Spellings & Name Variants

and other language variables

the in-progress thoughts

Stefan Bielinski

"Sometimes" I wish I lived in the seventeenth/eighteenth centuries so my genetic spelling deficiencies would be less noticeable. Then again, no microwave, no Internet, no medications. No way!

Regularized spelling of the English language in America is a relatively modern phenomenon. In pre-industrial times, how something was written depended on (among other things) the education and the cultural ear of the writer. For example, the cobbling of New Netherland names by the British army on the census of Albany householders taken in June 1756 also provides clues regarding communication among diverse peoples.

The American-useful, English-language spelling of foreign words (names of persons, places, things, and events or themes) is a much more perplexing matter. It is complicated by time over which spellings have evolved in both the foreign language itself and in the presentation of foreign words in this essentially "American" exposition on early American community life.

We have encountered many amusing, bizarre, and puzzling spellings of the persons, places, and things relevant to the early Albany story. Some are simply a case of inconsistent spellings. Others represent the writer/recorder's effort to transfer what he was hearing to paper . . . errr parchment! For many names and places we have adopted a spelling that, although arbitrary, we feel is most likely to be understood by the largest number of viewers/readers TODAY!

Accessibility and clarity of meaning are guiding principles in this area. We believe that historians should clarify and explain rather than mystify and confuse.

The same is true regarding consistency of reference to people's names. Beyond the obvious variants such as Jan - Johann - Hans for Johannes, Neeltie for Cornelia or Eleanor, Mees for Bartholemew, Maas for Thomas, (get the idea?) many things combined to work against consistent references regarding names. Consider Joel Munsell's extensive contributions on the subject.

In attempting to make sense of names, we recommend a flexible interpretive eye! Remember, you are looking for "a needle in a haystack." Adopt a spirit of discovery and try to find and identify your unique person by name however "interestingly" embellished/antiquated/disguised!


For more on the subject of spellings of names, see the thoughts of the the compilers of the printed version of the records of the Albany Dutch church.

This brief essay has stimulated discussion on the subjects of spellings of names and foreign words and on variable references across our broad audience spectrum. I expand on it when someone asks a thoughtful question.

From my days of sharing our work with live audiences, it has been my intention to focus the listeners on the images and life lessons that were being presented and to not give them pause by making listeners puzzle over "strange" and strange-sounding words. I have sought to adopt (and use consistently) the most obvious and descriptive term and spelling thereof! I believe that historians should make what they say accessible - a first step toward interesting and on the road to useful!

"Black-and-White" or concrete consistency in anything written or printed was not a hallmark of early American communication. At the same time, I suspect that the people of colonial Albany knew well who or what names and terms they were referencing.

Endlessly fascinating, eh! But enough of this for now.

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first posted 4/20/04; recast and revised 4/4/14