizing the Dutch names in America.

It was easy for me to guess at the various ways the Dutch names were Anglicized because I could witness the changes as they occurred in the written records in a given relative's lifetime. However, when I started to research my family history on my father's side, I did not have the luxury of watching names evolve as result of viewing the records because the records were not in the United States.

My great, great grandfather Americanized his Norwegian patronym after he arrived in the United States. That name became his surname in America. When I finally had access to Norwegian records, I looked for records of a Martin, son of Simon. I was wondering why no records would some up when I searched for Simon.

One day I was reading an article in a genealogical magazine about Scandinavian migration to America. The article discussed the letters in the various Scandinavian alphabets that do not exist in the American English alphabet and how the Scandinavian immigrants adapted the spelling of their names. From that aha moment, I was able to learn that Simon was the Americanization of Seming/Semming.

Just as I think that I've unlocked the secret of how one would Americanize one's name, I began to research my husband's family history. The branches of his family came to the United States from Poland and Russia. Since they were Jewish, they often arrived with Yiddish or Hebrew names. Trying to guess what the original names were for his relatives at the time they arrived in America has been a real challenge.

The challenge results from my not knowing how letters in the various alphabets of the Eastern European countries sound. It is difficult to try to guess how Frank might be the Amercian version of Ephraim or Froim. So I am trying to learn the sounds of letters of the Yiddish, Polish and Russian alphabets.

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