MSS-005-French-Canadian Given Names

Episode 005-February 4, 2014

In episode 5, we conclude, at least for now, our look at the stumbling blocks caused by unfamiliarity with French-Canadian names, name variations, and naming practices.

The mute H causes problems all of its own, and we discuss ways to circumvent those.

In the main segment we look at the problem caused by our ancestors having sometimes three or more given names and resources to help us narrow down our searches.

Pronunciation of Native Names

A listener, Suzanne Sommerville, wrote in with a correction to my statement in episode 4 regarding French pronunciation of native names.

Suzanne wrote, “One comment in this podcast needs revision… Actually, the symbol that looks like /8/ is a digraph for the sound /ou/ or of English /w/ before a vowel. On the original handwritten documents, it is a combination of two Greek letters that look like a /u/ on top of an /o/. I can send you examples in a Word document with the images in digital form… PRDH transcribes it as /ou/ in every instance in its certificates, but before a vowel it takes the sound of English /w/.”

She then forwarded that example, entitled “the Greek digraph representing the sounds /ou/ or English /w/ before a vowel,” to me, which I have place on the website at Please take the time to read her very thorough explanation.

French-Canadian News

The French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan has launched a new, information-packed website at There is information on the society and their upcoming programs. Be sure to check out their Resources section for valuable articles, bibliographies, and links on topics such as the fur trade, the history of New France, Native Americans, and recipes.

Language Tip #5-The Mute H

Unlike the very noticeable sound made by the letter H in English, in French it is known as a mute H, meaning it is a silent letter. If a name begins with an H, that name begins with the following vowel sound.

The name Hénault would be pronounced /ay-no/. If you close your eyes and listen to the sounds, you hear /a/-/n/-/o/. When the Hénaults moved to America, the name could be spelled many different ways, including Ano and Eno. Soundex codes would yield results as follows:

  • Hénault = H543
  • Heno = H500
  • Ano = A500
  • Eno = E500

Similarly, the surname Hunault can be found in American records as Uno.

If your first contact with the surname is with an H as the initial letter, look also for names beginning with vowels. If the first time you see the name it begins with a vowel, search for that word with a beginning H or a different vowel.

To help us, we can use resources mentioned already in episodes 2 and 4: 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 website; and the French-Canadian Given Names: English Variants, Anglicizations, Latin compiled by the American-French Genealogical Society.

A search for Ano in the Family Names and Nicknames in Colonial Québec website produces the name Aineau, pronounced the same as Ano. It gives fifteen different versions of the name:

Hénault name variations

Another example is the Otis family, attacked by Indians in the Cocheco Massacre in 1689. Daughter Margaret Otis, just a baby at the time, was taken to New France, given the name Christine, and raised by the nuns. When she married Louis Lebeau in 1707, the priest entered the record into the register. There he spelled her surname Otesse and her father’s Hautesse. In the Family Names and Nicknames in Colonial Québec website, Otis is spelled seven different ways:


So if one of your surnames begins with either a vowel or an H, be sure to check all different possibilities for that initial letter.

French-Canadian Given Names

When a baby was born in Québec, he or she could be baptized with one, two, three, or even four given names.

  • Parents could choose a name for their child, just as parents do today.
  • Because of church influence, usually boys were given as one of their names ‘Joseph,’ and girls were given the name ‘Mary,’ after Jesus’s parents.
  • Many times a godfather or godmother was honored by the child using the godparent’s name.
  • Children could receive a name in honor of a deceased relative.
  • Babies could be named after saints, especially the one on whose day he or she was born.
  • Boys could have a partial feminine name, such as Jean-Marie; girls could have a masculine name, such as Marie-Josephte or Marie Josephe.


  • A person could use one name in early life, then use a different name later in life.
  • More than one child in a family could use the same given name.
  • Sometimes a name is hyphenated; sometimes it is not. Marie-Madeleine could be found in the records by that name, or by Marie Madeleine, Marie, or Madeleine.
  • Sometimes priests wrote the register entries in Latin.
  • Some records are written with abbreviations instead of complete names.
  • In America, given names could be Anglicized just as surnames were, making them difficult to trace in earlier records:
  1. Some stayed the same (ex: Paul, Joseph)
  2. Sometimes there were small spelling changes, facilitating the search (Olivier to Oliver; Edouard to Edward)
  3. Sometimes syllables were removed (Apolline to Pauline)
  4. Occasionally only initial consonants matched (Narcisse to Nelson)
  5. Some had similar sounds (Damase to Thomas)
  6. Some had no English equivalents (Toussaint, Théophile)

 Where to Find French-Canadian Given Names

When trying to read given names in records, the researcher is faced with two difficult challenges:

  • Occasionally the original record is in poor shape or faded to the extent that it is very difficult to make out the letters;
  • An unfamiliarity with French names.

These resources may be helpful in determining a given name:


Although I still have not found mention of tuppettes as mentioned in episode 1, several listeners have sent in suggestions. The closest one yet, although made from scratch and not from packaged bread dough, is a yummy looking recipe called grand père dans le sirop d’érable. The recipe is on the Maple Stars and Stripes Facebook page. If anyone makes it, let us know what you think of it. And please like us on Facebook.

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  1. Pingback: Tuesday Tip: Podcast #5 | Family Circle 14

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