Spelling and Pronunciation in Genealogy AKA “How the Old Folks Said It”

Y’all, every once in a while this meme makes the rounds.

Like most Southerners, I had this awakening. I was probably twenty or so before I realized the tall clothes-holder in your bedroom that doesn’t have a mirror is not called a “chester drawers.” 

On that note, I had older relatives called Iler, Eller, Emmer, and Dianer.

Imagine my shock when I began recording them in my family tree and realized their names were spelled Ilah, Ella, Emma, and Diana. There’s also Say-rah (Sarah), Kay-ron (Karen), and Shay-ron (Sharon).

Place names get the same treatment. I grew up knowing the community next to mine as “Macedonia,” pretty much pronounced like it’s spelled. But my mom’s father, Papa, called it “Mass-donie.” Similarly, the church where his in-laws went was called “Chals-donie.” The actual spelling? Chalcedonia. 

To talk like the old folks you have to substitute an “ie” sound at the end of words that end in “ia,” and then sort of swallow the middle syllable. 

And don’t get it twisted. That only works for words that end in “ia” not words that merely end in the letter “a.” Take the place where Papa would go to buy a handful of “fancy” Christmas trees to add to the inventory of our Christmas tree farm: the great state of “North Ker-liner.” 

Name Spelling in Genealogy

When I started getting serious about genealogy, I quickly realized that my inability to reconcile the pronunciation of words with their spelling wasn’t mine alone. It happens to officials like court clerks and census takers, too. 

One of the first ones I ran into was my Cowan ancestors who immigrated to Upcountry South Carolina from County Antrim (in modern day Northern Ireland) back in 1820. 

Not only is their name spelled “Cowan” or “Cowen” it’s also spelled in original records as Cohen, Coan, Coen, and Cone. But when you ponder on it, it’s easy to see how, in an era when spelling wasn’t standardized, clerks and enumerators did their own thing spelling-wise when they heard an older gentleman and his adult immigrant children, all from County Antrim, say their last name.

Another one I’ve seen is Kilgore and Kilgo. It’s pretty easy to imagine someone with a heavy southern accent who drops the ends of words pronouncing Kilgore without the final “re.” 

Realizing this greatly helped me expand my thinking when it came to spellings of ancestors’ names, even in the official-est of official records.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3Nr0M60qW4?si=fCvu_VrQrHWJPeRH&w=560&h=315]

Once again, place names are affected by accents. I recently had a classmate whose ancestor was born in the early 1800s. She moved away from home early. Her late 1800s Missouri obituary, the only documentation of her birthplace, said she was from “Garrett County, Kentucky.” 

Problem. There is no Garrett County in Kentucky.

But there is a Garrard County. And guess what? Those Kentuckians have their own way of saying the name… and it sounds like “Garrett” or “Garred” to someone who’s never been there. …Like the child or grandchild who likely provided information for this woman’s obituary. You can hear one such Kentuckian talk about the pronunciation of Garrard County here.

And on the topic of accents, there is no “Southern accent.” Nobody from North Georgia or East Tennessee would say “Kilgo.” But someone from coastal Georgia or Charleston would. Now, I’m not an expert on Southern accents by any means, but I know this much just from being born in North Georgia, living here most of my life, and talking to and taking oral histories from lots of older folks. 

That’s right. Listening to your elders is basically a superpower. (Don’t let any of my elders read this.)

How about you? What “alternate spellings” of surnames, place names, or just random words have you run into in your genealogy research? I’d love to hear about your own version of “Southern pronunciation”!

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2 thoughts on “Spelling and Pronunciation in Genealogy AKA “How the Old Folks Said It””

    • Oh I love it! I say “pilla” for pillow! And I’ve noticed some people from the West cost say “pellow” for pillow! It’s amazing how accents can change words up. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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