Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Accents, Spelling, and Surnames - Tuesday's Tip

I've been thinking recently about the spelling variations of some of my ancestors' surnames.  I generally assumed the variations were due to lack of standardized spelling until 50 or 75 years ago, but it recently occurred to me that some variations may be a result of accents.

An accent is a way of pronouncing words, and people from different places pronounce the same words in different ways.  A census taker would have recorded what he heard.  If the last name Bell was pronounced with a Southern accent, the census taker may have spelled it Beal or Beall.  If the last name of a person from Germany stated his last names as Werner the census taker may have spelled it Verner.

Being aware of this phenomenon may help you as you search for your ancestors who came to America from other countries or who lived in other parts of the United States.  I've found two websites with recorded accents that may be helpful in determining the way your ancestor pronounced his name.
The Speech Accent Archive of George Mason University is a way to listen to people from other countries speak in English.  The about section of the website tells us that the archive was "established to uniformly exhibit a large set of speech accents from a variety of language backgrounds. Native and non-native speakers of English all read the same English paragraph and are carefully recorded."

Clicking on the browse link will take you to a set of options:  language/speakers; atlas/regions; and native phonetic inventory.  If you click on languages/speakers you will go to a page where you can browse by language.  Many of the languages are new to me:  Appolo, Kambaata, Djola, Maninkakan.  You will also find more commonly known languages such as Czech, Chinese, Croatian, Danish, German, Lithuanian, etc. 

Under German I found 32 listening options, both male and female, including accents from Bemen, Frankfurt, Offenbach, Niedersachsen, Stuttgart, and Vienna, Austria.  English offered 494 listening options from places around the globe:  Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, Jamaica, New Guinea, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Panama, Scotland, South Africa, Trinidad, United Kingdom, and every state in the United States.  (If you don't want to scroll through the list, click the F3 key on your keypad and type in the desired location in the box that will pop up on the lower left of your monitor.)

An opportunity to hear British accents is available at the British Library Sounds which offers thousands of recordings of people from all over the United Kingdom.  These are primarily people speaking in a conversational tone describing events, memories, or activities in their lives.  Some recordings are from as early as 1917 but most are from more recent years.  They last from a few minutes to more than an hour. 

There are multiple ways to search on this site.  The column on the left offers categories.  In the search box on the right you can type in a specific location.  I used the search box to find recordings from Bradford, Yorkshire and Northumberland, native locations of my ancestors.  I was surprised to realize that I could barely understand some of the accents I heard.

There are probably other websites about accents that may give you an idea about how your ancestor spoke his name, but I found these helpful.  I hope they might be helpful to you, too.



  1. Nancy, I thought this was a great thing to consider and I've included your post on my Friday Favorites: http://leavesfortrees.blogspot.com/2013/01/follow-friday-favorites-for-january-18.html

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Your post is excellent! Like you, I've thought a lot about my ancestors' names and variations I've found in old documents. Sometimes I can almost hear the accent.


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