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Variations in Surname Endings

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Joined: 17 Mar 2009
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Location: Liverpool, NY

PostPosted: Tue Feb 15, 2011 11:51 am    Post subject: Variations in Surname Endings Reply with quote

When working with old church records, one will sometimes see variations in the ending of a family name. In particular, some names will have the letter ‘n’ or ‘s’ added. I have found this with my family name (Pape vs. Papen) and other ancesters (Beste vs. Besten, etc.) For many cases, it is obvious that people whose names were recorded with different endings are members of the same family.

I asked Frank Bleck, a genealogist in Heeslingen, Germany, for an explanation of these variations. The following is my paraphrasing of his response.

“The observation that German surnames ending in ‘e’ sometimes have ‘n’ added is correct. We find the same in common names, such as Meyer and Muller, which will end up with a ‘s’. One must realize that until 1875 in Germany, the only reliable records for official acts, such as baptisms, marriages and deaths, were church records. It was not until 1875 that the respective registry offices provide standard civil certification. Therefore, only from 1875 do we have the final spelling of surnames.

The suffixes ‘n’ or ‘s’ are a consequence of the Low German language. People in the area still say Meyers (actually Meyer's) for a son or daughter. Also, in Low German one says ‘Papen-Hof’ (or coming from the Pape place/farm). It is the genitive form of the family name. So ‘Meyers Trina’ means in High German: Trina is the daughter of ... Meyer. ‘Müllers Johann’ is the son of ... Müller.

The pastors in our area often came from out of town where the Low German language was not prevalent. Therefore, they entered a name in the church books based on what they heard.

One will find the name Behnken with all of the following possible variants: Beneke, Benecke, Behncken, Beencken, etc. Then, a number of children in a family will often have different surnames.

The genitive form of family names still dominates many family names that have emerged from a first name:
Harms comes from Harm / Harmen / Hermann; Heins is the son of Hein; Wohlers - son of Wohler, Jürgens - son of Jürgen etc.
In Scandinavia, this form is even more pronounced; so Johannsen - son of John, Gustafson - the son of Gustaf etc.

For managing all the names systematically in computer files, I have therefore chosen the present form. I have only noted names from the Middle Ages in the original case.”

What creates a problem is when family trees are compiled with an exact transcription of names found in older records. Granted, there is a common admonition within genealogical circles not to change the spelling found within records. On the other hand, it would seem to be the job of a genealogist to resolve these differences, particularly when the records indicate that people are members of the same family and the variations in spelling found in records can be explained.

Therefore, I agree with Mr. Bleck’s approach that the “final form” of the name should be used in family tree records wherever possible to avoid confusion. (Note that this does not apply when people deliberately changed the spelling of their name, either legally or informally.)
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