Tuesday, October 8, 2013

When Names and Languages Collide

1803 obituary of Justus Fox
When doing family history research, I often caution people not to worry about spelling.  Until well into the 20th century, most people were either poorly educated or functionally illiterate.  Spelling was done phonetically, and a person's name could be spelled multiple ways within one document.  In the United States, one of the things that helped codify spelling was passage of the Social Security Act.  Suddenly you had to prove you were a specific person, the same person every time.  Consistent spelling made that a lot easier.

But what if the problem isn't spelling, but pronunciation?  I traced one of my family lines back to a man named Justus Fox in Philadelphia.  He was born in one of the German states and immigrated to the British colonies in North America around 1750.  The family name was formerly Fuchs and was Anglicized to Fox.

When I began to find information about Justus Fox, my mind automatically pronounced his name as "justice."  My first language is American English, and it came naturally.  But then I started thinking about it.  "Justice" (which I have seen spelled as Justus) is seen as a given name in today's society, but it didn't make sense for a German-born man in the mid-18th century.  And then I started to think about German pronunciation.  The letter J does not sound the same as in English.  It has a Y sound; for example, the German word for yes, ja, is pronounced "ya" in English.  When I applied that logic to my ancestor's name, I got "yustus" and was easily able to figure out that Justus is the German equivalent of the name Eustace.  I also found there have been many well known men named Justus.

Another instance of pronunciation affecting research was when I was working on my half-sister's family.  Her mother's ancestry was all Irish all day long, both sides.  My sister's grandmother had done some work, which my sister gave me as a starting point.  Her grandmother didn't have many documents but had written down what information she knew about births, marriages, deaths, and family stories.  One story her grandmother wrote about was a portrait of her mother that had been painted by a Mr. O'Kane.  I thought it was interesting but, beyond wondering whether the portrait was still in the family somewhere, it didn't seem like anything that would help with my research.

I started looking for the family in censuses and found several I was sure were the correct people.  But I found one I wasn't sure about.  The husband was gone, which was plausible.  The mother, listed as a widow, looked right, and one person listed as her child seemed to be correct, but another person that should have been a child was listed last in the household as a boarder.  But all of the names were common Irish ones, and I didn't see enough for me to make a determination.  So I saved that census and looked for other documents.

One day I pulled out the census page again and tried to figure out if there were other clues I could use to decide if it was the right family.  This time I looked at all of the boarders listed in the household.  The name Okane caught my eye, and I remembered the story about the portrait.  When I read the rest of the line, I discovered the individual was a boarder, Japanese — and a painter.  My sister's grandmother probably interpreted the name Okane in the context of her Irish background and thought it was Irish, with an O'.  But now I'm pretty sure that I found the right family.

Do you have any interesting or entertaining pronunciation stories from your research?  Or am I the only geek who thinks this way?


  1. See...THIS is why you are SO good at genealogy! Your brain goes in so many directions in order to solve a puzzle. Now that I see Justus/Eustace I think "well, of COURSE it is!" But I'm not sure I would have gotten to that possibility on my own. I'm often amazed at the puzzles you solve.

  2. Thank you! But I guess you're saying that I am a geek for thinking this way! :) That's okay — a genealogy friend and I once talked about how maybe our minds worked differently than other people's, because we came up with so many unusual ideas for trying to find answers to our research questions.


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