Last week's article used the term "birder" house. One astute
reader gently indicated that I most likely meant "brooder" house. I
thank them for the correction and must plead ignorance for while I was
raised on a farm, we did not have chickens. You can be certain I will
not make the same mistake using bovine phrases—I would never hear the
end of it!
The mistake makes a point and I'm actually glad it happened.
Mishearing and misinterpreting words and phrases can cause problems
genealogically in several situations. I have categorized the
difficulties here, but bear in mind that there might be some overlap
and that the distinction between some categories is not really
Did Not Hear Correctly
Just as I misunderstood Grandma, it might be that the respondent on an
official document or record did not hear correctly and gave "incorrect"
information as a result. This same difficulty can arise when family
members are asked for information. In one of my families, confusion
arose between the two names "Augusta" and "Geske." These names are
distinct, however, an individual with a hearing problem might easily
confuse the two.
Misunderstood the Question
The respondent might have heard all the words and thought he understood
the meaning of the question. If your ancestor gave an "incorrect"
birthplace for his mother or father, is it possible that he interpreted
the question as "where is your mother from?" instead of "where was your
mother born?" Mother might have been born in one place and "been from"
somewhere else (depending upon where she grew up and where her family
originated). It might have been this place that she considered herself
"from" even though it was not actually where she was born. We cannot
know for certain what our ancestors were thinking when they were
answering questions for the census taker or the marriage license clerk.
All we have is the document they left behind.
When interviewing family members use as many names as
possible. Relationships can create confusion. When interviewing my
grandmother, it took several minutes to make it clear to her that I was
asking about her grandfather Trautvetter, not her father. She had
referred to her own dad as a grandfather for so long (to her own
children) that she originally answered the questions as if I was asking
about her father. Using her grandfather's name of John reduced the
confusion (her father, fortunately was named George). While it may not
be possible use names exclusively, minimizing the number of
relationships used when asking questions can reduce confusion.
Did Not Know the Language
Was your immigrant ancestor answering questions that were asked in a
language he did not understand? Even if your ancestor could speak
English, it seems reasonable that she might have easily mistranslated a
key word or phrase.
Was Not Listening
Have you ever answered a question without ever really listening to it?
Asking your parent, spouse, child, or co-worker might provide a
different answer. Is it possible your ancestor was not paying one
hundred percent attention when the 1920 census taker knocked on his
door? Did your ancestor assume no one would ever really care about the
answers eighty years later?
No One Cared
When the clerk was filling out my marriage license, he asked me how to
spell my mother's maiden name. And so I spelled it out. If I had
married in the county where I was born and raised, most of the office
staff would have known how to spell the surname (and many would have
known it without even asking). Close attention is not always paid to
detail today and it certainly was not one hundred and fifty years ago
Spoke a Dialect, Used Slang, or Had an
Dialects and variations in pronunciation can impact how words are
spelled in records. "Gibson" can easily be pronounced so that it is
spelled like "Gepson." There are numerous names where this is a
problem, a problem compounded by dialects, "drawls," and "twangs."
While it may be possible to know how our ancestors pronounced a name or
a word, this information is generally not available.
It Has Been a While Since I Was Able to
In some cases, it is literally a lifetime from the day when a family
tradition is heard until that day it is told. You grandfather might
have heard a story when he was a child and not repeated it until he had
grandchildren of his own. The chance that as a child he misunderstood
something is reasonable. This difficulty is compounded by the effects
time can have on one's memory.
The Ancestor Was Not Literate
If your ancestor was unable to read, she could not "proof" any answers
or words listed on any form she might have signed. Even if your
ancestor could read, if the forms were not in her native tongue, she
might have easily misunderstood a question (or her answer). The clerk
might not have been concerned about explaining it to her either.
Genealogists need to bear in mind auditory difficulties when
dealing with records. These difficulties are compounded by problems
with how our ancestors might have interpreted various terms and
phrases. Documenting these difficulties may be impossible in many
cases. When it can be done, it should, especially with pronunciations.
I always track the ways names are pronounced when I know it.
One of my ancestral surnames is Behrens. My great-grandmother
pronounced it as "barns" (the kind cows sometimes reside in). This
pronunciation is duly noted in my files. While it's not written as
technically as it would be in a dictionary, it serves the purpose.
But I Don't Know How It Is Pronounced
Asking older family members is a good first step, but not always
possible. As your research progresses further and further back in time,
the chance that living family members have heard the name decreases.
Researchers who do not know how a name is most likely pronounced may
wish to post such a question to one of the mailing lists for the
surname or the message boards at http://boards.ancestry.com
Individuals with the name may post replies, but it is important to
remember that the pronunciation today may be significantly different
from one hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago.
Genealogists use their eyes for the bulk of their genealogical
work, and rightly so. But we must also use our ears and mouths—for
that's how many of those words made their way from our ancestor's minds
to those records.
Copyright 1999, Michael John Neill.
Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the
Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in
Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl
Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist
for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois
State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and
lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and
contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry
and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit his Web site at: http://www.rootdig.com/.