3 Tips for Overcoming Spelling Variations

02 Apr 2014


Variations in spelling are one of the major challenges of genealogical research. Because standardized spelling is a twentieth-century concept, there can be all kinds of ways to spell words. This includes names, which can make researching very challenging. Many online search engines can account for some spelling variations, but there are always twists that can confuse things (such as having the wrong first letter in a name, which totally throws off the entire soundex system). Here are some tips to get past spelling variations.

1. Phonetic
Think about how the names are pronounced. Are there different  ways to spell the same sound? For example, a letter c, ch, and ck might all be pronounced with the hard “k” sound. The same goes for the letter f and gh (think rough and tough). Consider variations such as these when searching.

2. Sound Shifts
Watch out for sound shifts, which can throw off even phonetic spellings. Names that are pronounced the same are not always spelled the same. And names that are spelled the same are not always pronounced the same. Regional and national dialects and accents can have a major affect on the way words are spelled. A perfect example comes to us from England, Connecticut, and North Carolina. Hertford is the shire town of Hertfordshire, England. The city of Hartford (capital of Connecticut) was named for it. The spelling changed because the English pronounce the “e” in Hertford similar to an “ah,” thus it sounds like “Hahrtford” to an American. The town of Hertford, North Carolina, was also named for the English town. It retained the English spelling, but the pronunciation has changed to “Hurtford.”  The same sounds and spelling shifts can happen in your family’s names (both given names and surnames).

3. Enlist Your Friends
One great way to get spelling variations is to hand friends a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to write down the name you are looking for. Just tell them the name, don’t spell it for them. If they themselves are uncertain of how to spell it, ask them to write down every variation they can think of. By asking several friends to do this, you will undoubtedly find a few spelling variations you hadn’t thought of. This works best with someone who is unfamiliar with the name you are searching for. Indeed, asking non-genealogists is a great way to get variations because they don’t come with the same set of assumptions that family historians do. There may be more than one way to pronounce the name, for example Beaufort, North Carolina (pronounced Bowfort) and Beaufort, South Carolina (pronounced Bewfort).