View Full Version : Knowing how to spell your name....
18-02-2006, 6:22 PM
This may sound like a really bonkers question, but .... in an age when people couldn't read or write and they, for instance, got married, how did they know whether their names were spelled correctly on the marriage certificate?
I ask this because I've just got the marriage certificate for my g-g-grandparents, both from Irish naval/coastguard families, married near Plymouth in 1856 and both have a mark for their signatures (ie they can't write). Both have relatively unusual surnames (Crone and Lyden). If the cleric had spelled their names Croan and Lydon, I assume they wouldn't have known, but there are other branches of both families where the Crone/Lyden spellings have been used consistently.
This has really confused me!! It's made me realise how much we take reading and writing for granted.
18-02-2006, 6:28 PM
Spelling doesn't seem to have been regarded as such an important thing in 'the old days'. As long as you understood what was written, that was what counted. As someone who is a good speller and gets a bit up-tight about mis-spellings, I find it very hard to come to terms with!! The best thing to do when researching is type in as many phonetic variations as you can - you usually come up with something in the end.
18-02-2006, 6:56 PM
Davran, I'm with you in being a bit uptight about spelling! And yes, I know that when carrying out family history research, it's important to have an open mind about how names were spelled - ie my Crone ancestors have been, for instance, mis-transcribed (and that's a crucial difference!) as Croan and Crane.
But this still leaves me with my original query - how did illiterate people know whether their names were spelled correctly on official documents? You might say that they probably didn't, but all the official documents relating to my forebears that I have found show a consistency in the spelling of their surnames. And yet I know that some of these forebears have been illiterate!
18-02-2006, 7:05 PM
You will possibly be surprised to learn that our ancestors were not as illiterate as many try to make out. A high percentage could read and write enough for day to day living.
But to answer your question why should it have bothered them whether a name was written in one form or another? There were very few instances, for the majority of people, of times when they had to access written records.
Life did not depend on written forms or even monetary transactions as most simply bartered. One needs to dismiss modern values and learn to relate to ones ancestors to understand them properly.
18-02-2006, 7:17 PM
Yes, Guy, I don't think too many of our struggling ancestors would care two hoots about whether their descendants could find them on the censuses or not - too busy making a living I would say.
By the way, try BAMBLETT for size - Bamlet, Bamblet, Bamlette, Bamlete, etc, etc.;)
18-02-2006, 7:56 PM
Thanks, Guy. So what you are saying is that, although my g-g-grandparents couldn't write their own names, they were likely to have recognised if they were spelled properly on an official document?
One needs to dismiss modern values and learn to relate to ones ancestors to understand them properly.
Yes, but that's exactly what I'm trying to do and trying to understand! If people weren't bothered about how their names were spelled on official documents during the 19th century (perhaps due to being illiterate or whatever), then why have I found that surname spellings seem to have been incredibly consistent?
Perhaps these questions can't be answered, but I'm trying to 'dismiss modern values' here and understand!!
18-02-2006, 10:13 PM
why have I found that surname spellings seem to have been incredibly consistent?
It can depend on the surname. On the Norfolk Transcription Archive we have 46 variant spellings of the name RISEBOROUGH; simpler surnames are more consistently spelt. In some parishes (e.g. Blickling) in the 17th century, the cleric there frequently spelt surnames two different ways in the same entry.
But for many names where there is reasonably consistent spelling, I think it may be partly due to the communities in which people lived. They were much smaller and surnames persisted in single parishes through many generations. An 18th century parish may have had a population of 2-400 and perhaps a 10-20 'local' families. Two pages of baptisms and burials in a register might cover several years.
So, the Vicar gets home, finishes off the communal wine and writes up the register. He can't remember how he last spelt a name so just looks back through the previous page. The result is reasonably consistent spelling, except when the surname doesn't appear for several years and the vicar thinks, 'what the heck' and takes his best shot.
A new cleric may arrive, and on a few occasions I've found that this results in a change in spelling patterns - e.g. Elizabeth becomes Elisabeth, Hanna becomes Hannah, with similar changes in surnames.
18-02-2006, 10:47 PM
Strong accents seem to add to the fun! Most of my research is Cornish family based. To a vicar - probably from another place - the Cornish specific surnames must have been quite something to attempt to decipher! I would imagine the same must be true of other places with strong regional accents and regionally specific surnames.
18-02-2006, 11:02 PM
Also, some names seem to be more inconsistent as you go back in time, wills often having various spellings of the same name within one document. I suspect that as more standardised spelling came in, it had a knock on affect on spelling of names. Some of the variations may also be because of the difficulty of distinguishing different letters in handwriting.
My maiden name is Stacey. Going back in time, this can be spelt Stacy. Further back, the Sta stays fairly constant, but other variations include Stacye and Stacie. Getting back to 16th century, the variants Tacy, Tacie and Tacye appear. While Tacey is now a separate surname, in 16th Century Farnsfield, Notts at least, they were used by the same family. I have yet to see copies of parish records, but Phillimores notes that the family were known as both Tacy and Stacy, and there is apparently a baptism where both surnames are mentioned with the word alias between them.
One other point is that often learning to read was not necessarily associated with learning to write, so even if a person could not write their own name, they might still be able to recognise it
19-02-2006, 8:33 AM
I'm in the process of working my way through the Carbrooke parish registers and I'd agree with all that Geoffers says.
There are some names which never seem to change - WATSON remains WATSON throughout - right back to 1629 - it's spelt as it sounds and the pronunciation probably didn't vary that much. Other names vary considerably - HAISTEAD for example has plenty of variations and you can see why if you think about how many ways we can write the 2 main vowel sounds in the name.
19-02-2006, 10:34 AM
Thanks everyone for the helpful replies - they've certainly given me something to mull over!
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