About the Spelling of Surnames

About the Spelling of Surnames


If you are new to genealogical research, you may not be aware that before about 1850, surnames were spelled primarily by sound. Given the wide variety of dialects present in our young country--Scottish, French, German, etc.--the same name might sound quite different, depending on the accent of the speaker. Record-takers would spell names as they heard them, thus the spelling of a particular name would vary according to who was doing the speaking and who was translating the sound into written form.

This is an important point to remember when you are researching older records. When examining indexes or reading old documents, try to focus on the sounds rather than the letters. Try to come up with alternate spellings, and check those as well. Vowels might change, depending on the accent of the speaker. For example, "McDonald" might sound more like "McDanal" when pronounced with a Scottish accent. Also, consonants might disappear in pronunciation (i.e. "Thompson" sometimes appears as "Thomson"; "Strayhorn" also appears as "Strain"). Another possibility--different letters might be used to represent the same sound, such as "McFerrin" and "McPherrin", or Wright and Right. Even within documents, spellings may vary. The will of William McDonell is a good example. In the body of the will, the name is consistently spelled "McDonell". On the back of the document, is the notation, "Last Will and Testament of Wm. McDonnell". On the file envelope, the case is entitled, "Estate of William McDonnald". The final spelling variation occurrs in the Abbeville probate index--you will find this file indexed under "McDonald".

Some spelling variations are given on the Surname Interest List. As you browse the lists and records posted on this site, try to keep an open mind about the spelling of the surname you're researching.


Return to Home Page

Last updated 30 September 1998