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Genealogists and Linquistics

Our local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society gathers monthly at a county library. We have a short business meeting followed by an informative program. After doing genealogy for most of my life, I find some of the programs helpful, others not so much.

This month we had a program I have already found useful.

Sylvia Tracy-Doolos of New Leaf Genealogy spoke on using linguistic tools to break down genealogical brick walls. She pointed out that spelling of surnames has not been standardized for very long, and she offered some good tips for finding those elusive ancestors in the records:

  1. The census department did not require enumerators to have legible handwriting, nor did these workers receive much training. They wrote down what they heard. Sylvia reminded us to hear names as the census worker might have. She also described something called the McGurk Effect. When what we hear conflicts with what we see, we tend to go with what we see. This potential for confusion explains why I had trouble locating the 1920 census record for my great-grandfather Alexander Mattila. They recorded his name as Alek Sandermattila.
  2. Fuzzy searching in computer databases can help locate names where some letters are uncertain. For example, use wild cards when you do not know whether the surname should be Johnson or Johnsen.
  3. Names may have been translated from a foreign language when an ancestor came to America. The German name Wald became Woods.
  4. Ethnic names may have been simplified. I would like to know why my husband/tech advisor’s ancestors did not simplify Hjelmstad.
  5. Sylvia provided us with a chart showing the international phonemic alphabet. It lists commonly interchanged sounds (p and b, t and d) and explains how these consonants are spoken similarly but sound different.

The program ended with a list of resources. I have already used one. Omniglot provided me a much better translation of a Finnish record than Google Translate did. You can find Omniglot, an alphabetical listing of all languages with their alphabet and linguistic guides, at

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