Tips from the Pros: A Moment on the Lips . . .

from Michael John Neill 

Do you know what came out of your ancestor’s mouth when he was asked his name? I don’t mean that word eventually written down on the census page or the marriage license, but the sounds he made when asked his name. The pronunciation is key to finding your ancestor in many records.

When I began my own research, I had difficulty finding my Behrens ancestors. I always “said the name in my head” in a way that pretty much rhymes with the word “errands.” However, that’s not how ancestor Ulfert Behrens said it. In his low-German dialect, his uttering probably sounded closer to the modern pronunciation of “barns.” And that explains several variants I located. Now I look for Barnes and other variants in addition to Behrens and similar spellings. The sound makes a difference.

The last name Talliaferro is similar. This name is not usually pronounced “tuh-lee-uh-fair-ohh.” Rather it is often said in a way that rhymes with “Oliver” sounding like “toliver.” This opens up another set of variant surname spellings for this last name, including Toliver and Tolliver.

I learned of the Behrens pronunciation from my great-grandmother, her grandmother was a Behrens, and great-grandma grew up speaking the same low-German dialect as her parents. For other surnames, consider posting the question to the appropriate ethnic, regional, or surname mailing list; however, I would not recommend finding people with the desired last name in the phone book and asking them on the phone!

A printer-friendly version of this article can be found in the Ancestry.com Library.

15 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: A Moment on the Lips . . .

  1. Thank you – for pronounciation clues .. Wish I had been taught German as a child ! (or Norsk)..

    - – will have to admit : DO NOT like the new version of Weekly news ! Understand, the daily ‘problem’ of writing – - but rather “they” would have kept the ‘old form’ even if for only a weekly. Think this new way is too difficult to navigate, for us older persons. lmk

  2. My grandfather changed the spelling of his name from Behrens to Berens, and almost all of my relatives pronounce it like “errands” also. However, in the Philadelphia area, I have been startled more than once to hear it pronounced “Burns”!

  3. The pronumciation of names is further complicated when doing research in a place like Louisiana. During the period when my ancestors were showing up in marriage and birth records the place was French, Spanish and American. To complicate things they were German. One name recorded as Sarlot, Sirlott and Charlotte turned out to be Schlatre (French pronumciation Schlot) and Schlater (German Slater or American Slaughter).

  4. I discovered that I had to look for creative spellings for the way my ancestors pronounced their family name of SCYTHES, after getting millions of farm implements whenever I tried a correctly spelled search. I have found my family name in ancestry.com transcriptions as SEYTHES, SYTHES, SEGTHER and SCYTHIS … and in many cases can’t find them at all, when I know they are there somewhere! Thanks for your suggestions!

  5. Too bad we lost the daily formatt. I always looked forward to my morning coffee & the genealogy news. I have written to others but have not recieved a response. I thought I would try my comment here since #1 lmk above mentioned it. Carol in Baltimore

  6. Another informative article, Michael. Keep them coming. Guess I will also leave a comment to go along with Commentors No. 1 and No. 6. I don’t know about the daily news, but I sure wish the Weekly News had the same format as before. The new one is pretty but the articles are definitely slimmer. We used to get four or five good articles that could be printed. What happened to Patricia Hatcher articles? Forget the blog.

  7. My husbans surname is Reese the Gr-Grandfather came from Arezen Germany and pronounced it “Raza” in that dilect. Through the years it became”Razey” The usual question “How do you get “Razey”from Reese!

  8. The James Bay (Quebec, Canada) Cree have a regional genealogy project in which 9 communities share a research web site (code access only, sorry)and the interpretations given traditional Cree names (only one name was used by each person, without “Family” names)are pretty wild. 1840 onwards, Christian first names were added to whatever traditional name was given (guess how many new “family” names were created when a father and his several children were baptized–REALLY wild!!). Then, as if that was not bad enough, missionaries decided to try getting rid of the traditional names, so when parents (for example “Jacob and Mary Wobbenaweskum”)baptized a chile, it was given the new family name of “Jacob”. Also, they missed changing some names because families decided to NOT baptize some children, and furthermore, some families did not start baptizing until a few generations later so some branches were quite different from others. So you think that YOU have a genealogy problem??????

  9. If Civil War records show a 16-year-old soldier ancestor as Wintrish or Wintrisch, what MIGHT have been the name he gave the enumerator? Winters, Winders? TX

  10. The name Taliaferro goes way back in Maryland history, It was a Maryland Taliaferro who rode from Yorktown to Philadelphia with the news of Cornwallis’surrender. We pronounce it “Tolifer.”

  11. for Joyce Reese
    My great-grandfather, also came from Germany, and his name was Reese. They also pronounce it “Raza” there because the “e” or “ee” in Germen is pronounced like the “a” in English. I am not sure if I can help with the “Razey” part of your question. I assume it has something to do with the dialect because that tends to happen in German dialects. The vowels get changed.

  12. Thank you for the pronounciation tips on German names; particularly Behrens. Looking for ancestors of Louis Behrens, son of Frederica Krauel Behrens Schoenke. Also, my aunt’s maiden name was Schofield; she was Croatian descent.

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  14. Pingback: I can reconcile that. :P.

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