Boston.com ran an interesting story yesterday about town names called “25 Massachusetts Town Names That are Hard to Pronounce.” It showed how the names of some of our towns (many with Native American origins) are properly pronounced by locals. This reminded me of an issue that perpetually plagues genealogists, the problems in finding towns of origin.
For the most part, we are tracing families who migrated from one place to another. If you are lucky, your ancestors may have stayed in the same place for long periods of time. But for the vast majority of Americans, our ancestors moved multiple times through the generations. This results in having to identify numerous places where they lived.
One of the problems we have is that most often the records we use were not created in the original location. People are born in one place, marry in another, and die in a third. And in between they can live in countless other locations. Often we are looking at information about place of birth on a death record. The death could have been recorded hundreds of miles away or more, by people who had never heard of the places.
Another problem that genealogists run into is the accent issue. Usually when we discuss accents, the mind immediately jumps to non-English speaking immigrants from other countries. Letters are often pronounced differently, such as the v/w reversal between German and English. This can result in oddly-spelled versions of town names. Many of these individuals may not even be able to spell the name of the place where they came from.
In addition to these issues of foreign-born immigrants, we have the issue of internal migration. As the United States expanded from the east coast to the west coast, people moved from location to location. And regional accents became mixed. These accents can cause communication issues. A New York native living in Indiana and speaking with someone originally from the deep South may easily misinterpret the words he or she is hearing.
Another complicating factor is that information is often provided by a third party. This is especially true for death records, where information can be provided by children or grandchildren who themselves may never have seen the names of places of origin spelled out, only heard spoken.
There is also another problem that the Boston.com story illustrates. The final town, Worcester, is supposedly pronounced (wuh-stir). While some people call it that, many New Englanders pronounce it with a short letter i in the first syllable. And the regional propensity to drop the letter r at the end of the word results in a pronounciation similar to (wĭh-sta). So even in a particular region, pronounciation can be different.
Add these issues the propensity for Anglo record keepers for not being overly stringent in identifying these earlier origins and the genealogist’s job to identify origins can be quite challenging.