Do You Ear What I Ear?


Grandma’s baby chicks used to stay in what sounded to me like “birder” house, but was actually a brooder house.

Do You Ear What I Ear?

[this appeared in the Ancestry Daily News on 27 July 1999-and was one of our most popular articles]

Last week’s article used the term “birder” house. One astute reader gently indicated that I most likely meant “brooder” house. I thank them for the correction and must plead ignorance for while I was raised on a farm, we did not have chickens. You can be certain I will not make the same mistake using bovine phrases—I would never hear the end of it!

The mistake makes a point and I’m actually glad it happened. Mishearing and misinterpreting words and phrases can cause problems genealogically in several situations. I have categorized the difficulties here, but bear in mind that there might be some overlap and that the distinction between some categories is not really important.

Did Not Hear Correctly
Just as I misunderstood Grandma, it might be that the respondent on an official document or record did not hear correctly and gave “incorrect” information as a result. This same difficulty can arise when family members are asked for information. In one of my families, confusion arose between the two names “Augusta” and “Geske.” These names are distinct, however, an individual with a hearing problem might easily confuse the two.

Misunderstood the Question
The respondent might have heard all the words and thought he understood the meaning of the question. If your ancestor gave an “incorrect” birthplace for his mother or father, is it possible that he interpreted the question as “where is your mother from?” instead of “where was your mother born?” Mother might have been born in one place and “been from” somewhere else (depending upon where she grew up and where her family originated). It might have been this place that she considered herself “from” even though it was not actually where she was born. We cannot know for certain what our ancestors were thinking when they were answering questions for the census taker or the marriage license clerk. All we have is the document they left behind.

When interviewing family members use as many names as possible. Relationships can create confusion. When interviewing my grandmother, it took several minutes to make it clear to her that I was asking about her grandfather Trautvetter, not her father. She had referred to her own dad as a grandfather for so long (to her own children) that she originally answered the questions as if I was asking about her father. Using her grandfather’s name of John reduced the confusion (her father, fortunately was named George). While it may not be possible use names exclusively, minimizing the number of relationships used when asking questions can reduce confusion.

Did Not Know the Language
Was your immigrant ancestor answering questions that were asked in a language he did not understand? Even if your ancestor could speak English, it seems reasonable that she might have easily mistranslated a key word or phrase.

Was Not Listening
Have you ever answered a question without ever really listening to it? Asking your parent, spouse, child, or co-worker might provide a different answer. Is it possible your ancestor was not paying one hundred percent attention when the 1920 census taker knocked on his door? Did your ancestor assume no one would ever really care about the answers eighty years later?

No One Cared
When the clerk was filling out my marriage license, he asked me how to spell my mother’s maiden name. And so I spelled it out. If I had married in the county where I was born and raised, most of the office staff would have known how to spell the surname (and many would have known it without even asking). Close attention is not always paid to detail today and it certainly was not one hundred and fifty years ago either.

Spoke a Dialect, Used Slang, or Had an Accent
Dialects and variations in pronunciation can impact how words are spelled in records. “Gibson” can easily be pronounced so that it is spelled like “Gepson.” There are numerous names where this is a problem, a problem compounded by dialects, “drawls,” and “twangs.” While it may be possible to know how our ancestors pronounced a name or a word, this information is generally not available.

It Has Been a While Since I Was Able to “Ear” It
In some cases, it is literally a lifetime from the day when a family tradition is heard until that day it is told. You grandfather might have heard a story when he was a child and not repeated it until he had grandchildren of his own. The chance that as a child he misunderstood something is reasonable. This difficulty is compounded by the effects time can have on one’s memory.

The Ancestor Was Not Literate
If your ancestor was unable to read, she could not “proof” any answers or words listed on any form she might have signed. Even if your ancestor could read, if the forms were not in her native tongue, she might have easily misunderstood a question (or her answer). The clerk might not have been concerned about explaining it to her either.

Genealogists need to bear in mind auditory difficulties when dealing with records. These difficulties are compounded by problems with how our ancestors might have interpreted various terms and phrases. Documenting these difficulties may be impossible in many cases. When it can be done, it should, especially with pronunciations.

I always track the ways names are pronounced when I know it. One of my ancestral surnames is Behrens. My great-grandmother pronounced it as “barns” (the kind cows sometimes reside in). This pronunciation is duly noted in my files. While it’s not written as technically as it would be in a dictionary, it serves the purpose.

But I Don’t Know How It Is Pronounced
Asking older family members is a good first step, but not always possible. As your research progresses further and further back in time, the chance that living family members have heard the name decreases. Researchers who do not know how a name is most likely pronounced may wish to post such a question to one of the mailing lists for the surname or the message boards at Individuals with the name may post replies, but it is important to remember that the pronunciation today may be significantly different from one hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago. [update–try posting the question to the appropriate ethnic genealogy group on Facebook.]

Genealogists use their eyes for the bulk of their genealogical work, and rightly so. But we must also use our ears and mouths—for that’s how many of those words made their way from our ancestor’s minds to those records.



5 thoughts on “Do You Ear What I Ear?

  1. Hi MIchael,:}

    My mother was a stickler about pronunciation – or so she thought.:} She used to say if you pronounce the words correctly we wold have less problems with spelling.

    This went back to her experiences when , after growing up to about 14 or 15, she lived in Chicago and the lack or misplacement of the “r” sounds here in New England really bothered her.;] Her first day in school here there were two words she had never heard before so she spelled them as she heard them – “drawring” and “hoss”. When she found out what the words really were she was devastated because if the teacher had pronounced them” correctly”, she wold have had them spelled correctly.
    I think I was in High School when we were talking about things like that and by then I had built up enough courage to ask her if her sister was not my Aunt but my ANT. I had never challenged her before about it and she just stared at me – stunned.:}lol

    When I was young I called water “Bucca” the family know what I was talking about but no one else did, When I was learning to talk, and living on the farm, there was always talk about getting a bucket of water for the calves etc. I took “Bucket” as being the water.:}

    I guess everyone has stories like this. My mother had other problems connected with words, her parents were immigrants from Norway and Sweden.:}

    Thank you for the fun you bring with your posts,

    All the best
    Barbara in MA

  2. Georgeann Engel says:

    Even if they spelled a work the person writing it down may still have misspelled it. I spell my last name all the time and then watch the person writing it misspell it anyway.

  3. After a career of teaching young children language skills…my first thought about birder was…the adult may have said brooder, but the child seeing all those tiny yellow fluffballs with wings “heard” birder. Once that starts it sometimes becomes tradition to use birder as a way to remember a funny little mistake…and then it is permanent.

    We had a chicken brooder too (I don’t think the word ‘house’ was often connected), but I remember those yellow fluffballs coming in the care of the mailman. What fun to see them!

    And my mother who was good about language most of the time, really enjoyed some malaprops (sp?), and so continued them forever. I still say “cream of the ee-light” because her boss said that (nearly 100 years ago now). I have to watch when I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t recognize that kind of joke.

  4. I had another thought. Sometimes a young child will try to repeat a word but young ears and young verbal skills make it come out wrong. Parents, or grandparents, get a laugh out of the innocent error…and from then on the adults in the family mispronounce the word, knowing they are reminding each other of the funny little mistake. Unfortunately they may not inform the child that it is a “fun reminder” and so the child hears the word mispronounced for the next 30 or 40 years. Is it any wonder that they don’t “get it right”? (I know that could have happened in my family…but my mother, the language stickler, always explained in some way that it was a family joke for the real word so that I’d know better if I was somewhere that it mattered.)

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