Published April 20, 2017

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I’ve touched on the importance of staying flexible about the spelling variants of surnames numerous times in lectures and in “Roots & Branches” installments over the years.

I’m to the point that I can smile weakly when someone recounts to me family traditions such as “the two brothers had a disagreement and each decided to spell the surname differently” or “you can see how he always spelled his name with that extra letter after such and such a date.”

As a novice genealogist, the organized or “left brain” side of me always wanted to believe such tales – they made sense and added a “sequential-ness” to genealogy for me.

Well, it was “a good story while it lasted,” but unfortunately spelling variations in surnames usually do not back up such family traditions. My motto now is that if it sounds “too pat,” it probably is.

The truth of the matter is that spelling of surnames until the second half of the 20th century was overwhelmingly determined not by how the individual spelled his or her name – but rather by how it was spelled for him or her.

Even for folks who were literate, it was often the church minister, the census enumerator, the clerk at the courthouse who was determining how to spell the name. And these “recorders” were likely not doing a whole lot of asking “how do you spell that?” They were usually just making a judgment call based on how they heard the name.

Of course, with my specialty being Pennsylvania German research, I’ve become most deeply immersed in the spelling variations of the names of these folks – and thinking of how they make for classic collisions of English-speaking-only clerks with thick-accented Pennsylvania “Dutchmen.”

As my way of finding some left-brain systemization from this right-brained randomness, I have put together a German phonetics sheet called the “phonetischen Namenkarte” or pNK for short.

The goal of the sheet is to take a surname (or place name, since German place names are notoriously butchered in hand-me-down records and family stories) and break it down, sometime to single letters, to diagram it and then produce the full gamut of phonetic variants.

As an example, a family on which I’ve done much research is surnamed Daub.

I would diagram the name in this way: (D, T or Th) (a or o) (u) (b or p).

Once a name has been diagrammed, you then should go through the combinations in the diagram and create a full list of variant spellings to be researched in indexes and databases.

For a full copy of the pNK, please go to my website and look in the Lectures tab. A pdf copy is available under the lecture “German Names and Naming Patterns.”


  1. Val

    1 year ago  

    Awesome tool! I need to see how it decodes “Etus”!

  2. Sara

    12 months ago  

    This is wonderful! Even today people misspell surnames because they put down what they hear and they don’t care.