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Our Foreign Surnames by W. W. C.


It is interesting as well as amusing to read the foreign names upon the signs in the streets of our cities and towns, and observe the number of nationalities thereon represented, together with the  peculiarities of form and meaning displayed by the names themselves.

German names meet the eye everywhere, and are usually very outlandish in appearance, while many of them have significations which are conspicuously and ludicrously inappropriate. For example, a lager-beer saloon in one of our large cities is kept by Mr. Heiliggeist ("Holy Ghost"); a cigar-shop in another place belongs to Mr. Priesterjahn ("Prester John"); while the pastor of a devout German flock in a third locality is the Rev. Mr. Wuestling ("low scoundrel"). The Hon. Carl Schurz, too, is hardly the sort of man to be named "apron," though it is certainly true that his name is in this country sometimes pronounced "Shirts."

Other branches of the great Teutonic family have many representatives among us, and their names seem, to the uninitiated, even more fearfully and wonderfully constructed than those of their German cousins. It produces a good deal of surprise in the mind of an American to see on the sign of a tradesman from Belgium the familiar name of Cox spelled "Kockx;" and the Norwegian patronymic Trondhjemer ("Drontheimer"), though a very mild specimen of the language, has a formidable aspect to the general beholder.

The German-Hebrew names display such an exuberant Eastern fancy in their composition as to suggest the inquiry whether they are not really but German translations of their possessors' original Oriental titles. It is not unlikely that this was the origin of names like Rosenthal ("Vale of Roses"), Lilienhain ("Meadow of Lilies"), Liebenstrom ("Stream of Love"), and Goldenberg ("Golden Mount").

The Teutonic names, whether German, Scandinavian or Flemish, do not, as a rule, seem by any means so unpronounceable as those pertaining to foreigners of Slavonic race. The Russian, Polish and Bohemian appellations, which occur frequently in some sections of our country, so often begin with the extraordinary combination cz that many Americans, believing that nothing but a convulsive sneeze could meet the necessities of such a case, decline trying to pronounce them at all. But the difficulties which these Slavonic names apparently offer would, in a great measure, be removed by a uniform system of orthography. The combination cz, for instance, corresponds to our ch, and the Polish cognomen Czajkowski becomes much less exasperating when spelled, as it would be in English, "Chycovsky." The same thing is true, to a great extent, of the Hungarian names, which are not rare in our larger cities. They, too, would be greatly simplified to us by being spelled according to English rules. A very frequent combination in Hungarian names, that of sz is really the same as our ss; while s without the z is pronounced sh. The Hungarian name Szemelenyi under our system of spelling would therefore be "Semelenye," which is less discouraging.

The foreign names in the United States that really present the most serious difficulties to the native citizen are unquestionably the Welsh. Some of the obstacles to easy pronunciation may even in their case be removed by adaptation to our orthography; as is shown by the name Hwg ("hog"), which would be spelled by us "Hoog." But there are so many sounds in Welsh that are not only unknown, but almost inconceivable to English-speaking people, that the difficulties would still be very far from being overcome. And some of these peculiar utterances are expressed in Welsh by combinations of the Roman characters which in English stand for familiar and simple sounds; so that an attempt to reduce the two languages to a common system of spelling would not be at all easy. The combination ll stands in Welsh for a terrific gurgling, gasping sound, which when once heard swiftly puts an end to all the romantic associations that the name of Llewellyn has derived from history and poetry.

But all such foreign—or, more strictly speaking, un-English—names, after being in this country a generation or two, become, in a certain sense, "acclimated." They undergo a change in pronunciation,  in spelling, or in both, which removes, in effect, the difficulties that originally characterized them. In this way the German names Schneider, Meyer, Kaiser, Kraemer, Schallenberger, Schwarzwaelder, and a host of others have become, respectively, Snyder, Myers, Keyser, Creamer, Shellabarger, Swartswelder, etc. Sometimes, too, an American name more or less similar in sound or meaning has been taken or given in place of the original German title; as when Loewenstein ("Lion-rock") was exchanged for Livingston, and Albrecht ("Albert") for Allbright.

The old "Knickerbocker" names of the Middle States have, in most instances, retained their Dutch spelling intact, but have generally been subjected to a similar process of adaptation in sound. The same may be said of the French names in this country. Their spelling has, as a rule, been preserved, while their sound has been Americanized. In this way De Rosset has acquired the pronunciation Derrozett, and Jacques has come to be called either Jaquess or Jakes. Many French patronymics, such as the old South Carolina Huguenot name Marion, exhibiting nothing peculiarly French in their forms, are now pronounced entirely in accordance with our rules, and their national origin is preserved by tradition alone. Some French titles, however, having undergone only a partial change in pronunciation, survive in a hybrid form as to sound, though their spelling remains unaltered. Specimens of this class may be found in such names as Huger, pronounced "Huzhée;" Fouché, commonly called "Fooshée;" and Deveraux or Devereux, now converted into "Débro" or "Dévroo." The only very noticeable change that has taken place in the orthography of our French names is that the article has been joined to the noun in many cases where they were originally separate. In this way La Ramie, La Rabie, La Reintrée, etc. are now usually spelled Laramie, Larabie (or, in some instances, Larrabee), Lareintree, etc.; the pronunciation of the newer form being Americanized in the usual way. But this change in form is one which might easily have occurred even in France.

Most of these French and Dutch names have been in the country for a comparatively long time, and, indeed, many of them date back to the early colonial period. Like the Spanish-American names of Texas, California, Florida and Louisiana, to which the same rule generally applies, they belonged to members of organized foreign communities, proportionately large enough to preserve their names from a complete assimilation with the ideas of the English-American population. And in a lesser degree this is also true of those early German emigrants, mainly from the Palatinate, who settled in Pennsylvania, Western Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley.

The tendency at the present day, however, seems to be strongly in favor of the process mentioned first—that of changing the sound of the names to suit American ears, and altering the spelling so as to conform to the new pronunciation. There is every indication that this will be done with regard to a very large majority of the foreign surnames that have been introduced among us within the last fifty years, or which may be brought into our country in the future. And as the changes so made are quite arbitrary, the result will be that the future student of American nomenclature will often be sorely puzzled by some of the surnames to which his attention shall be drawn.