Episode 004-January 21, 2014
Sometimes as we work backwards, it seems that our ancestors appear out of thin air. When you can’t follow your ancestors back in time, consider the possibility that a name variation of some sort could be impeding your progress.
Episode 4 covered the different spellings for the long O sound in surnames and why you shouldn’t rely on Soundex searches. Then we covered other types of surname variations.
Language Tip #4- Different Spellings for the Long O Sound
In my genealogy database, I have recorded fourteen different ways to spell the surname Renaud, excluding dit names [episode 2] and misspellings. Remember that we do not pronounce final consonants unless there is a silent –e at the end. So all these spellings are pronounced, more or less, the same way:
Rainaud Raineau Rano Ranolds
Regneault Renaud Renauld Renault
Renaut Reneau Reneault Renno
Other ways of spelling the long O sound:
-au -aust -aux -eaut
-eaux -os -ost -ot
Have you found any other letter combinations for the long O sound?
The Soundex system was developed in the 1920s by the US Census Bureau to help index names in the census. Many immigrant groups had surnames with strange vowel combinations. One sound could be made by many different vowels. So the Soundex system grouped words together phonetically. Each Soundex code consisted of four characters. The first character was always the first letter of the surname, no matter whether it was a consonant or vowel. The next three digits were numbers based on consonant or consonant sounds. Vowels were ignored. Consonants from the same letter family that were formed in similar ways were grouped together and assigned the same number.
- 1 B,P,F,V
- 2 C,S,G,J,K,Q,X,Z
- 3 D, T
- 4 L
- 5 M, N
- 6 R
- Not coded A,E,I,O,U,Y,H,W
The Americanized version, Reno, has a Soundex of R500. But, even though in French the –d is silent, the code for Renaud is R530. Here are the Soundex codes for the various possible (not actual) spellings for the surname Renaud:
- R253– Regnaud, Regnaut
- R254– Regnault, Regneault
- R500– Raineau, Rano, Reneau, Renno, Reno, Reyno, Renau
- R520– Renaux, Reneaux, Renos
- R523– Renost
- R530– Rainaud, Renaud, Renaut, Renaust, Reneaut, Renot
- R543- Renolds, Renauld, Renault, Reneault
- R553– Renand (a misspelling)
So if you rely on a Soundex search in an online database to locate all possible hits for your ancestor, and you type in ‘Renaud,’ which is R530, you are missing twenty other candidates in seven different code groups.
To find the Soundex codes for your surnames, look at your genealogy database program. Many have a Soundex converter built in. If not, try the Rootsweb Soundex Converter.
More French-Canadian Name Variations
There are many different reasons for the various French-Canadian surname variations.
Illiteracy was a factor until recent times. Spelling was not consistent in both Québec and America in the early days. Different dialects pronounced words differently, and the priest wrote what he heard.
Leclerc = Leclair
Also, the English names of captives and native Indian names were difficult to pronounce in French. Therefore, Farnsworth became Phaneuf. The digit 8 is placed in Indian names that contain a sound similar to huit, the French word for the number 8. And remember, Inconnu is not a surname; it means ‘unknown.’
Once living in America, French names were very difficult for English-speakers to pronounce. So changes were made, sometimes by our ancestors so they could better fit in with their neighbors.
- Ouillette became Willet.
- Mathieu, as we saw in episode 3, became Micue.
- Pelletier became first Peltier, then Pelkey or Pelcher.
- Cloutier became Cloukey, or variations of that.
- Thibeault became Tebo.
- Benoit was either Anglicized in pronunciation, or the spelling changed to Benway, close to its French pronunciation.
- Lapierre became Stone or Rock.
- Roi became either Roy or King.
- Lajeunesse became Young.
- L’Évêsque became Bishop.
- L’Anglais became English.
- LeBlanc became White.
- And my neighbor’s Bouthilette became Butler.
Where to Find More French-Canadian Name Variations
Try looking up your problem surname in a French dictionary to find the English equivalent. If you don’t have one handy, try the online Collins French Dictionary. Or try many of the sources we mentioned in the ‘Dreaded Dit Name’ at MapleStarsandStripes.com/2. Included with many of the dit names were other types of name variations as well:
Robert Quintin’s French Canadian Surnames: Aliases, Adulterations, and Anglicizations . (This book used to be available as a PDF download but is no longer available.)
Sullivan and Szabo’s Family Names and Nicknames in Colonial Québec
- Also try:
- Acadian surname variations can be found at Dick Eastman’s Encyclopedia of Genealogy
- Anglicized French Surnames by Robert Chenard [http://home.gwi.net/~frenchgen/angname.htm]
A Big ‘Thanks’
Thanks go out to Marian Pierre-Louis of Fieldstone Common for her shout-out as well as to those who took the time to send along encouraging comments.
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See “The Greek digraph representing the sounds /ou/ or English /w/ before a vowel” by Suzanne Sommerville for an explanation of the native pronunciation.