Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Proper Pronunciation

When it comes to understanding just how our ancestors might have pronounced their name back in The Old Country, there is no shortcut. If you want to say those names correctly, you simply must learn the phonetics of that language. And when it comes to languages that use more—or less—than our twenty six letters of the English language, you've just got to know there are some adaptations to be learned.

That's the way it was, back when I was researching my father-in-law's Irish roots—with names in a language replete with eighteen letters (upgraded to twenty four in the last century), there had to be some awkward combinations and linguistic conventions to yield a name such as Sean, looking so very different than it sounds, at least to an English-speaker's sensibilities. Now researching my own Polish roots, how could I not delve into the reasons why the Polish handled their names as they do?

So when I discovered that, back home in Poland, my great grandfather Anton Laskowski had a brother who married a woman with a distinctly Polish-looking maiden name—Blaszczynska—I had to learn more. Hidden within what looked like a string of redundant consonants, there had to be a reason why those letters all made their appearance in that exact order.

Sure enough, pronunciation keys for the Polish language were there to bear out my suspicion—which is good, considering it makes genealogical research all the easier when the researcher can actually, you know, say the words having to do with one's roots. For instance, now I know how to pronounce the town where the Laskowskis once lived: words with a Ż—yes, there is a dot on top of that letter—are spoken much like the French would pronounce the name Jacques, with a voiced "zh" as in "Doctor Zhivago." So Żerków would be pronounced "Zherkoov" (at least, best I can tell from the pronunciation guides here and here).

What about Blaszczynska? That will take a bit more 'splainin'. With all we need to take into consideration, it may be a relief to learn the "Bla" beginning of that name can be handled much the same as in English, with the "a" sounding like the same letter in "cat."

For the next section of letters, we need to divide and conquer. The first "sz" is a letter combination which is pronounced much the same as "sh" in the English word "shy." The second letter combination—that of the "cz"—is pronounced with a harder attack, like the "ch" in the English word cherry. While that may seem almost redundant—after all, each of those sounds are quite similar—what probably happened is that the first set was pronounced entirely separate from the second set, with the first syllable rendered as "Blash," followed by that second syllable, "chin." And, of course, the "-ska" was the ending provided for women's surnames.

What is interesting about my very uninformed guess—after all, I have absolutely no knowledge about the Polish language other than what I've found here—is how I found Anna's maiden name repeated in some of her children's records. For the New York State Affidavit for License to Marry for Anna's daughter Harriet, the handwriting actually had a break in between that first and second syllable, almost as if to signify the precise way it was pronounced—separating that soft "sh" sound of the first syllable from the very similar, but distinctly delineated "ch" beginning the next syllable.

When I found that document, I was elated to see that that very Polish spelling was replicated entirely correctly—something I found odd for a state which surely had become very impatient with the flood of immigrants bursting upon its shores. I would have thought the more likely candidate for perfect replication of Old World spelling would be an immigrant community, such as might have been seen at an ethnic church congregation.

And yet, when it came time to baptize their youngest child, Lawrence and Anna Laskoski made the sixty mile trip from their home in Stony Point, New York, to a Catholic church in Plainfield, New Jersey—where mama Anna's maiden name was rendered with the mangled spelling, Blashinski. True, all we have available for our scrutiny is a transcription of the actual record, and perhaps that included a typo. But even there, it is possible that this is the rendering obtained from the original document. It is easy to see how an untrained ear, being told that foreign-sounding name by a stranger, would have picked up on the first consonant sound—the soft "sh" sound of the leading sz—and missed out on the differentiation of the second sound of the trailing cz.

Either way, obtaining a guide to pronunciation of the language of one's roots helps us to not only understand how to say those impossibly long strings of consonants, but to gain insight on how others might have mistakenly entered them in the documents we so desperately seek for verification.

Above: Entry of Harriet Laskoska's mother's maiden name—spelled entirely correctly—in her 1915 marriage application, with a barely perceptible break in the handwriting after the first syllable; image courtesy


  1. This is very interesting to me! Three of my husband's Polish grandparents came to New York as infants. He has no trouble with the pronunciation of any names. I have always had to pay attention to what is said versus how it is spelled. (I gave up on spelling and have a cheat sheet). His family is very tricky, though. They alternately use a completely different English name, with no letters the same unchangeably with the Polish name. After a bar fight (of course a bar fight) - the newspaper article uses both names to describe the person in the same article! It was the same in business and legal documents. This went on for two generations. Currently half the family uses solely one name or the other. No one seems to know where the other English name came from.

    1. What a fascinating anecdote, Miss Merry! These inexplicable changes keep us on our research toes, don't they? But it is helpful to know of each other's experiences, and what is possible when dealing with ethnic customs from prior centuries.


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