Friday, April 30, 2010

What's In A Name?

The first brick wall I slammed into was the identity of my Grandpa’s father. I knew that Grandpa had been born in Michigan and that his father’s name on this side of the border was Joseph Chosa. I knew that Joseph had come to Michigan as an adult from somewhere in Quebec. I was new to genealogy, so I thought it would be a fairly straightforward and simple matter to trace him back to his birthplace.

It took almost 4 years.

You see, no one still living knew just where or when my Great-Grandfather Joseph had been born. Worse, no one knew exactly what his original name was. And you can’t trace anyone if you can’t recognize his (or her) name when you see it.

It took forever just to find Joseph and his family in the federal censuses, even though I knew where they had lived and the area was not exactly a booming metropolis. Even now, you can’t find him in the censuses online using, say,; you have to go through the census for the county where he lived, page by page. Why? Because American census takers, like many of us even now, were extremely creative in spelling and pronouncing even English names; when dealing with names from a foreign language, anything could happen, and usually did.

I think this is why so many immigrants “americanized” their surnames. Some simply lopped off syllables, as when Rosenberg became Rose or Berg. Some translated the names into English: Giovanni LaCasa became John House, Heinrich Schmidtz became Henry Smith, and François Boisvert became Frank Greenwood. Others changed the spelling into an English version: a Dane named Jens Pedersen might become John or James Peterson.

French-Canadians could sometimes get away with simplifying the spelling and pronunciation a tad: Jourdain might have become Jordan, Petit might have become Petty, Lamontagne might have become Lamontaine. And of course, some people changed their names completely: Pyotr Ivanovich might have become John Chandler, and if John is your ancestor, good luck in backtracking him.

According to family lore, when my great-grandfather Joseph arrived in Michigan from Quebec, it wasn’t long before someone asked how his surname was spelled. He replied, “You spell it like it sounds.” So Joseph appears in American records as Chousse, Chousay, Chusse, Chose, Shoussay, Shosa, Chause, Choca, and Chosa. Our branch of the family settled on Chosa, which is easy to spell and pronounce; as I eventually discovered, others settled on Chausse, Chaussee, Shosa, Shosey etc.

Now, Joseph is a very common name both in French and in English; I felt that it was very likely to have been his original personal name (or part of it). So I knew that I was “probably” looking for a Joseph whose surname sounded like “Show-say”, and—based on a year of college French—I deduced that the surname probably started with “Ch”. Sounds simple, oui?

Mais non!

In the first place, I didn’t have a reference of any sort that listed French surnames, and poking around in random church registers hoping to see a surname that sounded like “Show-say” could easily take me years (and cost a lot of money in microfilm rentals), without yielding any results at all. Poking around on the Internet, however, I found a reference to Tanguay as being a good starting point for French-Canadian genealogy.

At that time, Tanguay’s Dictionnaire Généalogique des Familles Canadiennes was available as a free download on the internet, so I downloaded it, started at the section of surnames beginning with “Ch” and soon found that the most likely surname for my great-grandfather was Chaussé. I now had a genuine Quebec surname to look for. Tanguay did not, however, tell me anything about my great-grandfather; the Dictionnaire only goes up to about 1765, decades before my great-grandfather was born.

I’m truly sorry to have to tell you that you can’t get Tanguay as a free download anymore. However, there is a site where you can read Tanguay online for free. It is, of course, written in French. In fact, as I discovered early on, virtually all of the records of the French-speaking population of Quebec were and are written in French (except for early Jesuit records, which are often in Latin).

This was a facer for me: my college days had been back in the late Cretaceous and that French course had hardly been enough to make me fluent even then. However, I still had my old French-English dictionary and I was able to flounder on.

If you don’t know any French, you simply will not be able to pursue ancestors in French Canada. Even a course in conversational French for travelers won’t be much help with 300-year-old French documents. You need to be able to read French. At the very least you need to be able to look at a written French name and pronounce it correctly in order to determine if it’s your ancestor’s name disguised by an alternate spelling.

You also need a French-English dictionary, preferably an old one since time and modern communications have altered the old pronunciations. Mine is a 1951 edition of Cassell’s New French Dictionary which I bought second-hand. I use it constantly in my Quebec research, because if you mine every record you find for details, it's easier to get past those maddening brick walls.

Once I figured out what the original French surname of Great-Grandfather Joseph “probably” was, things didn’t get a lot easier. There are many different ways to spell many of the French sounds and therefore many ways a name may be spelled in the Quebec records.

I’ll give you some examples.

An initial “H” is silent, so the surname Harel may appear in French records as Arel or Arell.

A final consonant can disappear in pronunciation, so the “standard” Hébert may be written as Héber—as well as Ébert or Éber.

The sound of long “O” as in English “go”—very common in French surnames—can be spelled many different ways. Perrault therefore can be spelled “Pero”, “Perot”, “Perrau”, “Peraut”, “Perraux”, “Pereau”, “Pereaut”, “Pereaux”, “Pereault”; these are the most common variations, but there are others.

The sound of long “A” as in English “wave” has many spelling variations, so Beauvais could appear in the records as “Beauvé”, “Beauvet”, “Beauvest”, “Beauvais”, “Beauvai”, “Beauvay”, “Beauvays”, “Beauvait”, “Bauvé”, “Bovest” etc.

Why all the variations? Well, for one thing, until the 20th century, there was no such thing as standardized spelling for most European languages, including both British and American English. Like Great-Grandfather Joseph, “you spell it like it sounds.”

Not only that, but until the 20th century, universal public education didn’t exist either. Many people were illiterate and could not even sign their own names. Even French clerics (presumably well educated) who presided over religious rites commonly spelled the names of their parishioners in different ways from one record to the next. Lay people who could read and write often spelled their own names differently in different documents.

If you think all of this sounds complicated, you’re right. It is complicated. But as I soon found out, it gets worse. In my next post, I’ll discuss dit names.

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