Czech name, surname, place name spelling

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Dannyandkate@gm...'s picture
Czech name, surname, place name spelling

Czech names on old parish records have many spelling discrepancies. For example, one person's Frantz can be another's Franz, or František. Not to mention Czech case endings, which could render it Františky or Františka, for a male.

I am curious as to how you deal with this.

My personal thoughts are that I do not want to standardize the spelling to modernize it. I think there are two basic systems that could work. I could either consistently go with the name that is on the birth record, OR I could go by their name on the marriage record. Right now, I am leaning towards going with what is on the marriage record, since that is the only document that was created during their lifetime. Primary information. Presumably, they were the best authority on how to spell their own name.

However, I don't know what their literacy rates were like, especially circa 1750. I have read that literacy rates for immigrants in the 1870's were much higher than those of their children, and even grandchildren. Likely the immigrants would have been much more concerned with their farms and their basic survival than the schooling of their children.

I have noticed that in many old parish records, especially for marriages, there may be a signature of the person getting married (usually near signatures of the witnesses). But in other records, the same person wrote the whole document, including the names of the witnesses.

Anyway, I'm not sure if a person's literacy really should come into play when deciding which name spelling to go with. 

While we're on the subject, what about place names? Kunshitz vs. Kunčice vs. Kunčice pod Ondřejníkem? 


EE's picture

Danny and Kate:

Spelling variants are definitely a problem for every history researcher. If you have the digital version of EE, have you tried running a search for the key word "spelling"? You'll find much advice such as the following:

2.16 Citing Personal Names

"In the case of documentary materials. . . we should cite the entry exactly as it appears, not by the standardized spelling. We would then insert the correction in square editorial brackets immediately after the name given in the document."

If you are using the print copy of EE, check the index for "spelling variants ... how to indicate." You'll find several pieces of advice that way—along with with examples showing exactly how to handle various situations.

The Editor

Dannyandkate@gm...'s picture

Thanks - I have the e version, and have tried to find my answers there. Perhaps I'm just being thick.

Referring to a person as František Peter (var. Frantz Petr, Franz Pettr) makes sense to me. But which name comes first? I suppose would forever refer to this person in this exact way thereafter in my writing? It seems a bit cumbersome for the paragraphs directly dealing with him. 

What if František Peter had 8 children, and there were name variations on all 8 of those documents? Would I really write František Peter (var. Frantz Petr, Franz Petr, Franti. Petr, Franz Peter, Františky Peter, Frantisek Pettr, Franz Pettr, František Pettr, Františky Petr)?

But I still don't understand the issue with case. Czech has marked cases unlike English or French (for the most part). 

For example, the name Aninka could vary from Aninka, Aninky, Anince, Aninku, Aninko!, o Anince, s Aninkou. 

Problems arise sometimes for certain names because the feminine version of František is Františka. Františka, however, might be František depending on the case. But that would not be his name in the nominative case ever.



EE's picture


How to handle variant spellings is more a writing-style issue than a research or documentation issue. The 885-page EE doesn't cover most matters of that type. To be the best historical researcher we can be, we also need writing guides and style guides we can consult for those other matters.

Meanwhile (and very briefly) the standard convention for handling names in an authored work, is this:

  • For our narrative, we adopt one spelling and use it consistently. If the person was literate and could sign, we use the spelling that person used in his or her signature. If a person changed  names or spellings of that name at some point in time, then we have to choose between them. One approach is to base our choice on the most-common usage by the person we're writing about—making certain that our judgments are based on his or her personal usage, not on that of a scribe.
  • If our narrative needs to discuss a spelling variant from a particular document, then we use quotation marks around that variant when we introduce it into the text.
  • In the citations that support our narrative, we cite the name exactly as it is given in the document. If the spelling is so aberrational that we think others might not connect it to the" real person," then we would place our "standard spelling" in square editorial brackets immediately after the variant that appears in the document. (Several examples of this can be found in EE by querying for the keywords "variant" or "names.")

EE cannot give you advice on the issues that deal specifically with Czech nomenclature. For those, you should be able to find Czech research boards with helpful users.

Best wishes,

The Editor

JMichutka's picture

Hi Danny and Kate,

I've only recently spent serious time in Czech records, but I've done a lot of Slovak research, and the issues you raise are the same in both lands. I can tell you how I handle it, and if anyone else has ideas about presenting the information more accurately or elegantly, I'll be happy to hear it!

The issue of case is the easiest to deal with, so I'll start with that. When you're writing in English, put foreign names in their nominative case. Example: we always refer to "Caesar" and "Cicero"; the only time you'll see their names in other cases such as "Caesarem" or "Ciceronis" in English text is if a line of Latin is being quoted. So, unless you're quoting a line from a Czech record, always refer to great-great-grandpa as František and his wife as Anna, without changing the endings of their names. Likewise with surnames.

The issue of which recorded name variant (Juraj vs. Gyorgy vs. Georgius) to use is more problematic. Imagine if we all had to adjust our legal name to a variant every time an election resulted in a change of the political party of the U.S. president; my legal documents might record me as Julia during George Bush's years and Juliette during Obama's, but my family and neighbors and coworkers would still be calling me Julie. Which variant would be accurate? Same sort of thing as happens in those Czech and Slovak records. My solution is to explain that variants X, Y, and Z appear due to differing languages used in the records or to changes in the laws, acknowledge that today we have no way of knowing what name an individual actually used ("personal usage," as our Editor said), and for the sake of consistency I will refer to him/her by the modern equivalent [insert Czech name here]. You seemed disinclined (in your first post) to use modern names, so perhaps you will be disappointed with my solution.

Place names--sheesh, they're so changeable in that neck of the woods!! If I need to use it in a citation, I'll use the place name (town and district and country) that was contemporary to the creation of the document, and follow it with "[now TownName, DistrictName, CountryName]." I suppose you could put the bracketed info in a discursive note after the citation, instead; perhaps that would look less clunky. In the narrative text, I explain the name change of the town and (usually) that I will refer to it by its present name for the sake of simplicity.

Anyway, that's how I handle it. Hope this helps in some small way.

~ Julie Michutka

Julie Michutka

Dannyandkate@gm...'s picture

Thanks for the sympathy, and your very helpful explanation of how you handle these issues. I'm glad you understand this unique political and linguistic area of research! Fun stuff.

And our editor is probably right. A different forum that is Czech specific would probably be a better place to discuss this. Thanks so much for the helpful advice, though.

It's not that I'm disinclined to use modern names per se, it's just that I would really like to not "correct" the original documents. I want to follow what it says in 2.16, that "we should cite the information exactly as it appears, not by the standardized spelling."

Although, on the other hand, writing a pedigree, I'm not sure if that truly counts as "citing" the information. If I were referring to a specific document that mentions "Frantz Petr" [František Peter] that is clearly an example of where I should not change the name. But if I am putting the person's name into a relational database, or writing a narrative pedigree, I'm not using just one document from which to extrapolate his name, but generally tenish - birth, marriage, death, and eight-some-odd kids' births. 

I mainly want whoever is looking at my work to be able to recognize a person later when they go back and research. I have a genealogy book with many family trees in which the author modernized all names. This is fine for many names like František, but there are some names where you would have to have some basic Czech language skills to understand the standardization. For example, the author changed Georg to Jiři. Fine for someone who knows some Czech, but some people might get confused because it is not very similar. 

How do you handle referring to immigrants who changed their names? For example: Vojtěch to Adalbert/Albert?