Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Looking for Opinions/Advice

1. Is there a rule regarding which version of a surname to use when there are several to choose from? I'm sure many if not all of you have come across a surname with variations. How do you decide which version of the surname to use in your database and printed family history? I'm looking at a name that is recorded (in Polish church records) as Pełc, Pałka, and Bałko, all in roughly the same time period but by different priests. I don't have the option of looking up the name in other sources because as far as I know these are the only sources (In Poland back in the 1700s and 1800s the priests were the "official" record keepers.) I know I can list alternative spellings using the "aka" feature in Legacy but which name do I put in the surname box?

2. If all the records you have (and will cite as evidence) use Latin versions of first names, do you use the Latin version of the first name in your database software and printed family history, convert the names to the native language version (in my case Polish), or use the English equivalent since everyone I plan to share it with speaks English as a native language?

Thanks for any feedback left here. I have checked Evidence Explained but I couldn't find these specific issues addressed. It's certainly possible that I just missed them. It's a big book and I must admit I haven't read it cover to cover.

So let me know what you think. How do you deal with these issues?


  1. I have the same problem with Dutch given names especially for women: should I use the formal Anna or the diminutive Annatje or the other listed variations of Anatje, Annetje, Annie, etc.? Some Annas are also short forms of Hannah.

    Ancestry has an AKA field on the Notes area but you can only list one name. I suppose I could create a Fact named Alternate Names and add information there.

    Either way, in your situation or mine, once a decision is arrived at, I guess consistency is the best practice.

  2. Re: #1
    I'm not so concerned with a rule about the spelling of names as I am of being able to open my database and find someone I'm looking for with little effort. In the past, I tried to use the spelling as I found them in records, but once I got a handful of individuals with the same or similar name and they were not grouped together alphabetically in the index, it was a problem. I mean, isn't the whole point of your software (mine is Ancestral Quest) to make things easier?

    My solution was to standardize surnames AND given names, especially for individuals pre-1850 or so and on collateral lines where there were fewer records to use or less time to investigate. The only times I stray from this approach are when I find a record that gives me an indication of how that person spelled their name — ideally something with a signature.

    In conjunction with this, as I enter events in Ancestral Quest I'm always careful to show how the name was spelled on the document. I do the same in my citations. When this is printed in a report it would look something like:

    "Johann Jakob RICK, listed as 'Johann Jacob RIEG,' was the godparent of his nephew, baptized at the Catholic Church in Siegelsbach in 1810."

    That's a fictional example, but I'm sure you get the point. And like I mentioned, this problem isn't confined to surnames. I'd rather not scroll through a list looking for all of the women with the same surname named Catharina, Catrine or Katharina, etc.

    I will say, though, that when a branch of the family changed their surname (e.g., VOSSIEK to FOSSIECK or HOLZ to HOLTZ) and that spelling became what is still used today, I do reflect that in their name field.

    Re: #2
    I convert all names to their native equivalent from Latin. I decided on this long before I changed course on issue #1. I record the Latin spelling in the event field or in notes, and in my citations.

  3. As long as your database software allows you to enter all the variants, and find them in a search, then it's not critical. (For me that's a must-have feature.) In any case, preserving the actual spelling in various records could make a difference. I believe the accepted way is to quote the record as it stands and then if necessary to follow that spelling with your preferred spelling in square brackets.

    If the ancestors had a preferred version, that should surely have preference, as david said. Whatever you do, don't make my newbie mistake of using some ungainly hybrid like giving them all "SurnameA/SurnameB"!

  4. I like David's method, especially of citing how the name is listed in documents. I am going to add this to my Citation Notes document and the standardization of names to me Project List.

  5. I attended a genealogy seminar in Bountiful Utah and took a German phonetics class for beginners from Brigham Young University instructor Roger P. Minert, Ph. D., AG who reminded his students that name spelling in the Germanic states can vary between the northern regions and the southern regions of what we now call Germany.

    He advised us to use the name as it was spelled for that ancestor on the OLDEST PROOF DOCUMENT. That having been said, he cited the example of an ancestor's document that had his name spelled four different ways.

    I personally do not favor name standardization, even with the reasoning David provided that it makes it easier to view the index and find family groups.

    I rely on the filtering capability of my genealogy software to adjust how I look to the individual and his extended family, since it works on the relationship links, not the spelling of a surname.

  6. Jasia:

    Myrt's answer corresponds to the Genealogical Proof Standards. The spelling as it occurs in the oldest proof document should be used.

    You can not always be certain that it is a variant spelling. It may be another person entirely. That requires a great deal of "proof" to be more than just a supposition.

    If you are using Legacy read this Legacy Tips Article.

    It states - Variant names and spellings should be added to the individual's Alternate Names list.

    You can then include these other names in reports, web searching, and even in the Index View.

    Each alternate name is now alphabetized in the list and is preceded by the ~ symbol. Now you can search for your ancestor by any of his known spellings or variations.


  7. Jasia,

    Tough questions, and I'm not sure there's any one right answer.

    For #1, I tend to use the name that the way the person used it, if known, which is why I'll show my grandfather spelling as Pointkouski but he's the son of Piontkowski. In my German family, there are several names that change spelling over the years - for example, the surname Nick becomes Nigg. I tend to use the name spelling from the records I found it without worry about the surname not matching the parents. In your case, with the church records using all three spellings...just choose. Poles weren't hung up on surnames and especially not on spellings, so there really is no "right" answer. As most were illiterate, the priests "made it up" in some ways. For female Polish names, I do tend to record the female spelling even though the name differs from the father's or brother's (-ska ending vs -ski, for example).

    #2 - I always translate the Latin to the language of the country. So I'd use the Polish names for those born in Poland. For my ancestors, I tend to record the Polish name they were born with, then add their American name as an alias (if they came here). For those born in the US, I use the English name - even if they were baptized with the Polish form of the name.

    I'm probably wrong, but I doubt anyone else cares who was called what in my family. I honestly don't think there's any "right" answer. I'd just collect all of the various spellings and annotate your documentation as to what was used when.

    What's Past is Prologue

  8. I don't believe there is a perfect solution for this. I just use what works for me, and it works quite well with less and less time for research.

    Just because a document is dated prior to another, that does not ensure that the author of said record was using the correct or preferred spelling. I understand the concept of a standard, but this one is flawed, entrusting too much to someone who may not have been worthy of it.

    I know of one collateral relation whose confirmation record used the wrong spelling of her name — something that annoyed her. If that was the earliest record for her and she were to be shown a published genealogy with that as her name, she'd be annoyed again.

    Or, here's a laugher: On a few different occasions, I've been contacted by a researcher with information about a certain family. He's so hung up on the spelling of the surname that he won't tell me anything until I concede that the spelling he uses should be considered as the original spelling of the family name. To me, there is no correct spelling when the records are about 50/50 and alternate between a couple of spellings.

  9. I know my thanks are late in coming but honestly this is the first chance I've had to let you all know how much I appreciate your information and advice. This is what I love about the online genealogy community... so willing to help out! You've given me some good ideas and many things to think about. Thank you very much!