why are so many different spellings for the same person

+5 votes
asked in The Tree House by Judy Windham G2G3 (3.6k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith
At this time in New Mexico, United States, we are having to get "Real IDs" for driver's licenses.  This is a law from the State of New Mexico that came into effect in 2017 that said a person's birth certificate and any marriage licenses must match the name they are using on documents.  

Right now our state courts have a backlog of people who have to get name changes because the name on the birth certificate is not the same due to misspellings on behalf of the county clerk or whoever else did the original birth certificate.

This is causing me to ask how this should be approached on Wikitree?  Also, I know of people in the same family who spelled their last name different ways due to the way they were taught in school.  For example my mother-in-law was taught it was MacNab, her brother was taught, MacNabb, her father was serving overseas in WWII and could not be contacted and their mother had a mental breakdown due to the stress and couldn't help.  The name on one birth certificate spelled it McNab and another MacNab.  Then the marriage certificate had MacNabb.  All for the same 3 people.

3 Answers

+7 votes
Usually because many of our ancestors were illiterate, so the spelling in vital records and censuses depended on how the clerk or enumerator heard and spelled the name.
answered by Lynda Crackett G2G6 Pilot (617k points)
But we have half a dozen of William Shakspere's signatures, and they're all different (and none of them is the silly modern spelling Shakespeare).  So who are you calling illiterate?

Point is, there was no authority for correct English spelling.  Nobody had ever decided what was correct.

When Webster wrote his dictionary, he had no source for correct spellings.  He just made up his own rules to suit his own taste.

They don't tell you this at school.  They'd like you to think that every word or name comes with an original correct spelling.

Ancient Romans couldn't spell in Latin.  But medieval English vicars and clerks who couldn't spell in English could spell perfectly well in Latin, because the education system had standardized the spellings by then, for its own convenience.  (The schools didn't teach English)
Hi RJ, Among the folks I am calling are illiterate are the majority of my own ancestors. They didn't get much education as agricultural labourers or if going down the mines from about 6 years of age. Just looking at my own surname I have about 8 different spellings on various documents over time. Just depends on who was doing the writing. Those who could neither read nor write were in no position to offer an opinion on how to spell their own name.
But educated people were also in no position to offer an opinion on how to spell their own name.  How would they know?
They wouldn't, but at least they had a better chance of consistent spelling.
But they didn't try to spell English consistently, because nobody had ever said they should.  People who wrote their own wills often spelled their surname several different ways.  And they weren't thinking "Will spells his name Brown and Agnes spells it Browne and Joan writes Broun, and I should write it the way they do".  They were just spelling randomly.

People didn't even feel the need to pronounce a name the same way the owner pronounced it.  You spoke in your own accent.  If you had a friend called Michael, you might say it Mitchell even if he always said Mickle. The idea that you ought to say it their way is 20th-century.  Dickens's characters didn't.
Sometimes this is still true in England.  If your surname is Derby, most people will rhyme it with Barbie, but some will rhyme it with Furby.  Some will say it how you say it, but some will say it their way regardless.
Good to see that you agree with me RJ. Your comments confirm my original response that it all depends on how the person who wrote the record heard what was being said and thought that it should be written, so no standard spelling.
+5 votes
Some of it may be due to the ancestor's local accent.  I have a female ancestor who was baptised 'Susaner' (yes, it's actually written that way in the baptism register!).  I also have a family named Heawood in one census - because that's how 'Haywood' would have sounded in a strong West Country accent.  My own grandfather, when he registered the birth of my mother, was put down as 'William Rupert Ball', when he should have been 'William Hubert Ball'.  But I was a small girl when he was still alive, so I can remember just how thick his accent was - and I can well believe it!
answered by Ros Haywood G2G6 Pilot (470k points)
Before the Great Vowel Shift, English spellig conventions were similar to German.  "Ay" represented the sound in pie or bayou or Bayern.  "Ea" represented the sound in break or steak.  Haywood would have been pronounced something like "High-woad".  Heawood is somebody writing the new pronunciation in the old spelling conventions.
0 votes
When it comes to Sir-names and and English wtiting in general pre-1777 what RJ and Lynda are saying is consistently correct in almost all cases. The exception that through me off though was the 1560 Geneva bible. In that bible the spelling is consistent word for word in which a system was created among the translators as "John Knox","Miles Coverdale",eccetra..
answered by Troy Smith G2G6 Mach 5 (52.7k points)
edited by Troy Smith

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